Back in June, Pixar released Inside Out, a phenomenally successful film that restored my faith in a studio that was beginning to flag a bit in the face of cash-in sequels and less engaging original properties. That early Summer release may very well end up my favorite film of the year. This week marks the debut of the critically reinvigorated giant's holiday feature, The Good Dinosaur; a project that saw its fair share of struggles to make it to the screen, including an overhaul of almost the entire cast a few months ago. While, no Pixar movie has ever not been the product of a team of creatives, there's been a quietly dismissive vibe surrounding Peter Sohn's feature-length debut with the studio.
In an elevator pitch, The Good Dinosaur has a can't-miss premise, especially for the younger set: "What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs actually missed the planet and instead humans and dinosaurs co-existed?". That's as solid as any idea Pixar has had, but for their films to actually work on screen, they typically have to transcend those base level hooks in a way that keeps the happenings on screen from dulling the parents taking their little ones into a popcorn fueled coma. On balance, the studio has been able to manage that task fairly effectively, with examples like Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, and The Incredibles immediately springing to mind, though there are others as well.
With The Good Dinosaur, we're looking at an effort that's more in line with A Bug's Life, but not quite falling to the level of Cars. It's a reasonably well told-adventure story that focuses on the plight of Arlo, a somewhat runtish Apatosaurus who, much like his bigger siblings, wants to "make his mark" with his family (on their farm, this is literally being able to place your pawprint on the family's food silo) and get over his overriding fear of basically everything that surrounds him. One of the tasks given Arlo is to trap and kill whom or whatever is eating his family's supply of corn. It turns out the little critter is actually a caveboy that Arlo can't bring himself to strike down. From that decision, tragedy strikes and it leads Arlo and "Spot" (his name for the young human) on an adventurous and dangerous path that will force the now-lost Arlo to come into his own and become the kind of person that his family can be proud of while he tries to find his way back home.
That's basically the thematic content you can expect here, and it doesn't get any deeper. But really, if you temper your expectations away from what we often expect from better Pixar features, and pare it down to "kids really like dinosaurs, and I bet my kids will like this movie that has relatively not-scary dinosaurs in it", this'll surely do the trick over the Thanksgiving weekend. It's very meat and potatoes and unambitious, and that's okay. It has other virtues in the character design department, and the environments in which Arlo and Spot travel are especially well envisioned. It lacks the pizzazz of Inside Out's various aspects of the mind, but the naturalistic quality somewhat brought to mind some of the older down-home animated efforts that I seemed to be far more prevalent in the 70's and 80's. Many of the dinosaurs even have southern accents, though some are a little more successful than others, to be fair.
There may be a few moments here and there that'll give some audience members more of jump-scare than some parents may care for. A scene with a lizard-snake and some evil Raptor-rustlers immediately spring to mind as "possibly too scary", and there aren't many memorable gags, though when Arlo and Spot eat the wrong fruit there's an all too short amazing visual that feels as if it was pulled right out of Animal Man.
In summation, The Good Dinosaur is fine, but if you're looking for something that stands out from the Dreamworks and lesser Disney animation glut, I wouldn't bother.
As an aside, the short that comes right before, Sanjay's Super Team, is outstanding and very affecting, blowing away the painfully banal Lava that preceded Inside Out. I look forward to that short's director Sanjay Patel getting a feature-length opportunity soon.