The Good Dinosaur is by no means a bad movie. But it breaks new ground for Pixar in that it’s the studio’s first feature that is explicitly—and pretty much exclusively—a kid’s movie. The story concerns a fearful, clumsy young apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) who gets separated from his family and makes his way back home with the help of a feral caveboy whom he befriends. (Jack Bright snarls and howls wonderfully in the latter role.) Along the way, they encounter creatures both helpful and hostile, and they overcome a variety of obstacles. It’s a simple story, well-told. But it’s also a story about kids, told more or less exclusively from the kids’ perspective.
This is a first for Pixar. Though its previous 15 feature films have often involved children, they’ve been told principally through the perspective of adults (Boo has Sully and Mike; Nemo has Marlin; the Incredibles kids have their parents; and Russell has Carl Fredricksen) or adult-like figures (the toys of Toy Story; the emotions of Inside Out). These grownup interlocutors have given Pixar films an uncommon richness and depth—even those of us outside the immediate target demographic can relate to Marlin’s worry for his son or Carl’s grief over his wife or Woody’s duty to “leave no toy behind.” Stripped of this additional layer, The Good Dinosaur feels less like a Pixar movie and more like … well, a Disney one. (It’s probably worth noting that there were uncharacteristic difficulties during production: The film was originally intended for release two years ago, and the original director, Bob Peterson, was taken off the project midway through.)
Again, though the tale is slender, the execution is strong. The conceit of the film is that it takes place in an alternative world in which the extinction-event asteroid that hit the Earth 66 million years ago instead passed us by harmlessly. The dinosaurs thrived and developed intelligence, language, and a rudimentary culture in which the herbivores became farmers and the carnivores became ranchers. The more recent mammalian arrivals, meanwhile, remain thoroughly undomesticated “critters.” (Arlo’s companion, the quadrupedal dog-boy “Spot,” is one of the chief pleasures of the movie.)
A number of Arlo and Spot’s encounters on the long trek home are memorable ones. There’s a styracosaurus—voiced by Peter Sohn, who ultimately directed the film—who keeps a menagerie of animals perched on his horns to protect him from threats both physical (other critters) and emotional (“unrealistic goals”). There’s a flock of pterodactyls (the lead one voiced by Steve Zahn) who are not as they first appear. And there’s a family of T-Rex ranchers who need help with their herd. (The chief joke here, vocal-casting Sam Elliott as a leathery old cowpoke, is perhaps a bit too obvious.)