The wonder of Pixar movies is how often they dare to tell stories that Americans haven't seen before in animation. After so many phenomenal box office hits, the studio has earned its confidence that audiences will follow it anywhere, and it's taken advantage of that trust by experimenting with unconventional storytelling. Not just any studio could have gotten away with the 20-plus dialogue-free minutes that open Wall-E, or Up's grim depiction of one character's trajectory from happy child into a disappointed and then dead adult.
So if Pixar's latest film, The Good Dinosaur, feels at all like a letdown, it's because so much of the material seems familiar. The exact details of this world are new, but the story beats and even specific characters feel like they were imported from The Lion King, The Incredible Journey, The Land Before Time, The Jungle Book, and other familiar features. As with Cars, the problem isn't how the world is built, visually or conceptually. It's the sense that the studio is building a fresh new world to tell a conventional old tale.
In The Good Dinosaur, the extinction-event asteroid missed Earth 65,000,000 years ago, and dinosaurs survived and evolved intelligence. Their civilization is primitive and limited, but a pair of apatosaurs, Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), have carved out a fine little homestead, complete with a cornfield, a rough stone silo, and a cozy roofed den. The film gives the audience plenty of time to coo over the hatching of Henry and Ida's three adorable kids: Libby, Buck, and Arlo.
Libby and Buck grow up into capable kids who pull their weight around the farm, but Arlo remains small and easily shaken. (He's even intimidated by the family's flock of proto-chickens, though it's never clear why a family of herbivores need chickens.) Henry is a supportive dad who gently tries to help Arlo find his confidence via pep talks and special tasks. But eventually disaster strikes, leaving Arlo marooned far from home with a feral Neanderthal boy. After a How To Train Your Dragon-style rapprochement, the two bond and begin the journey home together.
There's something distractingly safe and samey about Pixar's latest
The Good Dinosaur had a notably troubled five-year path to screens, with director Bob Peterson replaced by first-time Pixar director Peter Sohn after the story got bogged down in rewrites, and the film repeatedly delayed from its original 2013 release date. It's the fourth Pixar film to replace a director mid-stream, after Cars 2, Brave, and Ratatouille; the studio's story, as usual, was that a new perspective and some distance was necessary to get production moving again. One of the more obvious changes involved having a teenager, Raymond Ochoa, re-record Arlo's dialogue, previously performed by adult actor Lucas Neff. Storylines and characters were cut; actors John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris, Judy Greer, and Bill Hader reportedly disappeared from the film.
What's left feels surprisingly simple for a Pixar feature. The studio has produced shorter movies (including Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.), but they've never felt this light on incident. And while Cars 2 and Brave have their story problems, neither has Good Dinosaur's overt rough edges, which include a relatively abrupt ending and an obviously abandoned story hook. Perhaps more glaringly, no Pixar movie since Cars has spelled out its message for the audience so literally. It's impossible to not compare The Good Dinosaur to this year's other Pixar release, Inside Out, which builds a color-coded language of emotion into the story, then trusts audiences to keep up with it. Dinosaur, meanwhile, has multiple characters lecturing Arlo about the nature of fear. And the film's central metaphor involves Arlo's desire to "make his mark" in the world, which literally entails getting to imitate his family by "signing" the farm silo with a muddy footprint. The underlying meaning is resonant, but the actual experience involves waiting 90 minutes for a young dinosaur to proudly put some dirt on a wall. And it's scant payoff after the emotional trials involved in reaching that point.
There's one sequence in the movie that's pure Pixar magic, in which Spot and Arlo communicate about their lost families. Spot doesn't speak Arlo's language, or have one of his own, so they have to communicate with symbols and body language. And the gestures they choose are pure and effective, cutting straight to the heart of the profound grief that unites them. It's one of the few moments in the movie that feels like it's being experienced, rather than described.
Some of the broader character business is relatively subtle as well: the film never comments on the fact that dinosaurs don't have hands, which limits their building and farming capacity, but it quietly observes how ungainly Arlo and his family are, and how the need to drag every tree and stone in a building into place with their mouths limits their achievements, and makes every accomplishment feel earned. Given Spot's much higher flexibility, adaptability, and dexterity, it seems likely that evolution isn't done with this world. The dinosaurs escaped the asteroid, but their days are still numbered.
But too much of the rest of the film relies on goofy comic business and forgettable characters. A flock of pterosaurs are more or less generic antagonists, and when a pack of white-trash velociraptors with names like Bubba and Lurleen show up with virtually the exact same lazy archetypes (the leader, the girl, the psycho, and the follower), both groups look halfheartedly scripted. Aside from Momma Ida, female characters in general get short shrift throughout The Good Dinosaur, which would rankle more if so many of the male characters weren't similarly thin. Apart from Arlo's family and a bizarre comic-relief triceratops, only a tyrannosaurus rex voiced by Sam Elliott really stands out as a personality.
What makes this even more frustrating is that these characters inhabit such a fleshed-out world. The Good Dinosaur's water effects in particular are staggeringly detailed — the river running alongside Arlo's journey has more character than 90 percent of the cast. At one point, a semi-conscious Arlo lies in the river's shallows, while light plays across the ripples in the water, partially obscuring the multicolored rocks below. In that moment, the water is beautiful enough to completely distract from the distressed protagonist lying in it. When the river roils in a rainstorm, or relaxes into a deep, still pool, it's hard to tell that the film wasn't shot in live action. And the fantastically detailed trees and grasses of the mountainside Arlo and Spot traverse are just as stirring. If humanity successfully pollutes all the world's water, kills off the greenery, and breaks every mountain down for oil, future generations can lie in their dwelling-tubes and watch The Good Dinosaur alongside films like The Searchers and Shane to remind them exactly what the wide-open spaces of the American West once looked like.
The film's Wyoming setting isn't a coincidence: director Peter Sohn specifically wanted his frontier story to recall classic Western movies, and he filled his first feature with broad country accents and big-sky backgrounds to match. The setting deliberately dwarfs the characters, turning Arlo and his journey into a little rubbery afterthought in a vast, indifferent world. The animation in The Good Dinosaur retains all the ambition and boundary-pushing of Pixar's best films, but the story beats echo too many predecessors to feel fresh, and the script feels unfinished. There's something distractingly safe and samey about The Good Dinosaur's storyline. And Pixar at its best has never been about playing it safe.
Note: The Good Dinosaur screens with a new Pixar short, "Sanjay's Super Team," the "mostly true story" of an Indian-American boy fantasizing about the similarities between his favorite TV superheroes and his father's Hindu gods. Helmed by first-time director Sanjay Patel, a Pixar animator since A Bug's Life, it's a personal story about how he related to his father and his family's culture as a child. But it's also a fast-paced, dynamic superhero throwdown, full of Tron-worthy, bright, glowing colors and a tremendously effective sound design. It's sweet and intense, and it treads new ground in diversity for Pixar; it's everything daring and playful that The Good Dinosaur isn't. Bring on the Sanjay movie.