Peter Sohn directs The Good Dinosaur, a middling Pixar movie that contains moments of grandeur but sinks into the dull mud of mediocrity. The 2015 animated feature has a tentative air, with Meg LeFauve’s screenplay never quite striking the right tone. There is still divine beauty and the animation is on-point, however, and some scenes earn their emotional heft.
The idea for The Good Dinosaur dates back to 2009, when Up director Bob Peterson came up with a story. Pixar announced a release date of 2013, but problems with the storyline and issues with direction provided more than a few roadblocks. Casting was even an issue, plus the closure of Pixar Canada led to some setbacks. Eventually, with a revised cast and Sohn in the director’s chair, things were on track.
The Good Dinosaur posits a world in which the dinosaurs have survived extinction because the asteroid responsible for their demise misses Earth. The action focuses on an Apatosaurus family led by patriarch Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and matriarch Ida (Frances McDormand). They’re farmers. Corn farmers. Three kids are born, with Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) the littlest of the bunch.
Arlo struggles with fear and can’t quite make his mark, even with his father’s placid advice. After tragedy strikes, the little guy must fend for himself in the world. What’s more, an untamed cave boy (Jack Bright) is along for the ride. Arlo has to overcome his fears and deal with pterodactyls and a family of Tyrannosauruses as he tries to make his way back home.
In effect, The Good Dinosaur is a standard quest movie with western elements. Things commence on the homestead, with a big stone silo and daily chores. Henry and Ida are tough and they work the land so they can survive wintertime. They’ve figured out a number of farming techniques and are surprisingly organized.
The settlement structure of the dinosaurs presents an interesting idea and Sohn’s movie pushes it one step further: the lime green Apatosaurus clan can talk. In fact, all the dinosaurs in this world have developed a twangy form of English. Humans are without progressed language, with Bright’s character communicating with mongrel groans and yowls.
The approach seems like it could hold many riches, but The Good Dinosaur doesn’t explore the possibilities. Arlo and the kid run across different sorts of dinosaurs, like the Tyrannosauruses (A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliot). The trio is torn right from a John Ford western, complete with buffalo to push up over them there hills.
Regrettably, the most interesting characters are but food for the hurried, hopelessly conventional plot and The Good Dinosaur heads back through shrill Disney fundamentals. The story hits all the buttons, from weepy loss to a youngster overcoming the odds to a family reunion complete with sweeping factory-level score.
The mawkish elements are evident from the start, with Wright’s dinosaur dad speaking in motivational catchphrases and mom struggling under the weight of too much work. Fortunately, Sohn earns emotional currency when he dials it down and lets the animation speak for itself.
One of the movie’s strongest scenes comes when Arlo and the cave boy are trying to communicate. They miss their families. They’ve known death. The scene is played with slight discussion (thank goodness) and the animation is beautiful.
Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur struggles to overcome the bulk. It’s not a bad movie, but one gets the sense that it’s one mammoth missed opportunity. It has some good ideas and is built on stunning background animation, but the aesthetic of the dinosaurs is awkward and the story is remarkably lifeless. Coming from the typically reliable Pixar camp, this one lacks bite.