Warning: This review contains some spoilers for The Good Dinosaur
65 million years ago, a herd of dinosaurs peacefully eat their dinner when a bright light flashes across the sky, and then keeps going. Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur posits an alternative universe where dinosaurs weren’t exterminated by an extinction-level event meteor collision. At the center of our tale is young Arlo, an Apatosaurus who is plagued with a constant fear of everything from prehistoric chickens to firefly bugs. After being separated from his family, Arlo forms a close bond with a young human who has all the characteristics and charm of a puppy; he even names him Spot. Together, they set out on an adventure to get Arlo back home.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Pixar films. Since pioneering the field of 3-d animation with their Toy Story franchise, Pixar has delivered over a dozen more films and paved the way for others to enter the same field. I’ve always been confident in the ability for animated films to tell powerful and emotional stories, but Pixar’s animation style and process creates characters more life-like than we could have imagined 25 or 30 years ago. With motion capture technology, the line between reality and animation blurs just a bit more; mannerisms take on a relatable and familiar look, hair blows naturally in the wind, and the detail of a child’s dimples or freckles stands out on the screen. The Good Dinosaur continues the proud tradition of excellent Pixar films.
One of the most striking elements of The Good Dinosaur is the use of landscapes to paint the wide-open world that Arlo and Spot find themselves in. Shots of rolling hills and wide open plains lend themselves to building the vast wilderness that Arlo finds himself in. The landscapes themselves seem like documentary footage you might find on a top-shelf National Geographic special, but in reality the Pixar team took great pains to create this world based on nearly 65,000 square miles of wilderness they captured in Google maps and other GPS software. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the stunning landscapes in The Good Dinosaur delivers an engaging and heartfelt monologue throughout the entire film. The only thing that can compete with the beauty of the world they’ve created in The Good Dinosaur is its cruelty. In a world devoid of modern human society, the biggest antagonist of young Arlo is nature. Fierce thunderstorms and predators stalk every corner, and the same vista that can take your breath away could also spell doom for unsuspecting travelers.
While the animation style, and particularly the setting of The Good Dinosaur, offer a lot to engage the audience, the movie would fall flat without likable characters and a solid story. The Good Dinosaur delivers on both of these fronts in a big way. Unlike some of the more recent Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur centrally follows Arlo’s journey, and so the number of characters regularly interacting is fairly limited. On his own, Arlo is an endearing character: a big-hearted and sweet boy who is plagued with reluctance and fear. His motivations for wanting to grow and overcome his fears are very real, but more importantly, so are his struggles. Spot is a lovable companion with no alternative motives. The only depth in his development is the relationship that he and Arlo create and nurture over the course of the film…but really, that’s more than enough. Though the story is familiar, these two help to make the journey more memorable than you would expect.
While I was watching the story of The Good Dinosaur unfold, I couldn’t help but draw multiple lines between it and another staple of animated filmmaking from the last 25 years: The Lion King. A young character is struck by tragedy with the loss of his father, and is ultimately separated from his home and “kingdom”. To redeem himself he recruits some friends who teach him important lessons and is ultimately able to confront his fears and reclaim his rightful place. Is it a direct correlation? No, but the similarities were striking, particularly the scene when Arlo loses his father. That being said, just because a story is familiar doesn’t mean it still can’t be told well. The camaraderie and friendship that Arlo and Spot develop over the course of the film carries with it a much heavier emotional weight than I can recall in recent memory. Their bond is such that the crux of the film’s emotional power hinges on their ability to remain together. The other characters that move in and out of Arlo’s journey are equally important, though Sam Elliott’s performance as Butch, a no-nonsense T-Rex that sounds like he stepped right out of Lonesome Dove, definitely stands out.
Along with the stunning landscapes, the music of The Good Dinosaur lends itself as a moving and effective background character. There are often stretches of the film that feature little to no dialogue, and in these instances the superb music helped to fill in the void. The opening track, “Homestead”, definitely has a western classic vibe to it, and the soundtrack vacillates between this and a darker, haunting tone that exemplifies just how quickly the landscape can turn against you.
Overall, The Good Dinosaur captures everything that Pixar does exceptionally well: stunning animation, lovable and relatable characters and a story that, while simple, is still able to take viewers on a powerfully emotional journey. This is a great family film that is sure to entertain. Do yourself a favor and go see it.