In Pixar we trust.
It doesn’t matter that The Good Dinosaur was in development purgatory for years, and even changed directors after production began. Or that the trailer looked meh, or that the dinosaurs inexplicably resemble Gumbi. Pixar, after giving us the excellent Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles,Up, and more, has earned the benefit of the doubt. Surely The Good Dinosaur will be yet another triumph for the indefatigable masters of animation.
Well, nobody’s perfect.
Director Peter Sohn’s film takes a novel premise — that dinosaurs lived long enough to experience the dawn of humankind — and does little with it besides repeatedly rip off The Lion King. The story begins with the birth of an Apatosaurus who is named Arlo (Jack McGraw as the baby, Raymond Ochoa as the older version). He’s the runt of the litter and he pales in comparison to his rapscallion brother and smarter sister. His parents (voiced by Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand), however, always believe in him, and go to great pains to help him conquer his fears. To help him man up (or dinosaur up, as it were), Poppa takes him on a long walk, gives him sage advice … and then gets killed, leaving the dino-baby on his own and unable to get home to Momma.
You’re seeing The Lion King connections now, right? Arlo befriends a human boy, whom he calls Spot, and a group of T-Rexes (voiced by Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley), who are eager to help. Everybody humming “Hakuna Matada” yet? They encounter danger in the form of pterodactyls (one is voiced by Steve Zahn) and hyenas, err, Velociraptors (one of which is voiced by Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger) who try to eat them. Obstacles are overcome, lessons are learned the hard way. It’s all too predictable for adults to really engage with the material, and apparently not amusing enough for kids, either, as there were only three or four laugh-out-loud moments in a theater full of children throughout the 100-minute run time.
Still, it’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. Set high in the mountains in the United States, the detail of the animation is astounding — note the rocky terrain of the landscape, the fine grains of the sand, trees and shrubbery bristling in the wind, even the calamitous rush of dangerously raging rapids. It all looks vividly real — especially in 3D — to the point where it’s easy to forget you’re watching animation. You may not be entertained by the story, but you’re almost guaranteed to want to take a trip to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite on your next vacation.
Has the Pixar magic lapsed? It’s too early to tell, and one thump in a nearly spotless goldmine of riches (i.e., the Pixar canon) is not something from which to draw conclusions. It is, however, a red flag, a nagging beacon in the backs of our minds that will niggle there until the next Pixar release restores our faith in the studio that has given us so much so well (FYI: Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory hits June 2016). Until then, though, let’s consider The Good Dinosaur extinct.