What if the asteroid that brought about the extinction of all dinosaurs never hit Earth? How would these creatures evolve over millions of years and how would humans fit into this equation? These are questions Pixar works to answer with its newest feature “The Good Dinosaur,” a sentimental flick about family, bravery and survival. More than other successful Pixar movies, “The Good Dinosaur” seems directed solely toward children, with a simple story that might leave older viewers searching for something greater. In other words, if you’re looking for a movie to cry over, this is it. But, if you’re ready for some of the more elaborate, well-developed storytelling Pixar has become known for with films like “Up,” “Finding Nemo” and “Inside Out,” then the film’s predictable, optimistic resolution may fall flat.
The story reflects an old Western epic, opening with a picturesque family farm owned by a pair of dinosaurs along with their three children, Buck, Libby and Arlo. As the small and gangly runt of the litter, Arlo can never quite find his footing within the group but is continually reassured by his father that he will one day be great. However, after Arlo fails at his task of catching the “critter” that often steals their food, his father goes in search of it himself and is killed in a flash flood. As the family struggles to keep the farm running, Arlo is swept away in the river and finds himself hundreds of miles from home with an epic journey ahead of him. Befriending the small “critter,” the prehistoric human called Spot who got him into the trouble, the duo works their way back toward the family farm, encountering malicious pterodactyls, a family of rancher T-rexes and a host of other adventures along the way.
Though the plot is varied and fast-paced enough to keep viewers interested, it’s the lack of a complicated main character that keeps this film from falling beside other Pixar super successes. Comparing this to the animation powerhouse’s array of quest stories, the secondary characters that Arlo and Spot meet throughout their adventures parallel “Nemo” ’s band of recovering fish-eater sharks or “Up” ’s crazed, dog-collecting pilot. But it’s the unpredictable and somewhat flawed main characters, like “Up” ’s soft-hearted but crotchety Carl or “Nemo” ’s nervous and neurotic Marlin, that add a much-needed third layer to those films. Though “The Good Dinosaur” pulls an unconventional move in reversing the master/pet role, making the dinosaur the master and the human the pet, the feral child Spot and good-hearted Arlo prove to be somewhat one-dimensional as characters, and they struggle to hold the audience’s interest.
The film succeeds in its animation though, laying the cartoon-like characters over hyper-realistic naturescapes. It’s nearly impossible to tell when looking at scenes of the river flowing through the forest or the mountain peaks emerging from the clouds that we’re looking at computer-generated scenes. Placing the goofy-looking characters within this realism makes the film relatable in a way that going completely one direction or the other wouldn’t. Overly realistic dinosaurs wouldn’t inspire the same kind of sympathy the cartoons do, but an animated landscape would give the story no sense of importance and Arlo’s struggle no real validity.
Thinking about the title after seeing the movie, it seems like nothing I have said here is especially revelatory. Arlo, in any way you can describe him, is exactly what the film’s title says he will be: he’s “good.” And though that doesn’t make for the most complex story, the film is nonetheless enjoyable, with a solid, predictable character leading viewers through a string of strange and exciting adventures. If anything, the film proves that the Western is not a stagnant genre of the past, but a story of discovering oneself. The fight against nature is a timeless quest regardless of the context it’s crafted in.