Through its history, one that currently stretches for nearly three decades and encompasses sixteen full-length feature films, Pixar has proven itself to be a studio in which “what if” questions become large gateways to the creation of universes of mesmerizing quality, creativity, and depth. “What if toys had a secret life that unraveled when we are not looking?” gave us the wonders of Toy Story; “What if monsters relied on the screams of scared children to produce energy to keep their society going?” led the way to two delightful Monsters Inc. efforts; “What if heroes were forced to hide and try to live a common family life?” brought on the surprisingly clever and original superhero flick The Incredibles; and “What if everybody had a set of five emotions working around a control panel inside their brains?” delivered the spectacular Inside Out.
The Good Dinosaur has its starting point in a similar way, as its writers sit and wonder what would have happened if the asteroid that annihilated the dinosaurs had missed its original target by a relatively small margin. Although the journey’s beginning is the same of other Pixar classics, that is pretty much where the overlapping ends. For starters, the premise is clearly not as refreshing and unexpected as those bore by the likes of Ratatouille, WALL-E, Toy Story, and its peers; the envisioning of a planet where dinosaurs and humans live side-by-side has already been explored extensively by numerous works of fiction.
The most aggravating issue, however, is not lack of novelty; Finding Nemo, after all, took the overused idea of humanized animals (in that case, the sea fauna), and drove it home with style. The problem is that Pixar sets out to imagine a scenario where dinosaurs evolve into smart creatures and have to share their home with very primitive humans, and comes out practically empty-handed. The company’s usually fantastic world-building skill, one that takes elements and situations that are inherently human and brilliantly reconstructs them with assets related to the universe within which it is working, is almost non-existent.
As it turns out, their extra time on planet Earth, caused by the asteroid’s poor aim, allowed the dinosaurs to optimize their food-gathering: herbivores have built farms while the carnivores keep cattle, and that is pretty much everything Pixar could come up with – an astounding shock to audiences just coming out of Inside Out, a movie whose every passing minute held some sort of awe-inspiring revelation to the inner workings of our mind. That lack of inventiveness could have been forgivable if The Good Dinosaur balanced its simple world with a remarkable story, but the lack of inspiration to answer its starting “what if” prompt is also present in its script.
The film’s focus lies on a family of Apatosaurus that run a humble corn farm. Out of the three children, Arlo is the one who has trouble helping out their parents in the vital gathering of food for the coming winter; his fear, clumsiness, and insecurity stop him from being useful, hence leading him to feel like an outcast, a fact made even graver due to his father’s occasional harshness and his siblings’ natural, yet harmful, jokes.
From the outset, the writing is – almost literally – on the wall that The Good Dinosaur will eventually trigger some disastrous happening that will force Arlo to head out into the world by himself, face a series of daunting struggles which he cannot avoid, and come home strong and confident enough to aid his desperate family. That arch becomes visible ten minutes into the flick, and sometime later Arlo – while chasing Spot, a human caveboy who has been stealing his family’s crops – falls alongside the boy into the nearby river and is washed away to a place miles from his home, to which he must return so that he can help his family gather enough resources for winter before it is too late.
To be fair, Arlo’s quest does hold some redeeming features. Namely, his relationship with Spot, which humorously acts like a dog, helping Arlo along but also requiring a good deal of protection from the dinosaur; and the unshown, but constantly looming, despair that Arlo’s family certainly felt following his disappearance. In fact, those two elements are entirely responsible for the two scenes in the entire movie that live up to the Pixar standards of emotion and poignancy, but they are two bright spots in an otherwise dull affair, a reality that makes part of their resonance diminish.
The movie’s other noteworthy quality is how The Good Dinosaur shuns the use of one fearsome cliched villain and opts to turn both nature itself – with its challenges, traps, and wildness – and Arlo’s own psychological limitations into the obstacles that need to be surpassed.
Everywhere else, The Good Dinosaur falls flat and feels hollow. Aside from the aforementioned predictability of its developments, the movie is marred by borderline embarrassing dialogues, and characters that come and go without leaving any sort of relevant mark in the audience. The humor that successfully treads the line between amusing childish gags and adult punchlines, a Pixar trademark, is nowhere to be seen either, as the funny sequences aimed at children are delivered awkwardly and the more mature comedy (save from one small scene that is rather bold by the standards of modern Disney) is missing in action.
Even the visuals, which feature some of the most impressively realistic textures and assets that Pixar’s supercomputers have ever rendered (the water and grass are particularly mesmerizing), are lifeless from an artistic standpoint. The dinosaur designs are unappealing, transiting between plain boring to pointlessly grotesque, and the world they live in is way too grounded on reality to bring anything new to the table.
Some could argue that The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s attempt at writing a movie directly aimed at the youngsters, especially following the intricate and overly complicated concepts of Inside Out, but even if it does punctually come off as entertainment built for children, it is of the mediocre kind. Instead of reaching for the likes of Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro, two works blatantly produced for kids by Studio Ghibli – a company known for crafting mature animation – that are masterpieces; The Good Dinosaur presents all the bad quirks and goofs of a rushed and uninspired DreamWorks product. For any company, such result would be a major disappointment; for Pixar, a towering giant in the world of animation, it is appalling and, ultimately, sad.