Pixar movies have become an annual treat for moviegoers for a little under a decade. After a short hiatus last year and a string of less-than-memorable films, the animation powerhouse compensates by releasing two films this year: the first, Inside Out, gained much fanfare this summer, and the long-awaited The Good Dinosaur, perfectly timed for the Thanksgiving holiday, is definitely something to be thankful for.
A cautionary word: The Good Dinosaur may be be the darkest in the long history of Pixar movies. The conceit of dinosaurs sharing the same space as humans is explained as such: it turns out the famous asteroid that seemingly caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs millions of years ago…narrowly missed. As such, life went on as usual, meaning dinosaurs continued their reign and those pesky mammals – especially humans – never ascended to the top of the food chain. But never forget the natural world in which these characters exist is brutal in it’s own right. What the asteroid couldn’t accomplish, the natural world prove to be just as unpredictable.
The Good Dinosaur had a famously troubled history, which I’ll avoid talking about here. That said, the real question is whether Pixar can pull off two great films in the same year. Inside Out is an achievement that few animated films have ever reached, and is certainly this year’s best animated film. The Good Dinosaur is definitely a good film, not great, but that’s OK. It’s worlds better than Pixar’s lesser efforts like Cars 2 and Monsters University, and what Inside Out possessed in brain, The Good Dinosaur excels at heart.
The film follows Arlo, a young Apatosaurus born with a familiar disadvantage: he’s the runt of the family, lacking physical strength and bravery. He can’t seem to pull his own weight on the family farm (yes, they are actual farmers). He’s nowhere near being on par with his family as they labor to maintain the crops, racing against the coming of winter, and is crestfallen by his shortcomings. It’s only natural that Arlo find himself in a situation where he has to confront his fears. That’s how these things work!
That opportunity comes when Arlo attempts to rid a pest out of the family’s surplus silo, one that contains food for the winter. The pest, a feral human child, evades Arlo’s feeble attempts, giving chase to the raging river where both are quickly washed away. Lost and alone in the big, scary world, the two forge an unlikely bond as Arlo and Spot (the human) trek across the rugged and dangerous terrain to make it back to the family farm.
Their journey is arduous and full of both villainy and friendships, like the pterodactyl gang led by Thunderclap (voiced by Steve Zahn) or Tyrannosaurus gang led by Butch (voiced by Sam Elliot) and more. However, it’s the forces of nature that turn out to be the most malevolent. Pixar films, whether it’s Toy Story 3’s Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear or Syndrome in The Incredibles, showcased villains that were creations of humanity, yet still escapable. The antagonist here isn’t created; it doesn’t possess feelings or emotions; it’s an omnipresent massiveness, one that gives and takes without warning. Nevertheless, in The Good Dinosaur these forces can still be overcome, but often at great cost.
This doesn’t make for a particularly joyful journey, but what The Good Dinosaur lack in fun it more than compensates with lots of heart and beautiful photo-realistic animation showcasing beautiful landscapes and rugged wilderness. You really become lost in the setting of this world; it’s practically a character in itself. Nature engulfs the young Arlo and his human companion, who appears as small, almost insignificant beings in a backdrop that is both gorgeous – with sparkling rivers and lush greenery – but still a ruthless chaos of vicious winds, torrential rain, and violent floods.
While Pixar’s sixteenth film isn’t their the best, it possesses a level of compassion that makes up for it, despite its somewhat morose tone. Pixar continues to craft films that document the decay of the compassionate individual, for better or worse. It’s through cars, robots, toys, and now dinosaurs where they find the deepest of emotions that have slipped from the grips of humanity. The Good Dinosaur is a reminder these precious things don’t go away, but sometimes need a gentle push to rediscover them.
The power of The Good Dinosaur lies in Pixar’s ability to create characters the audience can connect with, no matter the proxy. They have an immutable ability to speak in universal emotions at their basest and rawest, speaking volumes. Arlo the Apatosaurus is no exception. Stripped down, he’s still a child, and we feel his pain and disappointment in himself on his journey to prove his purpose in the world.
The Good Dinosaur is never short of excitement and emotions, and it’ll get you right where it needs to. This one is high on emotion and grit, and while Arlo doesn’t make the most fun protagonist, his journey for self-worth will be entirely familiar to anyone who’s ever felt alone in the world. Younger viewers will love his feral human companion, Spot, so there’s always that. With its outstanding animation and characters, here is a film that proves the power of Pixar isn’t anywhere close to fading, and that’s something to be thankful for.