This is the first time ever that we’ve gotten two Pixar movies in one year (some straight to DVD sequels don’t count). After the huge success of Inside Out (review here), can they do it a second time?
Imagine a world where the dinosaurs never went extinct, so they managed to evolve to the point of becoming farmers and ranchers. They also live alongside the earliest ancestors of humankind. One of these dinosaurs, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), is tasked with finding and killing a nuisance of a child who keeps stealing and eating the dinosaurs’ food. Somehow, which I won’t spoil, the dinosaur and the boy end up far away from home and have to find their way back. Arlo is able to speak, where the boy (“Spot”) only growls and grunts. On their journey, they encounter other dinosaurs and beasts that they must either befriend or defeat.
The movie is directed by a first-timer Peter Sohn, who was an animator and storyboard artist for past Pixar movies like The Incredibles and Up.
Pixar is like a restaurant. They’ve specialized in a type of food and they’re now the best at what they do. They don’t do other types of food but they knock it out of the ballpark with the food in their style. They’ve perfected the art of making you cry like a baby. Just from watching the trailers for The Good Dinosaur, I knew it would have me in tears. They’ve perfected the recipe for when to swell the music, when to kill off loved ones and family members, and when to punch us in the gut with the emotional climax. And The Good Dinosaur nails all that perfectly. I probably cried during this movie more than Inside Out and that’s saying a lot.
In terms of the story, it’s a simple one. This duo has to get from point A to point B, much like every other Pixar movie ever. What makes this great is that the duo is so interesting. Arlo, the dinosaur, is actually less interesting because he can talk. He’ll come out and say things “I’m scared, but I can overcome this!” where the little guy Spot has to show you what he’s feeling and that’s much more successful. Their relationship reminded me of How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup is a great character but it was Toothless that ultimately stole the show. You learn so much about Spot and why he’s out there alone, yet he never says a word. It’s fantastic, but makes Arlo far less interesting by comparison.
I would remiss if I didn’t mention the animation. I was a little worried because the design for the dinosaurs is fairly simple and low-texture. However… the world around them is some of the best work that Pixar has ever done. While Arlo isn’t a technological marvel to behold, what is jaw-dropping is him swimming through a raging river or running across a dry tundra. The weather effects are fantastic, with the rain and storm scenes being both beautiful and terrifying.
What didn’t work?
I mentioned that Pixar has perfected their recipe… but you can tell that this feels very “paint by numbers.” They know how to get you and it’s very predictable. We need a tragedy or two, we need a quiet moment where the two characters bond, we need some moments where the music swells and they run really fast and feel absolutely free. It’s all very familiar, no matter how The Good Dinosaur pulls it off. A few times, I almost felt like it was a cheap shot. They know how to make you cry, but did those moments benefit the story? Not always. It would’ve been refreshing to see something different, but I guess I can’t blame them for sticking with their recipe.
It’s very predictable with its themes and it’s also very predictable with the actual story. There’s moments that echo both other Pixar movies, as well as classic Disney animated pictures (most notably The Lion King). As soon as the big journey begins, you could probably guess how it ends up and what they might encounter along the way.
Will kids like it though?
Those of you with families, your kids will likely absolutely adore this movie. It’s bright and looks pretty and some of the tragic moments might fly over their heads. It was a little difficult to really get invested in the movie because of the sheer amount of kids in the theater though. It’s a quiet and touching moment and I just hear kids asking “What’s happening!?” in their outside voices. I don’t blame them but they may not have the attention span for some of the slower moments. But on the whole, they’ll love it. They might be growling and grunting for a few days, but they’ll love it.
The Good Dinosaur is perfect on paper. It’s a great emotional story and a fun journey full of adventure and danger. However this is Pixar’s 16th movie and by now, it may have lost its charm on you. It all feels very familiar and you’ll likely have a great time but don’t expect innovation or anything unpredictable. But their recipe has been perfected, so if you want to shed some tears and feel a little inspired, The Good Dinosaur will do exactly that.