One of the reasons Pixar is the leading animation studio in Hollywood lies in their dedication to making sure that the quality of the stories matches their groundbreaking technical achievements. For example, Wall-E is my favorite film of the last decade, and that's largely because of many years of rigorous story development that excised every ounce of fat from the project.
The Good Dinosaur marks the first time Pixar released two films in the same year, but this wasn't the original plan. The story of a dinosaur and his pet human boy trying to get back home while battling the harsh forces of nature was supposed to be released two years ago, and it would have been if any other studio made it. It's not like the powers that be at Pixar claim that the 2013 version of The Good Dinosaur was terrible, they just thought it wasn't up to their standards of excellence.
So the story was retooled, the director and the voice actors were replaced, and more work was done on the film until Pixar was completely satisfied with the finished product. And once again, the studio's dedication to perfection pays off, as we get a gorgeous looking, emotionally captivating, and rousing adventure that's as dedicated to its story themes as it is to exciting set pieces.
The Good Dinosaur imagines a world where the infamous asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs missed Earth. Millions of years later, the dinosaurs are still the dominant species on Earth, and are evolved enough to perform basic farming and herding skills, as well as the rudimentary ability to build small houses. I loved that Pixar didn't take the easy route to have the audience identify with the dinosaurs by showing them using 21st Century technology. By finding a middle ground between human technology and the free-roaming dinosaurs we're used to seeing, Pixar manages to create a unique and fascinating world for the story.
One of the farmer dinosaurs is Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the smallest offspring of a family of Apatosauruses. Arlo suffers from a crippling fear of the unknown, and that handicap is keeping him from "putting his mark", a ritual that's supposed to represent a dinosaur's first step into adulthood, where a dinosaur smears his or her paw with mud and stamps a paw print on a stone. Frustrated with Arlo's fear, his father (Jeffrey Wright) tasks him with catching and killing a critter that's been stealing the family's food. The critter turns out to be Spot (Jack Bright), a ferocious human child whose attitude is a mix between a Neanderthal and a dog. Since Arlo's fear and compassion could make him a distant cousin to How To Train Your Dragon's Hiccup, he can't find it in himself to kill the boy, which result in a series of tragic events that end with him and Spot getting lost in the unforgiving wilderness, miles away from home. The rest of the story is basically a combination of the classic hero's journey and sort of a forced walkabout, as Arlo and Spot struggle to find their way back home.
The plot beats are predictable, but the Pixar story team and screenwriter Meg LeFauve manage to insert a fresh angle into the tale by internalizing the conflict as much as possible, and making the arc of the story mostly about Arlo overcoming his fear while taking his first steps into adulthood. Incidentally, both films released by Pixar in 2015, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, deal with the theme of finding the perfect balance within an emotion in order to master it.
In Inside Out, as much as Joy wanted to eliminate Sadness altogether, she eventually came to the realization that a certain amount of sadness is necessary for people to feel happy in the first place. In The Good Dinosaur, Arlo gradually begins to realize that in order to conquer his fear, he needs to acknowledge its existence in the first place. What The Good Dinosaur says about what it truly means to be an adult is more insightful and honest than a lot of adult-oriented live action dramas.
At first, the animation style that mixes extremely photorealistic backgrounds with very expressive, borderline cartoonish character design might be jarring, but the visual approach pays off as the sympathetic design allows us to identify with the characters that much more. 2000's Disney animated feature Dinosaur tried to use more realistic-looking dinosaurs that talked and acted human in front of real backgrounds, but that approach made it harder for the audience to relate to the characters and the story. Here, Pixar finds a nice balance between realism and traditional CG animation.
Arlo and Spot's adventure moves along at a brisk pace, and Pixar knows how to move on when a character or story beat has served its purpose. For example, another studio (Cough, Blue Sky Animation, cough) would have milked a hilariously absurd Triceratops character, who keeps critters on his horns for emotional support, in order to turn him into a cute mascot for kids to spend their parents' sweet cash on related merchandising. But in The Good Dinosaur, the character serves his purpose, and never appears again. This is an emotionally engaging film, so get ready to feel all the feels, as kids say today. Just when we were getting over Bing Bong, Pixar hits us with the scene where Arlo and Spot describe their families to each other. Bring a Costco box of tissues for this one.
The Good Dinosaur is much better than its premise or synopsis suggests. It weaves a beautiful, funny, and exciting adventure out of the most basic of raw story materials. It's the best family film of the year, and one of the best films of 2015.