That's not a slam against the latest film from Pixar, but I want to offer very tempered praise here. I was taken aback at first by just how slight the film is, but I think it has a gentle touch on the best material in the film, and it does have a very real sense of emotional power to it, cumulative but fairly undeniable.
What threw me off was just how simple the film is. This may be the single most stripped down narrative they've ever offered, and I can't help but wonder if this is the result of the film's development issues. It feels like the film's central relationship works, and they knew that was the key to making the film work, and so all the attention was focused on that to the detriment of what normally makes Pixar movies shine, the supporting cast of characters and the great strange left turns that are the things we often remember the most.
In an odd and surprising touch, “The Good Dinosaur” is essentially a Western. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is one of three Apatosaurs born to Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (France McDormand). They're homesteaders, planting and raising crops so they can make it through each winter, having built their farm on the banks of a great river and in the shadow of a great mountain range. They're building something, and Poppa impresses upon Arlo and his siblings how they must each contribute something. They must each make their mark on this life that the family is building, and Arlo is the last one to do so. The problem is that Arlo is so scared by so many things that it stops him from being able assert himself.
When tragedy strikes the farm, Arlo is stranded miles away from home, unsure where to go, terrified and not sure he can take care of himself. He meets a small, strange, feral creature that he first saw on his farm, a pest that proves its worth, eventually becoming a pet. The fact that the creature is actually a little boy is the film's “big idea,” the thing that makes this something other than just a nicer looking “Ice Age” sequel. Spot (Jack Bright) is a snarling, fearless, ferocious little thing, all by himself in the world, and he is very good at taking care of himself. He is all the things Arlo isn't, and together, the two of them set out to find Arlo's farm.
That's pretty much it. Dino gets lost. Dino meets boy. Dino and boy take a trip to get home. Plenty of films can be broken down to that simple a synopsis, but I was surprised by how little else there is to this one. The relationship between Arlo and Spot, which is all about behavior and performance since Spot doesn't speak actual words at all, is the entire movie, and the film's emotional punch is built almost entirely on two scenes, an echo trick that is one of the structural hooks Pixar is very good at utilizing on movies. I don't even mean that as a negative. There are things that storytellers do in order to bait hooks or pay off an idea, and they work. How many times have you seen a movie that begins with an exciting moment, then jumps back in time two weeks to tell you the story that led up to that moment, eventually working back around to it, with the stakes now fully explained and, if they've done it right, working to hook you. But when there's so little on the plate, those narrative bones are more evident.
The most successful of the sequences in which they meet someone new involves a family of T-Rexes who are cattle herders. Their longhorns have been rustled by raptors, and Arlo and Spot help them track down the herd. Sam Elliott voices the father of the family, and it's pretty hard to go wrong with Sam Elliott voicing an animated T-Rex. But as with much of the stuff during Arlo's journey, it feels incidental. So much of what makes Pixar special is the way they write to them so well and so invisibly, and there's nothing invisible about what “The Good Dinosaur” is doing.
Their best films also contain a sort of unassailable logic that makes them work, self-contained worlds where the central conceit makes sense, whether it's real-world possible or not. I like the internal logic of the “Toy Story” movies, but on the one occasion I brought up the way the world of “Cars” stops me short every time, John Lasseter was not amused. I'll embed that piece at the bottom of this story so you can watch him decide he's done talking to me. I feel that way about “The Good Dinosaur” to some extent as well. I get the desire to map these characters to various Western types, but it doesn't really support the idea with the execution. I don't get any value out of it, in terms of story or character, and it just makes me start to question the functional reality. Just as I don't understand why there are stairs in a world made by and for cars, I don't get the “dinosaurs as farmers” thing in a practical sense.
“The Good Dinosaur” is fine. I found myself moved by it on a very direct level. Technically speaking, it's a gorgeous film in many ways, but I'm still not a fan of the super-cartoony style of the characters over the photo-realistic world, which is genuinely jaw-dropping. This is lesser Pixar by a wide margin, and it's strange to see them working in such a slight mode. Considering all of the effort they put into trying to get this one to come to life, it feels like a lot of effort for a very small return, and I suspect it will not stick with most viewers beyond an enjoyable and inconsequential first viewing.
“The Good Dinosaur” is in theaters now.