Stunning Visuals Hold ‘The Good Dinosaur’ Together

The film posits that the dinosaurs would pretty much take the same path to civilization that humans did, just millions of years earlier.

The Good Dinosaur begins sixty-five million years in the past, with the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs just narrowly missing the Earth. The story picks up millions of years later, with an Apatosaurus family building a farm out on the frontier. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the youngest and smallest of his three siblings, and though he’s eager to prove his worth, he struggles to keep up with the rest of his family. Then, shortly after his first encounter with tragedy, Arlo falls into a river and washes up somewhere far away from his home. He goes on a long journey heading back, and finds an unlikely companion in a feral Neanderthal boy.

The Good Dinosaur is a film filled with strange details. It sort of builds itself around the question of what would have happened if the dinosaurs didn’t die out. Its answer is surprising: not much, really. The film posits that the dinosaurs would pretty much take the same path to civilization that humans did, just millions of years earlier. It then goes into a plot that feels cobbled together from familiar bits and pieces of other stories: a little Lion King here, a little Jungle Book there, and surprising dashes of frontier Western all throughout.

And in spite of that, the movie still manages to be thoroughly watchable, and at times dramatically resonant. It forces in some of the emotional content, but the visual storytelling is at a level where it hardly even matters. It also helps that this might be the best-looking Pixar film yet. The movie is constantly elevating the material, turning familiar, simple story beats into visual magic, producing scene after scene of jaw-dropping animation made all the more remarkable by the occasional touch of outright weirdness.

The film’s tumultuous journey in development is felt in the narrative. The film was delayed for a year and a half for retooling, a new director coming in at some point in the production. The story just doesn’t hold together as well as one might expect. It’s all a little loose, and ultimately a little thin. The plot ends up relying a bit too much on rote lessons and familiar beats. But the looseness also gives this film a distinct personality. It is quieter than most animated pictures, and a little stranger. It exhibits its creativity in singular bursts of visual splendor, in scenes that do little to move the plot forward.

And so the film manages to be moving outside of the normal dramatic paradigm. The animation takes the fore as the movie puts together scenes that convey emotion often without the benefit of words. This film is astounding to look at. It’s a little strange that the characters are designed to look cartoony, given that the world they inhabit is completely photorealistic. But it’s all still terribly impressive, and it is ultimately what makes the film affecting. The animation ably conveys the beauty and the cruelty of nature, and the bits of weirdness that give this film its bursts of joy.

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Taken individually, the component parts of The Good Dinosaur shouldn’t work. But the visuals manage to keep the film together somehow. From start to finish, the film is just outright gorgeous. The film imagines a version of nature that might actually be more spectacular than nature itself. And within this context, the film is able to evoke emotions that the script fails to convey. In the end, The Good Dinosaur probably won’t be remembered as one of the classics of the Pixar canon. But it’s hard to dismiss its compelling weirdness, and the breadth of its technical achievement.

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The Good Dinosaur
Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family
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3.9/5
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