While it is a slick animated feature film on the technical level, “The Good Dinosaur” is not wholly satisfying in terms of story and characters, and that is a surprise considering that it is made by none other than Pixar Animation Studios. Sure, there have been a few low points this legendary animation studio went through since its groundbreaking start with “Toy Story” (1995), but even its lesser films such as “Cars” (2006) and its underrated 2011 sequel have more personality compared to this film, which is not awful at all but rather forgettable on the whole.
Its premise is based on an intriguing story idea. In its alternative world, an asteroid which could have caused the extinction of dinosaurs happened to merely pass by the Earth 65 million years ago, so dinosaurs have been allowed to evolve a bit for next several millions of years as a result. While still roaming on the Earth as before, they become more cultured than before, and their present world somehow looks like the American frontier we have seen from countless western films.
In case of Henry (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (voiced by Frances McDormand), this Apatosaurus couple have been managing their small farm in the middle of vast wilderness while raising their three children: Buck (voiced by Marcus Scribner), Libby (Voiced by Maleah Padilla), and Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa). Although they walk on four feet, they can do a lot of things including plowing their corn field and watering the crops, and it is sort of amusing to watch how they work at their farm, though I wish the film showed us how they can build such a cozy family house like that or make rudimentary means for their farm work (how do they make ropes, for instance?).
Anyway, the harvest season comes again, and the family work harder for stocking their silo with harvested corns, which will support them during the upcoming winter. Henry assigns Arlo to guarding the corn silo from critters, and Arlo is eager to prove himself as his older siblings already did, though he is still not so confident while being afraid of many things including a pack of hideous chickens in their farm (my another question: what is the possible use of chickens for a herbivore dinosaur family? Chicken manure, perhaps?)
While he is on the guard, Arlo encounters a tiny feral human boy, and their first meeting accidentally leads to a sad tragedy for Arlo. When Arlo and his father are chasing after the boy along a nearby river outside their farm, the rainstorm suddenly begins, and, in a moment reminiscent of the similar scene in “The Lion King” (1994), Henry is killed by a sudden flood shortly after he manages to save his son in time.
When Arlo happens to encounter that boy again some days later, he is naturally enraged to see the critter who is responsible for his dear father’s death in his anguished view, but then he inadvertently gets himself tumbled into the river while chasing after the boy. When he regains his consciousness, he realizes that he is swept far away from his farm along with the boy, and that is the beginning of their long journey to Arlo’s home.
The rest of the story is as predictable as you can expect from its setup. The boy is named Spot as Arlo eventually comes to accept him as a friend to accompany and help him, and Spot (voiced by Jack Bright) virtually becomes his loyal puppy dog as reflected by his doggy behaviors, which probably mean that the human species in this alternative world was evolved from canines instead of monkeys.
During their journey, Arlo and Spot meet various types of dinosaurs, and these dinosaur characters are more or less than the reptilian version of western film archetypes. There is a dopey moment involved with a shamanic Styracosaurus voiced by the director/co-writer Peter Sohn, and then we get a bunch of nasty pterodactyls lead by Thunderhead (voiced by Steve Zhan). Arlo and Spot also encounter a Tyrannosaurus cowboy family running a longhorn ranch, and Sam Elliot is amusingly imposing in his voice acting as the tough, seasoned head of this family with lots of sharp teeth (God helps whoever happens to deal with them over their longhorns).
On the visual aspect, “The Good Dinosaur” is flawless as serving us with a number of enticing moments unfolded along with vivid background details, but I observed the film from the distance rather than being emotionally involved in its story and characters. I heard later that there were lots of story development problems during its pre-production stage, and that may explain its weak narrative base. While Arlo and Spot are likable characters to please young audiences, they are not distinctive enough to distinguish themselves from similar duos we have seen from many other films, and they are not as memorable as other Pixar Animation characters we have loved. Although the film manages to pull out a few good emotional moments from its mismatched duo, the plot is often flat and uneven due to its incoherent mix of genres, and its third act is clichéd to the bone along with a typical climactic action sequence, though I liked a witty reference of “Jaws” (1975) during that sequence.
Compared to the wonderful achievement in “Inside Out” (2015), “The Good Dinosaur” is a mildly disappointing work. I was not bored, but then I was reminded that the Pixar Animation Studios did a lot better than this many times before, so I cannot recommend it to you. Young audiences will surely have no problem with enjoying its colorful dinosaur characters shown on the screen, but I doubt whether they will remember these dinosaurs like I have fondly remembered the dinosaur characters of “The Land Before Time” (1988).
Short animated film “Sanjay’s Super Team” is shown before the movie begins. While bored during his father’s meditation, a young Indian boy imagines Hindu gods as his favorite superheroes, and the result is colorfully dynamic with a small note of poignancy in the end.