Prior to this year, a prevailing narrative has been building that Pixar, the gold standard for modern computer animation if ever there were, was in decline. The disappointments of Brave and sequels like Cars 2 and Monsters University seemed to indicate some cracks in its formerly pristine armor, and going into this year the studio found itself in the rare position of having two releases on the calendar. June’s Inside Out felt like classic Pixar, a rousing and eminently clever journey through the mind of an eleven year old girl. Disney’s traditional November animated release takes the form of the second release from the studio, the seemingly forever in development The Good Dinosaur.
Taking the premise that the K-T extinction event never occurred, The Good Dinosaur exists in a world where both dinosaurs and humans exist at the same time. The hero of the story is Arlo (voiced by Jack McGraw as a child and Raymond Ochoa as, let’s say a teenager), the runt of a three-child litter of brontosauruses living on a farm with their parents (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand). Arlo struggles to keep up with his chores by virtue of being smaller and weaker than his other siblings, as well as the nasty habit of being afraid of nearly everything that moves. One night, as Arlo’s father is attempting to teach him a few lessons in bravery, a flash flood brought on by a vicious storm washes both of them away. With his father presumed dead and the storm depositing him far away from his farm, Arlo must journey back to his family, befriending a dog-like caveman named Spot (Jack Bright) and enduring all manner of trials to make his mark on the world.
It does not take long for The Good Dinosaur to stumble. After an undeniably adorable hatching scene that brings Arlo into the world, the film moves onto a frankly interminable first act following Arlo as he has all manner of difficulty with his chores, first trying to feed some bullying prehistoric chickens and then being given the role of exterminator of the pest eating through their winter stores. It is here that the film’s most glaring weakness rears its head, as the scenes seem to start and end almost randomly, skipping from moment to moment without allowing the events to sink in and appreciate in the mind. These scenes feel like a checklist of character flaws that need to be established so they can be overcome during the second and third act, and while this is a tried and true method of uplift storytelling (especially in the animated realm), here it seems to lack the grace of other Disney/Pixar experiences. The dialogue is clunky, the attempts at humor overly juvenile. Gone is Pixar’s crossover appeal; this one feels directly aimed at the kiddies in the audience with little to no regard for the parents who brought them there. That is perhaps to be expected of the Over the Hedges and the Gnomeo and Juliets of the world, but we’ve learned to expect better from the mighty Pixar.
Once the film moves downstream, it begins to coalesce a little, but continues to lack the connective tissue to make it feel like a cohesive whole. The Spot character is a problem, as the choice to make him act exactly like a dog feels cheap and unearned, a sort of emotional shortcutting and bald role reversal that never sits right on the screen. The journey, from encounters with vulturous pterodactyls (the closest approximation the film has to a villain beyond nature itself) to T-Rex cowboys and a bizarre triceratops, brings along the same issues that were in place in the first act. The screenplay has only one credit (Meg LeFauve), but is underwritten by a worryingly massive five story credits that point to too many cooks in the kitchen shoving ideas into a blender that can’t smooth out the chunks. The Good Dinosaur never truly feels like it has decided on what it wants to be (even the voice acting is noticeably below Pixar’s quality beyond the sublime Sam Elliott), and the haphazardness of the narrative and the script only succeeds in keeping its audience at a disinterested arm’s length.
Despite this, it is not all doom and gloom. The visuals just might be Pixar’s best, with some of the establishing shots of this world looking nigh-photorealistic. Audible gasps are understandable when first seeing the rushing river (water, like fire, has long been a tricky thing for computers to emulate well) that borders Arlo’s farm. It has to be the best animated water that has ever been on screen, and that extreme attention to detail is present throughout the lush vistas of The Good Dinosaur’s world. In fact, the realism of the world is so strong that sometimes Arlo’s bright green body can feel incongruous with the beauty around him, almost like the animated equivalent of some hasty green screen. But that is a minor quibble, as this is nothing if not a ravenous feast for the eyes. The third act is also quite strong, with emotional reunions all over the place that cannot help but tug at the heartstrings when Jeff and Mychael Danna’s score swells at just the right moment. Indeed, the film remains on an upward trajectory of quality from beginning to end, consistently bettering itself as it moves forward, but it starts so low, and its gradient is so minor that even its constant improvement does little more than lurch it toward the lofty heights of the mediocre. It is worrying seeing a Pixar film so devoid of resonant ideas this side of Cars 2 (this is certainly their second-worst film), and considering the development hell it had to crawl itself out of (this has been in the works for six years now), it is likely The Good Dinosaur would have been better off lost to time.