Sometimes, it can be hard to follow up a terrific act. If one episode in a TV show or one movie in a franchise is terrific, there can be high expectations placed upon the next work. It’s natural that most people would do such a thing. The only problem then is that the next work might not live up to the expectations, whether or not it is truly worthy of the more chilly response. To me, one example of such a situation has arisen this year with Pixar. Earlier this year, they had released Inside Out. Telling the tale of five emotions living within the head of an 11-year old girl, the film was a brilliant piece of animation with an all-too-rare message that sadness is a completely natural emotion to experience. Such a nuanced and accessible story, handled with excellent care, would naturally place audience’s hopes at a certain level for their next work. Their newest film is The Good Dinosaur, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite make that level. Even without having to deal with the earlier release of a great film, the film suffers a bit from its own issues that hinder the charming weirdness lurking beneath.
What if, 65 million years ago, the asteroid that had hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs…didn’t? In such a world, dinosaurs have evolved to create tools and speak, while humans remain as feral creatures. One of these dinosaurs is Arlo, the youngest in a family of Apatosauruses. The smallest in the family, he also suffers from being afraid of everything. Despite that, he wants to make his father proud and earn his mark in the family. One day, he ends up getting the task of killing a “critter” that’s been feeding away from the family’s corn harvest. This “critter” turns out to be a feral boy. When it escapes, Arlo sets out to kill the boy and make something of himself. However, he gets caught in a storm that floods a river and sweeps him up. Finding himself lost and far away from home, he is forced to work with the feral boy (whom he names Spot) in order to get home. Though the journey is dangerous and brings him face to face with all sorts of sights, it also helps to teach Arlo a thing or two about what it means to be brave.
Now, there is still plenty that is strong and interesting with this film. For one, the animation is stunning. All of the locations within the film are photorealistic, almost looking like dead ringers for real places. I even found myself wondering how much of these places was animated or if there were any live-action background plates used at a few points. Water was another thing that was brilliantly animated, showcasing a fluidity and movement that feels like how water should move and flow. As for most of the film itself, it feels weird, like it’s very different from a Pixar movie. Most of their films showcase well-written and developed characters with plenty of dialogue. Here, they’re far more willing to let the story move forward with quiet moments and action rather than dialogue. Most prominent of all, however, is the tone that I was not expecting: it’s a Western. Sure, it may not be literally a Western, but its heart lies firmly in the world of the Old West. Its story concerns a young man from a farming family having to journey across the wilderness and grapple with fear and death alongside the help of an animal companion, while its musical score is twinged with a country twang. The connection didn’t totally click for me until Arlo and Spot encounter a group of T. Rexes herding some longhorn steer as part of a cattle drive. Once I realized what the movie was up to, I found myself charmed by the rather odd idea and style lurking within it. It feels so different, like something decidedly different from Pixar’s normal assortment of films. It’s only a shame that the odd charm is strangled by more conventional trends.
When it comes to the film’s weaknesses, most prominent of them is the central story of Arlo. Namely, this story is a very familiar one. Now, there is nothing wrong with using a familiar story type as a template for a plot. However, what is important is how you execute that familiar plot. If there is an inspired method in how the story is told, then it can stand out as original thanks to how it is told. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t feel like it truly rises above the familiar plot. Its beats and points are expected moments that feel like they’re told without any major elevation. To go along with that, Arlo himself isn’t that great of a character. He feels too defined by the fact that he is afraid of everything. As a result, it feels like a routine of him being scared of something, getting a taste of bravery, then being afraid again. Even if the film does point out how courage is overcoming fear rather than simply lacking it, it almost feels like fear is the singular thing that defines him without any shades of variety to him. The result is that such a thinly-presented main character and such a frustratingly familiar story path somewhat smother the weird charm that this film does possess.
As I said, this film would have a bit of an uphill battle any due to being released after such a brilliant movie like Inside Out. In the end, even with the weird dino-Western style and the stunning visuals, it feels like the uniqueness lurking within is forced to coexist with a more standard sensibility. This means that the end result is a flat story that presses down upon the weirdness that could have flourished and added a charming oddball to Pixar’s roster.