When operating at the height of its powers, Pixar dreams up fanciful pie-in-the-sky challenges for itself and then clears them, making it look like the easiest thing in the world. The company tackled the challenge of animating movement under the tricky physical governances of water with Finding Nemo, and then doubled down and shot themselves into space for WALL-E. It rendered inanimate objects and hidden worlds with stunning specificity of detail, conjuring complexity and empathy for playthings that most human actors couldn’t hope to muster. And with this past summer’s Inside Out, Pixar rose to new conceptual heights of storytelling, staging another epic adventure with an abstraction of the human mind as a backdrop. Audiences come to Pixar films with an entirely different set of expectations than those they have for other animated movies, holding them to the high standard the company has set for itself. And so on the visual front, Pixar’s latest effort The Good Dinosaur raises the high-water mark a few inches. But independent of the stunning art design and animation, Pixar has slid backwards in terms of overall emotional intelligence. Pixar’s movies have never looked better, but beneath the jaw-dropping exterior of The Good Dinosaur, the studio’s trademark heart and soul is less evident than usual. The Good Dinosaur is merely good, which translates to ‘disappointing’ on the sliding scale of relative quality for Pixar.
The Good Dinosaur’s theatrical debut makes 2015 the first-ever instance of Pixar releasing two films in the same year, though this was never the plan. It was intended to be Pixar’s 2014 film, but top studio brass pushed the film back after taking a look at the script and deciding that, as producer Denise Ream put it, “The story was not working, period. Full stop. It just was not where it needed to be.” Original director Bob Peterson was deposed and replaced with Peter Sohn, the cast was completely retooled to accommodate the total script overhaul, and five percent of Pixar’s staff lost their jobs. While calamity of this caliber usually spells certain doom for a gestating project, The Good Dinosaur is far from the rotting fish that the scent of blood in the water suggested it would be.
The journey undertaken by a kindhearted Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is of an ordinary sort. In an alternate timeline, wherein the meteor that erased the dinosaurs missed Earth by a few thousand miles, dinosaurs have made the American landmass their own. Arlo and his family work as humble farmers, growing and storing corn, not doing much else. He’s a timid, fearful runt of the litter, struggling to complete domestic tasks while his siblings Buck and Libby (Marcus Scribner and Maleah Padilla, respectively) each bloom into gentle giants. He needs to overcome his fear, which we know because Arlo’s poppa (Jeffrey Wright) tells him, “Arlo, you need to get over your fear” on three separate occasions before he makes an unceremonious, Mufasa-esque exit. The humor never really flies with the same zingy energy as, say, the recurring chewing-gum jingle gag in Inside Out or Mr. Potato Head’s stint as Mr. Zucchini Head in Toy Story 3. The emotional apparatuses of the film — the sacred bond between parent and child, the terrible weight of maturity, the unifying power of love — are still plenty potent, but it’s as if they’ve been automated instead of arising naturally from the motion of the story. Arlo’s long and trying journey to return home after getting swept up in a flash flood has been nuked from the microwave, where Pixar made a name for itself using only the freshest, organic, locally-sourced ingredients. There’s a bit more earnestness in the gradually crystallizing affection between Arlo and Spot (Jack Bright), the caveboy who grows attached to him. Even so, it’s all rather familiar territory, brilliantly animated as the landscapes may be.
Getting too hung up on stale tropes would be a crying shame, however, if it meant overlooking the sheer amazement of the film’s visuals. Operating under the principle that it’s best to get ‘em hooked on John Ford movies early, Sohn suffuses his film with the reverence for the might of nature native to the Western genre. Rolling expanses of flatland, rugged mountaintops and churning rivers burst out of the screen with a crispness unmatched in animated film. The character design for Arlo and the dinos that make his acquaintance during his homeward trek verge on the cartoonish, only making the natural panoramas even more astonishingly realistic by comparison.
In spite of early stumbles, Pixar has stuck this landing with relatively minimal wobbling. Creative disputes notwithstanding, The Good Dinosaur promises a bright future for Pixar and a continuation of their unquestioned supremacy as visual stylists of animation. Arlo’s quest will be the last non-sequel film for Pixar until 2017’s Coco (though they’re liable to swap their release slate around at any moment, so who really knows?), which has rattled some fans hungry for new material. How new expansions of the Finding Nemo and Cars properties will turn out is anyone’s guess, but we can count on them looking beautiful. (It’ll be the most overwhelmingly lovely that annoying talking cars have ever looked.) The Good Dinosaur lacks the Pixar touch of laser-guided poignancy, but for now — that is, until Team Pixar inevitably outdoes themselves once again — the film may stand tall on the merit of its wondrous visual accomplishments alone.