Being a big fan of the Pixar canon, I tend to cycle through a series of stages leading up to the release of a new Pixar film. I call them “The Five Steps towards an Emotional Breakdown.” First, I’ll read some rumor, or official synopsis. I will then get wildly excited about how that story can fit into the overlying plot explained in the Pixar Theory. I’ll speculate on how the writers will find an interesting angle to view life and its many obstacles followed by a brief squeal when I finally feast my eyes on the animation. Finally, I experience a stirring & powerful rollercoaster through poignant scenery, impassioned character arcs, & tear-inducing conflicts. With that being said, The Good Dinosaur fell a little short for me.
It’s pretty common knowledge that humans believe there was some event that brought on the extinction of the dinosaur. It’s believed that over 65 million years ago, an asteroid collided with Earth and caused life to essentially ‘reboot.’ But what if the asteroid missed? What if life continued evolving from that point and changed all of history as we know it? In The Good Dinosaur, the species evolves much the way humans do in real life. A couple million years after the asteroid passed our planet, Dinosaurs have found many ways to cultivate their lives and survive under a multitude of circumstances. The story revolves around a family of Brachiosaurus who farm corn. It opens with two adult long necks working on their farm and waiting for their eggs to hatch. The first to enter the world was Libby (Maleah Padilla), followed by Buck (Marcus Scribner), but the last egg, larger than the rest, housed the very tiny and underdeveloped Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). As the shot peers into a mostly hollow eggshell to show us our protagonist, it is clear that this is a story about the enormous world Arlo now lives in, and how he will find his place in it.
The film takes us through a farming season for the family and how they share chores in order to have enough food for the winter. As a teaching mechanism, Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) shows his children the importance of making your mark on the world through hard work. Libby and Buck have made their mark, both through solid work on the farm, and figuratively by placing a mud paw print on the family’s silo. Arlo has a hard time keeping up with his chores and even messes up his siblings work and thus has not earned his mark on the silo. After fear gets in the way of Arlo completing a task given to him, Poppa tries to teach him to work through his fear only to get Arlo lost and ultimately very far away from home. Arlo must then find his way back to his family through dangerous and trying odds. Fortunately, he has the help of an unlikely companion; the feral dog/boy who only goes by the name ‘Spot’ (Jack Bright).
The development between Arlo & Spot is the driving point in this movie. Spot almost causes more damage than he’s worth in multiple instances but the heart of the character has aspirations of love. Arlo is so filled with fear and doubt, you can see early on how the fearless Spot will help his growth as a character. The various characters Arlo and Spot come across help Arlo move passed his fear and look for adventure. When they cross paths with a trio or Tyrannosaurus Rex herding longhorns, Butch (Sam Elliot), Ramsey (Anna Paquin), & Nash (AJ Buckley) teach Arlo that even though life’s obstacles can create some scars, the story is always worth the pain.
The really fantastic aspect of The Good Dinosaur is not its story or its characters though; it’s the scenery and the ambiance. Michael & Jeff Danna create a score for this film that holds our hand throughout the journey. They take us though the audible world of the west, and back with such subtlety and grace with brief stints of adventure. The wide-spanning backdrops showing off stunning mountains, flowing grass and glimmering streams left me aw-struck for the majority of the movie. I have never seen such beauty in animated nature before, but that’s what the director, Pete Sohn was going for. He even said that nature would be like a character of its own in this film and it really, truly is.
My issue with The Good Dinosaur is that it’s not really anything new as far as the story goes. We’ve seen countless tales of characters taking self-affirming journeys to better understand their place in the world, but I’ve never seen more visual and emotional comparisons between two movies than I did with this one, and Disney’s the Lion King. I will probably save those comparisons for a more in-depth, spoiler-filled review down the road, but for now, just know that you WILL see those moments in the film as well, since they are almost painfully obvious. It didn’t quite make me cry like most Pixar films, but it got pretty close. For showing me how a talking Dinosaur would fair amidst the most realistic looking animated backgrounds I’ve ever seen, I give The Good Dinosaur 3 & a half NerdSkulls.