The year has undoubtedly had its share of ups and downs, but 2015 will go down as a good one in at least one regard: it's the first time we've been lucky enough to get not one, but two Pixar movies. That they're both original films is doubly impressive, considering that the studio's scheduled output is almost exclusively sequels for the foreseeable future.
Though it's fair to say "The Good Dinosaur" suffers from following so closely on the heels of a genuine masterpiece like "Inside Out," if this film came from any other studio, we'd likely be praising it as among the year's best family features. But for better or worse, we tend to expect more from Pixar.
In contrast to the complex and boldly original "Inside Out," this film tells a familiar story reminiscent of a number of children's adventure tales. Mixing elements of "The Lion King," "The Land Before Time," and "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," it's the rare Pixar film that skews almost exclusively toward a younger audience, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, the simplicity of the story and its morals makes the tale feel a bit like folklore, and the emotion is beautifully handled, making it leagues better than either of the "Cars" films (still the lowpoint of Pixar's output).
A surprisingly quiet film, "The Good Dinosaur" provides a nice change from the antic quality possessed by so much entertainment aimed at children; it requires a bit of patience, possibly making it a tough sit for especially young children. The story does darken as it goes on, containing more than a few perilous moments, though they're handled in an age-appropriate manner.
Imagining a world where the massive asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs missed Earth and allowed the species to survive, "The Good Dinosaur" is set in the early days of dinosaur civilization -- something like the equivalent of America's pioneer days. The story doesn't explore this world in depth, choosing to use it as a background to the simplistic, fittingly primal coming-of-age story of a young scaredy-cat apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) who must learn to find his courage when he's separated from his family and must find his way home.
Lost and away from his farmhouse home for the first time, he's accompanied on his perilous journey by a feral human companion (Jack Bright), who begins as an enemy, but grows into a loyal friend. A fun twist on the traditional "boy and his dog" story, Arlo even names the human Spot. In this world, humans are the more primitive creatures, meaning Spot doesn't possess the capability of speech, and the pair's struggles to communicate lead to some lovely wordless moments - particularly one involving sticks in the dirt - that are genuinely moving.
The feature debut for director Peter Sohn (who continues the tradition of Pixar directors voicing scene-stealing characters in their own films; he's the critter-collecting styracosaurus), "The Good Dinosaur" had a troubled production history, with major story and cast changes on its long path to the screen. These issues are reflected in the seemingly disparate elements that the story draws upon, but in the context of the film's world, it all works.
"The Good Dinosaur" emerges as Pixar's first full-on western, complete with cattle-herding tyrannosaurs (one memorably voiced by Sam Elliott), prairie vistas, and a bluegrass and folk-tinged musical score. Arlo's journey doesn't shy away from the more upsetting aspects of the circle of life; in this world, creatures eating one another is a part of life, and it's interesting that the film's more villainous characters are consistently the ones who are sneaky and deceptive about it. But throughout the film, the real "villain" is nature, which is filled with great beauty but can also be a dangerous, unpredictable force. This is also the first kids' film I can remember that contains a "bad trip" sequence, occurring after Arlo and Spot accidentally sample some hallucinogenic fruit. But by far the film's biggest draw is its stunning, photorealistic scenery depicting the American Northwest. With its beautifully rendered mountains, rivers, and plains, the film is a clear technological step forward for the studio. There were many points where I honestly couldn't tell that what I was looking at was generated in a computer. Admittedly, the detailed scenery contrasts with the cartoonish-looking character design of the dinosaurs, and the distinction takes some getting used to.
Though "The Good Dinosaur" lacks the emotional heft of "Inside Out," it bests that film in at least one regard: the short that precedes it, "Sanjay's Super Team," is leagues better than "Lava." Exploring the differences in cultural experience between a young boy and his immigrant father - told through a flashy, stylishly animated superhero battle - the film is delightful.