By Brandon HENSLEY
It’s about as high a concept as they come. Even though “The Flintstones” may have already taken a stab the size of a Wooly Mammoth’s tooth at it, it still conjures up intrigue for a full-length feature film: What if the asteroid thought to have killed off the dinosaurs missed Earth, and humans evolved to live with them?
What unfolds in your head may include a satire on Creationism vs. Evolution, or an action-adventure tale where humans and dinosaurs engage in an epic battle for supremacy.
But this is Pixar Animation Studios. The company is known for drawing out emotion by depicting the struggles of characters held together with subtle strings, which give and take depending on the closeness of the relationship.
Thus, we have “The Good Dinosaur,” released Nov. 25, the second offering from Pixar in 2015 that delivers a proverbial gut-punch to the emotional sensors. But where this summer’s “Inside Out” relied on a cavalcade of excitable, colorful characters to help shape the life of young Riley, Pixar strips this story down to the bare essentials. The headline of the Washington Posts’ review reads, “Is ‘The Good Dinosaur’ the least imaginative Pixar movie?” Pay no mind to the skepticism; the answer is yes, but it’s all the better for it.
Millions of years after the asteroid misses Earth, the story follows Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a young Apatosaurus, who lives near Three-Claw Mountain with his family of rural dinosaur farmers, led by father Henry (voiced by Jeffrey Wright). Wide-eyed Arlo is clumsy, easily scared and incapable of completing specific chores. This is in contrast to his more extroverted siblings Buck and Libby, whose physical gifts and sure-headedness allow them to excel in their work. Henry’s patience wears thin, but with some repetitive and overhanded dialogue, he assures Arlo that, in time, he’ll earn his mark by doing something great.
After a tragic misadventure, Arlo finds himself far away from his home. Reluctantly, he teams up with a primitive human boy, who Arlo eventually names Spot. With that name, and a penchant for growling while on all fours, the human-animal relationship has been reversed in “The Good Dinosaur.” Arlo is the intelligent, if still inexperienced, “person” with whom audiences will relate, while Spot is a raw, instinctual dog-like creature; humans are at the beginning stages of their evolutionary stage in this universe.
Director Peter Sohn, who took over for Bob Peterson after delays and script problems, pulls back in playing this contrast for laughs. It mainly serves to make the audience guess which one will “man up” in a time of crisis as both try to overcome various obstacles on their way back home.
That’s not to say both characters aren’t adorably rendered, and that kids won’t take a liking to Spot in the same way they did with Dug in “Up.” But there’s only one standout scene that generates big laughs, when both mistakenly eat bad peaches. It is without a doubt one of the best visual gags Pixar has ever done.
Beyond that scene, “The Good Dinosaur” is a rough film. The trailers, replete with captivating scenes involving glowing bugs swirling around Arlo at nighttime, may not show that truth, given how big-eyed and cartoony the main characters look.
Don’t be fooled. Pixar may have chosen this style to be contrasted with the absolutely stunning photo-realistic environments because the life and death situations Arlo and Spot find themselves in may be too heavy for the throngs of toddlers parents will bring to the theater. If the characters looked as realistic as the environments, any light-heartedness the film wants to achieve would get swept away, possibly in the dangerous waters of the river, which wreaks havoc throughout the film.
The utter cuteness of our heroes only goes so far. Together, the environment, a villainous pterodactyl named Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) and his savage group, as well as relentless scavengers whom Arlo and a gang of other “good” dinosaurs encounter, all drive home the terrifying reality: Arlo and Spot are out in the wild, unprotected and vulnerable. In the film’s climax, it’s all on them to pull each other out of trouble.
“The Good Dinosaur” strongly echoes the themes and obstacles of those in “The Lion King” and “Finding Nemo,” but there aren’t any memorable songs or catchphrases (“Just keep swimming!”), or any zany sidekicks to help our heroes through their perilous journey. There viewers were comforted by the antics of Dory, or Timon and Pumba. Here, we’re almost as isolated as Arlo and Spot.
That’s why Arlo’s quest to get back home, while familiar territory, lands such a positive punch. It’s great to have family help you through crises, but sometimes they can’t be there. When everything is on the line, young people can take to heart the actions and fortitude of Arlo, who is willing to go beyond his perceived capabilities in order to make his mark.
“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG, with a run time of 100 minutes.