I write this post, not because I particularly liked PIXAR's "The Good Dinosaur," but because it deserves much more attention than it's gotten. Surely, if it had been released in 2014 as originally scheduled, it would have been treated to much more media coverage. Instead, it came out in the middle of the busy 2015 holiday season, and only a few months after the hugely acclaimed "Inside Out," which outshines "Dinosaur" in every way. And the press, while not unkind to it, has been mostly uninterested.
And yet, in the long run I'm almost certain that "The Good Dinosaur" will be one of the most remembered films of 2015 a few decades from now. It will be the favorite film of many small children who love dinosaurs, but found the ones in "Jurassic World" a bit much to take. The story is too simplistic and derivative to appeal to many adults, but it's the right size for children. And though there are many things about the movie that don't work, it does manage a few really beautiful, powerful moments that hit me as hard as anything in PIXAR's best movies.
It's been no secret that "The Good Dinosaur" had a troubled production, swapping out directors and the bulk of the cast late in the game. The underlying concept is an odd one, and clearly the filmmakers were having trouble with it from the start. The idea is that the dinosaurs were not wiped out millions of years ago by an errant meteor, so an alternate timeline has been created where they've developed a rudimentary society similar to the American Old West, and humans are still in their inarticulate caveman phase. So "The Good Dinosaur" is essentially a Western starring dinosaurs who farm and ranch and speak with a folksy, old-fashioned speech pattern. It's weird at first, but it mostly works.
An Apatosaurus couple, Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), have three children: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner), and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Arlo is the runt, afraid of everything, and always messing up his chores on the family farm. His father is concerned, and tries to give Arlo an ego-boosting task: to trap and kill a varmint that has been stealing from their corn silo. This turns out to be Spot (Jack Bright), a rough-and-tumble human kid who Arlo doesn't have the heart to dispatch. After a series of tumultuous events, Arlo becomes lost in the wilderness, and only has Spot to help him survive and find his way back home.
The one big idea that works is having a "boy and his dog" story where the boy is the dog. Spot is a great character, a scruffy, lovable little bundle of energy who is incredibly expressive despite not having the ability to speak. He's the best part of the movie. Arlo, by comparison, is pretty tedious. He's a wet blanket, a coward, and forever complaining for the first half of the film. He gets better once the plot really starts rolling, but Arlo is easily the most trying lead a PIXAR film has ever had. I'm guessing that he'll play better to children though, who will find him more relatable. He is awfully cute, though - all the dinosaur characters look fantastic, beautifully stylized and surely destined to become a toy line.
Even if the story is uneven and some of the characters aren't up to snuff, the film is never boring. The visuals are lovely, especially the renderings of the natural landscape and the variety of different CGI creatures. The studio fully commits to executing them as well as they could possibly be executed, which is what makes the feature still a cut above the output of PIXAR's competitors. This may be a lesser PIXAR film, but it contains plenty of examples of why the studio is held in such high esteem.
No, it doesn't hold a candle to "Inside Out," but "The Good Dinosaur" is a noble effort that should be recognized as such. The amount of care and attention apparent in every frame turned an iffy, oddball idea for a feature into something decently entertaining, heartfelt, and lovely. And I expect its flaws will only diminish with time.