Something is different in “The Good Dinosaur.” It’s a Pixar film, sure, one which frequently pushes the company’s image-rendering output to stunning heights. Here, the rush of a river or the view of a mountain range, both rendered, along with the rest of the film’s environments, in nearly photo-realistic detail, can be just as powerful as the actions of lovingly crafted characters.
Those characters, in stark contrast to the backgrounds, are mostly cartoonish. The story focuses on Arlo, a young, googly-eyed, long-necked Apatosaurus who is separated from his family while in pursuit of a food-stealing bandit. That bandit is a human boy, soon named Spot, and that name should be enough to indicate that Spot is more like a dog than a human child. It’s a high-concept and family-friendly take on “A Boy and His Dog,” with a distinctive Pixar touch.
The collision of elements — intensely lifelike scenic vistas explored by softly rounded, merchandise-friendly characters — creates a specific soft dissonance. That dissonance, in turn, defines this latest Pixar effort, and also points to what is slightly different about this film. “The Good Dinosaur” is more like a traditional work of Disney animation than any other film the digital studio has made. Even when its contradictions are jarring, the cumulative effect is memorable.
Opening millions of years in the past, the film posits a global “what if,” riffing on the idea that, had dinosaurs never been extinguished by an extinction-level event, the creatures might have stuck around as the planet’s dominant species set.
After an early shot that shows dinosaurs free of any anthropomorphized features, we end up in some alternate version of North America in which humans are at a rudimentary stage of development while dinosaurs are like homesteading human families in the 18th and 19th centuries. (This timeline suggests there might, somewhere, be dino communities in the early stages of an industrial revolution. Presumably that’s sequel material.) Apatosaurs use tools and agricultural concepts to farm corn in Utah or Colorado, while a redneck Tyrannosaurus Rex family herds longhorns through Monument Valley.
In keeping with Pixar’s house style, a couple big themes dominate, as articulated outright by Arlo’s kind-eyed father. The dad encourages his family to earn the right to leave their mark on the world, and instructs the knobby-kneed and quaveringly unconfident Arlo, his youngest son, to learn to face his fears. The idea of facing and moving through one’s fear is a great thematic hook, but “The Good Dinosaur” doesn’t articulate it with the same depth of films like “Ratatouille” or “Inside Out.”
With his family whisked away early on, Arlo’s relatives can’t provide consistent thematic counterpoint to the youngster’s experience. Neither can the non-verbal Spot, who does express a few touching ideas despite being limited to grunts and howls. Other characters help Arlo out here and there, but for the most part the young dino is on his own, thematically and at times literally. Other animals in the world aren’t exaggerated to speaking status, so while some creatures provide great comic relief and an occasional thrill, they’re no help in developing Arlo’s story.
Arlo and Spot often relate to one another through pantomime rather than spoken dialogue, which, combined with the outdoor setting lends “The Good Dinosaur” the air of the live-action “animal adventure” pictures Disney once relied upon as its animation production faded in the ’60s and ’70s.
The true heart of the film, however, is closer to early Disney animation as Pixar’s crew, director Peter Sohn and credited writers Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann, Bob Peterson, and Erik Benson, bounces between character-expanding challenges for the heroic dinosaur and odd comic riffs that aren’t always pure kids fare.
Children will understand Spot becoming comically weirded out when Arlo supervises him peeing behind a rock, but a longhorn rustler scratching herself like a junkie is a great, weird detail for adults. At another point, Spot and Arlo chow down on some rotten fruit which induces a druggy hallucination that calls way back to “Dumbo.”
The voice cast tends to disappear into their characters, which is ideal. You won’t be able to miss Sam Elliott as the voice of the elder T-rex, but actors like Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand, playing Arlo’s parents, draw no excess attention. They just get the job done, and well. Young actors Raymond Ochoa and Jack Bright, as Arlo and Spot, capture precisely what is required for the gig; Bright is particularly good. Director Peter Sohn stands out, too, as a super-deadpan Styracosaurus who has given imposing names to a small cadre of weird creatures.
As tired as the whole “the world is almost a character” comment may be, no consideration of “The Good Dinosaur” is complete without some acknowledgement of the significant achievement represented by the scenery. One shot of Arlo, just after he is separated from his family, sees the character waking up on a riverbank, and the use of depth of field and layers of detail makes the shot one of the most beautifully simple visions Pixar has ever conjured.
There’s still that dissonance — Pixar is creating its own world through the characters, and replicating our own in the gorgeous vistas — but even when the combination doesn’t truly sing, it remains entrancing and even surprising. The filmmakers do achieve many wonderful combinations of the two approaches, as when Arlo and Spot ascend a mountain peak, their heads poking up above a cloud layer to a clear atmospheric vista. In “The Good Dinosaur,” Pixar appears to be reaching towards a new evolutionary movement while also keeping ties to the history of animation, and that’s a true pleasure. [B+]