The Good Dinosaur was originally slated for release last year, but for unknown reasons, the original director was scrapped and the project was delayed by a year and a half in order to be reworked into its current product. This isn’t the first time that Pixar has run into a troubling production cycle, but, at least in my opinion, the other Pixar movie to come out of that development hell (Brave) was as worthy of the Pixar name as any other. However, I’m not so sure that this is the case this time around. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a pretty good movie, as Pixar’s standards are (usually) well above what is considered passable for children’s entertainment; yet it still comes across as lesser than its siblings.
Part of this has to do with the simplicity of the film’s set-up. Set in a world where dinosaurs were never eradicated and have evolved into sentient species, the film focuses on the journey of Arlo, a cowardly young Apatosaurus who is swept away from his family by a raging river and must find his way home. Accompanying him on this journey is a feral human whom he names Spot, a non-verbal sidekick who is less rabid than he initially appears and whom Arlo grows to love in their quest to return home.
Though Pixar has made simple, clichéd set-ups like this work before (see the aforementioned Brave in telling a Disney Princess story), they have gotten by on strong character development that is sorely lacking in The Good Dinosaur. Arlo is entirely defined by his coward-to-courage character arc, and Spot functions entirely for Arlo to bounce his thoughts off of when he isn't acting as cheap slapstick comic relief. Other dinosaurs appear throughout the film as interesting characters that offer funny and heartfelt moments, but their presences are purely transient, only serving to act as pit-stops for Arlo to receive on-the-nose advice.
The animation itself, though, is gorgeous. Or, at least, the wooded setting of the film is. The mountains and rivers have an almost photo-realistic quality that is unparalleled in animated cinema, which makes it all the more disconcerting to watch the extremely cartoony character designs of the dinosaurs romp across its landscape. The choice seems like a conscious one, as if the animators knew that the simplistic story they were working with would have to be carried by expressive faces and eccentric movements, but it feels jarring in juxtaposition to such carefully crafted realism. This isn’t to say that the expressive animation isn’t effective, as the film still manages to offer heartfelt moments of genuine emotion through little to no dialogue, but the two well-meaning elements of exaggerated emotion and photorealism just don’t visually work well together.
This review sounds quite negative, but it really isn’t meant to drive people away from seeing The Good Dinosaur. This is still Pixar, and in light of the recent revelation that the studio plans to continue sequelizing with little original content on the horizon, this film is a welcome entry to their catalog for that reason alone. However, especially in the inevitable comparison to recent masterpiece Inside Out, it’s hard not to see how Pixar squandered some missed opportunities with this one. The Good Dinosaur is definitely worth seeing, but lower your expectations for it to be merely good, rather than the usual Pixar greatness.