Like all Disney and Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur pulls at the heartstrings by chronicling the change of innocence into experience, of a child into an adult, and of those premature ideals into broader perceptions. Like most Disney and Pixar collaborations The Good Dinosaur also features a duo on a journey to both save/rescue someone or something while discovering things about themselves and the world they exist in along the way. Sure, there is more to each of these stories that have given the studio partnership a reputation of not just crafting animated movies for children, but for their parents and adults alike. These core ideas and themes are what Pixar tends to stick with, though. With their latest, the studio twists things around by essentially re-writing history and then pulling a role reversal meant to engage the mature minds while utilizing the popularity of dinosaurs to get the attention of young kids. This works for the most part as the premise is just as engaging as Pixar's previous release this year, Inside Out. While such a statement might make some wince given the personified emotions of that film allow it to go to some pretty heavy places for a "children's movie" the idea of mingling in what the world might be like today if a massive extinction hadn't taken place millions of years ago is just as tantalizing as being able to create some kind of organizational system within our own minds. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur doesn't do as much with it's promising premise as Inside Out did (though that one didn't do as much as I would have liked, either) it is does mix some interesting genre aspects and narratively creative ideas into it's proceedings often enough that it manages to be nothing short of an entertaining family film. While the film does indeed share many similarities to Pixar's previous offerings in terms of what makes them so effective what is more striking is the kinship it seems to share with the earlier, hand-drawn animated films of the Walt Disney company. Through this affinity for those that have come before it, The Good Dinosaur, while not being innovative or weighty on it's own terms, is a nice reminder of the power of a simple story told through beautiful imagery.

Spot (Jack Bright) befriends Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) under unusual circumstances.
The Good Dinosaur begins by asking the question: what if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed our planet completely and these giant creatures not only never became extinct, but continued to evolve? Like I said, it is quite the inviting idea and the possibilities of where this could go are just as engaging as any film synopsis I've read this year. While there are certainly areas in which the film shows that these prehistoric beasts did in fact continue to evolve there is only so much (and so far) one can go before things become too farcical and I recognize that conflict. In this regard, director Peter Sohn and his animating team make our protagonist, Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa), and his family something akin to a family of farmers in the Old West (this idea reinforced through Mychael and Jeff Danna's score) where they must harvest their crops and stock up on food before the first winter snow so that they survive. Arlo's Poppa (voice of Jeffrey Wright) is a strong and determined family man who encourages each of his children, including Libby (voice of Maleah Nipay-Padilla) and Buck (voice of Ryan Teeple), to make their mark on the world. This is done through achieving difficult tasks on the family farm. While Libby and Buck accomplish such status with similar ease as they grow older the same cannot be said for Arlo. The dino's Momma (voice of Frances McDormand) is concerned he might not ever obtain the ability to stand on his own, but his father remains confident in him. Believing he can get through his fear and discover what he is truly capable of, Poppa puts it upon Arlo to rid their farm of the critter that continues to deplete their food supply. Arlo's encounter with this critter, who is eventually given the name Spot (voice of Jack Bright), results in tragedy that is eerily similar to that of a certain scene in The Lion King. This event sends Arlo on a journey that sees him form an unlikely friendship while traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape in hopes of not only making it home, but making that oh so important mark.

There are a lot of things that stand out about The Good Dinosaur, first and foremost being that of the absolutely breathtaking visuals. Pixar, having started out as part of a technology company that specialized in providing computer-generated images, has always been on the cutting edge of technology and this film only further establishes their dominance. With a mix of photo-realistic landscapes and intentionally cartoony characters the film is both striking in it's beauty and it's ability to mimic our natural environments. There are moments even, where it looks as if Pixar took a note out of Disney's book circa 2000 and used footage of existing locals while superimposing the computer animation over it as was done with Dinosaur. Everything we see here though is in fact created through the magic of computer animation and on the big screen it is as immersive as it is breathtaking. To accompany the beautiful imagery are the sharply drawn characters of Arlo and Spot who don't necessarily speak much, but with whom we come to identify despite the majority of the conversation in the film taking place between Arlo and other creatures he encounters on his trip. That the film is able to enlist an entertaining batch of ancillary characters, including a trio of Tyrannosaurus' (voices of Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley) as well as some particularly nasty Pterodactyls (voices of Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, and Steven Clay Hunter) and a superstitious old Triceratops named Forrest Woodbush who's voiced by director Sohn while still maintaining the core relationship between Arlo and Spot and making that the one in which the audience cares about most is likely the film's greatest accomplishment no matter how beautiful it looks. It would be easy for the film to get distracted by these supporting players, especially the Tyrannosaurus' with whom Arlo forms a strong camaraderie, but the emphasis on Arlo's complicated relationship with Spot always remains the crux of our protagonist's character arc.

Arlo makes friends with Nash (A.J. Buckley), Butch (Sam Elliot), and Ramsey (Anna Paquin) during his journey. 
To this point, our journey with Arlo is just as much about how he comes to deal with the repercussions of the aforementioned tragedy and those shifting perceptions and gray areas we venture into as an adult as it is about weathering the literal storm he has to face in order to make his way home. That through this journey Arlo comes to realize Spot isn't his natural enemy as he initially thought, but a companion in much the same circumstances gives the film the necessary Pixar weight we've come to expect. Though this weight doesn't carry as many layers and therefore isn't as heavy as most of Pixar's work-the film still drives home it's emotional resonance in certain scenes. Reinforcing this transitional point in time for Arlo as he learns that being scared is only natural and that to be frightened is the only way to discover something new and exciting is more than enough for the younger audience the film seems to deliberately be targeting. While I say that, it's also notable that the film is PG and that it features some rather brutal moments. There are multiple scenes that feature death, not just of a parental figure, but of innocent animals who simply fall victim to the natural order of things. It's not that these things shouldn't be taught to children, but the manner in which the movie conveys them is shocking in how they're handled with such disregard. From rushing rivers to landslides, those Pterodactyls eager to eat any small mammal, including Spot, and especially a scene in which Arlo and Spot consume fermented fruit and then begin to hallucinate caused me to trip as much as they were. This is all to say that The Good Dinosaur is something of an odd little film, a real children's film in it's simplicity and vivid colors, but one that can't help but to push itself when it begins to fall into traditional trappings. Fortunately, most of these aspects will go right over the head's of those in the target demographic. It's a film I can only imagine will hold up better and better with repeat viewings, but that it comes to us in the shadow of Inside Out will lead it to garner a less enthusiastic response than it deserves.


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