The second Pixar release this year, The Good Dinosaur is a solid addition to the film studio’s library, taking the classic American genre of the Western and putting it onto a world populated by dinosaurs and the other “critters” that live with them in a post-missed-asteroid Earth. This take on the boy-and-his-dog tale, with its photorealistic CGI, is beautiful and sweet, and also evocative of other Disney classics.
The first thing to really point out is the breathtaking use of Pixar’s new photorealistic CGI. The landscapes are simply stunning, and the trees and water in particular stand out as about the closest thing I’ve ever seen to real life. In an interview via Wired, director Peter Sohn said: “There was a great idea of taking relief maps, actual data from terrain around us in the places we had visited, to use that information and to build and propagate plants on top of. So we did some really simple ways to fill that out — through math — and propagate water and plants and snow on this terrain.” The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: this method achieved something phenomenal. My movie-viewing companion in fact thought it looked like a real footage with CGI characters on top of it.
The plot of The Good Dinosaur is simple enough: Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the young and perpetually terrified, gets separated from his family and must find his way home with only his faithful human “critter” Spot to keep him company. Along the way he learns what it means to be brave no matter what the outcome, and finds how he will make his own mark in the world. While it is interesting to see the “boy” and “dog” inverted, I’m not entirely sure that it matters that Arlo is a dinosaur. It also doesn’t negatively impact the story, either. These are characters who just also happen to be dinosaurs.
This film is clearly set in the American west, and the characters are all tropes from the Western genre. The herbivores like Arlo and his apatosaur family are farmers, raising corn (and chicken-like birds, for some reason) in a valley by a river. It strikes me as funny to see “chickens” being raised as they are essentially the descendants of dinosaurs today. Carnivores, rather than eating their fellow dinos, have herds of ancient bison that they drive across the plains. There are bandits in the form of pterosaurs that swoop through storms, with their wings sinking below the clouds like inverted shark fins.
One of my favorite parts of this film is easily Sam Elliot as the voice of Butch, the T-rex leader of the cattle-drivers (as well as their father). Elliot is a well known staple of the Western genre, and he delivers a line like no-one else can. To hear him tell the story of how Butch got the large bite-mark scar on his face is worth the price of admission alone.
My only real complaint about this film is that for all its beauty and sweetness it doesn’t feel particularly fresh. There are many instances (three in particular) where it so forcibly reminded me of The Lion King (1994) that I was drawn out of the story. Perhaps it is partly the influence of the father-son dynamic, but there are specific scenes that are so reminiscent of the earlier work that I am left wondering if it was an intentional homage or just odd storytelling choice.
Overall The Good Dinosaur is a lovely film to see and most certainly worth seeing on the big screen. I was left at the end with the same warm feeling I get from Finding Nemo (it doesn’t hurt that we got a trailer for Finding Dory before the feature, either) and a slight mistiness around the eyes that only comes from a good Pixar movie.