Does “The Good Dinosaur” live up to its name?

I missed seeing The Good Dinosaur in theaters. That’s actually really odd; I love Pixar, dinosaurs, dinosaur movies, and was intrigued by the trailer, so this would seem to be right up my alley. In fact, my only reservation was that it might be a Land Before Time retread. I only caught it through a library loan, so I was really curious to see if it would live up to the “meh” response I understood it initially received.

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Spot and Arlo communicate with sticks in The Good Dinosaur.

Millions of years ago, the asteroid that triggered the K/T Extinction event…never happened, letting the dinosaurs live and take our place as the dominate sentient species on the plant. Fast-forward some-millions of years (we’re never exactly told when the main story takes place in relation to the real-life present day), and we’re introduced to our protagonist, a fearful Apatosaur child named Arlo. His fears make it hard for him to even the simplest tasks on the family farm. His parents are sure that he can grow out of it, but Arlo himself doubts that. 

But Arlo will have to learn to rise to the occasion when he gets accidentally swept away by the river and deposited miles away. With a cave boy called “Spot” — who, like all humans in this world, is very much like a dog — along for the ride, Arlo’s journey home will involve facing the dangers of nature and a variety of strange characters, from a neurotic Styracosaurus, pterodactyls who’ve developed a “re-elevation” on life, even T. Rexes who ranch long horns.

So, is The Good Dinosaur…well, good? This movie had a really troubled production, so, it’s really amazing that it got finished in the first place, although the effects of the false starts can be seen in the final product. Say what you will about the movie, though, but it more than lives up to Pixar’s reputation as the masters of CGI. It’s a beautifully animated film.

As wonderful as the animation is, though, if you’re looking for a fast-paced movie, this it’s not the droid you’re looking for. It patently takes its time setting up Arlo’s struggles with fear and his life on the farm before he gets lost. From there, the movie is a series of vignettes of the things Arlo encounters on his journey.

The first major one of note is a Styracosaur (voiced in a hilarious cameo by director Peter Sohn), who collects stuff. The Styracosaur’s explanation for the mammal with the underbite that he keeps may be the funniest gag in the whole movie. The gag with the bird that closes the vignette is also great, although it’s the kind of joke that’s funny in spite of, not because of, the fact that it doesn’t make any sense.

There are two firefly scenes that are completely magical and show off just how good Pixar is at their craft. There’s also a touching scene where Arlo and Spot use sticks and sand to communicate about their families that is as good, if not better, than anything Pixar has made before.

The film’s highlight is without a doubt the T. Rex ranchers that Arlo and Spot meet and wind up helping retrieve their herd of long-horned bison. The rexes have some spirited performances by their voice actors and the side quest to save the long horns from a batch of raptors injects some much needed fun into the mix.

On the other hand, the movie’s vignettes feel just like that, vignettes. Much like the Disney classic Alice in Wonderland, there’s minimal story to tie them together (although some effort is made with Arlo’s quest to find his way home and to overcome his fears). Movies like this depend on these parts being strong to hold the movie up, and a lot of these aren’t quite up to scratch or seem like throwaways to pad out the film.

For example, there’s a fermented fruit scene that seems to be taking inspiration from Dumbo’s wonderful “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene. However, The Good Dinosaur’s take is not only too brief and simplistic to do such a sequence justice, but it has really no plot relevance. A groundhog scene, despite the clever visual humor, also suffers from the same problem.

The vignettes also vary in tone considerably. Some are fun, like the aforementioned Styracosaur scene, while others evoke strong emotion and atmosphere, like the brief scene were Arlo gets his leg trapped beneath a boulder and a later one involving a thunderstorm. Now, that’s all good, but sometimes they shift at a drop of a hat. For example, the first pterodactyl scene shifts from mystery, to humor, to triumph, to black comedy, and then to horror, with no transition and little rhyme or reason before an abrupt ending for the next scene. The whiplashes makes it very hard to process the story.

Finally, the movie doesn’t quite stick its ending. All the important stuff happened and is resolved, and then the movie just ends. No coda, no easing out of it, no nothing. I was left wanting something to offer more emotional closure than we got.

The Good Dinosaur is definitely one of those movies were the journey is more important than the destination, and for every scene that seems out of place or goes on too long, there’s another that shows why Pixar is the best at what they do.The Good Dinosaur, in many ways, feels more like an experience than a film, and like most experiences, there’s the good, the bad, and the weird all jumbled together in a way that even raises the question if some sections are actually in multiple categories.

I feel like I’m damning the movie with faint praise, but it really defies quantification. It took me weeks to get my thoughts organized and I’m still not sure exactly what I think of it. The movie is equal parts brilliant inspiration and uninspired predictability, with some of the best and worst scenes in Pixar’s total filmography.

So, would I recommend seeing it? I’m cautiously recommending it; there is some good stuff in it that I think is worth the experience. What about you? Did it leave its mark on you, or would you willingly trade it for a harmonica? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Extra notes:

– Director Peter Sohn also directed the Pixar short “Partly Cloudy” (available on the Up and Pixar Shorts Volume 2 DVD/Blu-Ray releases). The Good Dinosaur’s original director was Bob Peterson, another Pixar employee best known for playing Roz in the Monsters, Inc. movies and Dug in Up.

– John Ratzenberger has his typical Pixar cameo in the movie. He plays Earl, the last and most deranged raptor rustler in the long horn scene.

– The raptor rustlers are actually a lot closer in size to real Velociraptor than the ones in the Jurassic Park franchise, which, for various reasons, are the size of the larger Deinonychus raptor. The feathers are also ostensibly more accurate to real life than the scaly nudist dinosaurs we’ve known for years.

The Good Dinosaur DVD/BluRay also includes the traditional theatrical Pixar short, in this case Sanjay’s Super Team, a semi-autobiographical work by it’s director, Sanjay Patel. Much like the movie it was released with, it has beautiful animation, but is an extremely strange piece and I can’t really say if I like it or hate it, since I don’t really understand it.

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