Filmmakers at Pixar have been experts at eliciting all kinds of emotions from audiences since Toy Story premiered 20 years ago. For their latest, The Good Dinosaur, they’ve gone where they’ve never gone before: making a truly frightening film.
Now that might not have been the intention of director Peter Sohn and his team, but it certainly was the result. The Good Dinosaur exists in a world where the meteor that killed the dinosaurs never hit Earth, leading at least some of them to evolve into creatures with recognizable human abilities.
Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) and his family are farmers, using their long necks and strong bodies to plow, plant, and water cornfields. When a small human boy (Jack Bright) is discovered stealing the family’s corn, it sets into motion a series of events that causes a family tragedy and separates Arlo from his family.
With nowhere else to turn, Arlo is forced to rely on the boy, whom he names Spot, for help in surviving and finding his way back home. The two seem to be in constant peril, fending off attacks from other dinosaurs, negotiating raging rivers and narrow mountain paths, and encountering multiple other hazards in the prehistoric world.
To say that the film is dark is only slightly overdramatizing things. The filmmakers don’t shy away from how dangerous things are for Arlo and Spot, although they both learn how to handle themselves because of the situations they go through. There are several moments that are genuinely shocking, even for adults. There is also a continuous thread of sadness, with the film returning to Arlo’s family tragedy on multiple occasions.
Naturally, they balance matters with more lighthearted elements, most notably in the way Spot acts. This still being a prehistoric era, even one well past when dinosaurs should have lived, Spot acts more like an animal than a human. He crawls around on all fours, grunts and howls instead of actually speaking, and charges fearlessly around. It’s a fun twist on the owner/dog relationship, and one that pays off nicely at the end of the movie.
As one would expect, the animation of the film is gorgeous. The cartoonish nature of the characters is juxtaposed with that of that natural world around them, which is as close to photorealistic as animation has ever been. If it weren’t for obvious clues to the contrary, there are times you’d swear they just superimposed the characters onto real landscapes.
Even though the film contains such well-known actors as Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, and Sam Elliott, none of them truly make a difference in how well the film succeeds. Aside from Elliott, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize any of their voices anyway.
Coming so close on the heels of the exquisite Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur can’t help but pale in comparison. It has its fair share of great moments and earns its emotions, but it’s not likely to earn a spot in the pantheon of great Pixar movies.