Given its troubled route to the big screen, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that “The Good Dinosaur” isn’t Pixar at its very very best. However, we’re nowhere near the nadir of “Cars 2” here and any talk of “Inside Out” being merely a blip after the lacklustre “Brave” and “Monsters University” is wide of the mark. “The Good Dinosaur” has its problems, but it still packs quite the emotional wallop and when it hits its stride, it’s sublime.
When young Apatosaurus Arlo is separated from his family, he must find his way home again with only a young feral human boy – whom he names Spot – for company.
“The Good Dinosaur” suffers most in its sluggish first act, where we are introduced to Arlo and his family, who are farmers. The Apatosauruses are driven by a protestant work ethic; success in life is achieved through doing your work and making your mark. As the runt of the litter, Arlo struggles on the farm and it’s only through his journey home that he manages to find his courage.
On the farm, the film suffers from some of the same issues which plague “Cars” and its various sequels: it’s not hard to imagine a world where dinosaurs (or cars) became the dominant lifeform. It’s harder to accept that the world they would develop would look like a world suitable for humans to use. “Cars” is much worse in this regard, but the farming scenes are awkward, unconvincing and feel old-fashioned. The effect is compounded by the uncomfortable contrast in the visuals. The scenery and environmental work is the best Pixar has ever done. The landscapes are as near to photo real as makes no odds and the water effects are simply astonishing. It’s therefore a little jarring that this wondrous landscape is populated by deeply cartoony Aardman-esque dinosaurs. They’re utterly adorable, of course, but there’s always an odd disconnect between the characters and the world they live in which nags at the consciousness like the visual equivalent of a raspberry pip caught in your eye teeth.
Once Arlo is alone, though, the film starts to come to life. Some of its best moments are, as ever from Pixar, achieved with zero dialogue. A sequence where Spot and Arlo wordlessly share their family history with each other is heartbreakingly, perfectly realised and there are many such moments throughout the film where the familiar Pixar genius for visual storytelling comes through. Curiously underplayed in any of the marketing though is the decidedly Western flavour to this Jurassic world; farm boy Arlo encounters both bandits and Ranchers on his journey back home as he learns to face his fears and make his mark on this wild frontier.
A little muddled in execution, “The Good Dinosaur” is still beautiful to look at and, once it’s sunk its claws into you, ruthlessly efficient in getting you right in the family feels. I saw this with both Mertmas and his nearly three year old sister (both were rapt for the entire movie) and I’m not ashamed to admit I had big, fat tears rolling down my cheeks at several points. It shows once again that less-than-perfect Pixar is still head and shoulders above anyone else in the animation world.
The supporting feature for “The Good Dinosaur”, “Sanjay’s Super Team”, is another nugget of gold from Pixar. It tells the story of a young boy, bored with his father’s religious meditation and struggling to reconcile the spiritual beliefs with the modern world, imaging the Hindu gods as a team of superheroes. It’s sweet, sentimental and visually dazzling, capturing as it does the bonds between father and son as they look for ways to understand and connect with each other. The fact its based on writer/ director Sanjay Patel’s own childhood just makes it all the sweeter.