In The Good Dinosaur, Pixar imagines a world where dinosaurs never went extinct and now live alongside humans. The movie follows Arlo, a young cowardly dinosaur who finds himself lost from his family farm and forced to confront his fears to return home. Arlo finds an unlikely companion in a human “creature” named Spot, who acts as Arlo’s guard dog.
Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios has made a name for itself by taking unique and imaginative premises and creating heartfelt dramas within rich and wonderful worlds. A Bug’s Life introduced us to a society of bugs in its first act and then expanded into a bug city in its second act. Likewise, WALL-E introduced us to a planet ravaged by garbage and then threw our robot protagonist into a bigger world. The gravest mistake The Good Dinosaur made was in failing completely in developing the world of the dinosaurs.
The film opens with a set up that feels like an amalgam of Disney and Pixar’s greatest hits. We see expectant parents looking over their offspring a la Finding Nemo. We see a child witness horror befall a parent a la The Lion King. And we see an inciting incident of a child taken away from his home a la (again) Finding Nemo.
The movie feels empty as it goes through a clichéd setup for a journey that, it pains me to say, isn’t all that thrilling. Arlo’s family has a farm, but they’re the only hint of civilization near them. Throughout his travels, Arlo runs into a few dinosaurs here and there but there is no sense of community or society to be found. In part this could be due to the Western genre conceit of the plot, but it feels more like the result of a troubled production.
The Good Dinosaur isn’t a wholly bad movie, however. There were a couple of moments that reached me on an emotional level. These moments came when the film was developing the relationship between Arlo and Spot. Unfortunately, their relationship isn’t enough of a focal point of the plot. The Good Dinosaur could have been a good buddy/pet movie in the vein of How to Train Your Dragon, but the story all but abandons the development of the pair’s relationship when Arlo meets a family of T-Rexes. So even though I felt an emotional connection to Arlo and Spot’s friendship, I don’t think the movie ever really “earned” that response. It felt a little cheap to me.
The animation is nearly photo realistic and remains the most consistently impressive part of any Pixar movie. The animation for the dinosaurs and other characters strikes a more family-friendly cartoon aesthetic that didn’t distract me like it did others around the Internet. But breathtaking animations of the vastness of unpopulated nature isn’t enough to save The Good Dinosaur from being one of the most disappointing entries in Pixar Animation Studios’ usually spectacular oeuvre.