In June, I began a feature on "Inside Out" thusly: "Everything we need to know, we learned from Pixar." That movie, one of the year's best, taught us that humans cannot understand joy if they don't also experience occasional sadness. It was a profound nugget of wisdom that led to one of Pixar's most lucrative films yet. Fast-forward six months: For the first time since the studio began making features in 1995, Pixar boasts two releases in the same year. Following up the beloved "Inside Out" isn't easy, but it's even more unfortunate that the movie to carry that burden is "The Good Dinosaur," which doesn't feel like a Pixar product at all.
What we've come to love about Pixar's storytelling, and the reason I began my "Inside Out" piece with the aforementioned sentiment, is its world-building. Cars and toys and fish talk when we aren't paying attention, monsters are friendly thespians, an aspirational rat is responsible for a French restaurant's best dishes and a cross-generational exploration can yield the most surprising discoveries. If the universe in "Inside Out" introduces the anthropomorphic emotions stationed in an 11-year-old girl's head, what revisionist landscape does "The Good Dinosaur" posit? Well, not much.
"The Good Dinosaur" is built on solid ground. It redrafts history by showing the asteroid that supposedly annihilated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago bypassing Earth. In this turnabout, the Jurassic era marched safely forward. When the movie picks up millions of years after that, a family of dino farmers lives on a vast plantation where two of the three children adapt to agrarian life quite well. The youngest, Arlo, is our main character. A small, fearful 11-year-old who struggles to match his siblings' dexterity, Arlo is tasked with guarding the family's crops after his father dies in a flood. When he is knocked unconscious far from home while chasing a caveboy he catches stealing corn, Arlo must find his way back to his mother's warm embrace. The wide-eyed, non-verbal little cave orphan is actually kind of sweet, so with him in tow, Arlo's journey becomes a Western -- a rather quiet one that plies vast terrain.
There's promise in that premise, but the movie doesn't live up to it. Instead of introducing a dinosaur society to navigate or a series of clever creatures to encounter, "The Good Dinosaur" simply traces Arlo's rather un-fantastical trek home. After the inciting incident, a deus ex machina sets Arlo on the proper course -- in this case, a trio of Tyrannosauruses who help him evade ravenous Pterodactyls and then disappear from the film -- before a series of typical obstacles interrupts his pilgrimage.
If, say, Fox or DreamWorks had made "The Good Dinosaur," it might seem like one of the year's more thoughtful animated releases (no offense, "Minions"). It has a lesson at the center -- overcome fear and you'll "make your mark" -- and a devotion to capturing the mystifying beauty of nature, but it lacks the story elements for which Pixar is known. Even for a studio that has defined itself so singularly over the course of two decades, not everything can be "Toy Story" or "Finding Nemo" -- and, for that matter, it's unfair to say Pixar can't do something "different." But "The Good Dinosaur," which relies on the characters' doe-eyed expressions for humor, betrays the dynamic "wow, imagine that!" essence of the studio's fare. Arlo must travel far, so the villains are fleeting (no Hopper or Lotso here) and any surrounding society is never seen (I didn't think we'd miss the Axiom this much). No matter how gorgeous the mountainous landscapes may be, the story is flat and simplistic -- everything Pixar isn't.
We may never know the full truth of where "The Good Dinosaur" fell short. Originally slated for 2013 and quickly delayed to 2014, the project fell victim to development hell when Pixar removed director Bob Peterson, citing trouble with the story's third act. On the surface, that's not as controversial as it may sound, considering "Toy Story 2," "Ratatouille," "Cars 2" and "Brave" all switched directors midcourse, too. But as John Lasseter and other studio honchos stepped in to make revisions, the movie was delayed again to November 2015, resulting in company layoffs and making 2014 Pixar's first year without a new release. Peter Sohn, a frequent Pixar story artist, took over the director's chair in October 2014. Much of the original cast -- including John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris, Bill Hader and Judy Greer -- was replaced along the way, and "Inside Out" scribe Meg LeFauve walked away with the screenplay credit.
Would "The Good Dinosaur" have lived up to its Pixar imprint had the development process been more seamless? It's hard to tell, especially because the bones of the story as they now exist mirror the way Lasseter described the film in 2012. But even the shallow, noisy "Cars 2," the studio's categorical worst movie to date, at least feels at home in the Pixar canon. It doesn't have much to say, but it expands upon a world novel enough to draw attention. As a narrative, "The Good Dinosaur" feels aimless. Where do other dinosaurs live? How does this revisionist panorama work, even? Pixar's settings manage to establish political vistas, which gives their world-building a uniqueness that appeals to an array of audiences. We see ourselves in them, or at least we'd like to. "The Good Dinosaur" is entertaining enough, but its surprising lack of wit and limited perspectives make it feel like a stranger in the familiar land that is Pixar.
"The Good Dinosaur" is by no means bad. Far more middling animated features open every year, and as The Atlantic's Christopher Orr suggests, perhaps it's just Pixar's first movie meant exclusively for kids. But even if munchkins delight in it, the film probably won't leave them with the same fascination we've come to expect. At least adults can look forward to a bizarre scene where Arlo and his caveboy pal enjoy a miniature acid trip after eating hallucinogenic fruit. That's about as inventive as these good dinos get.
"The Good Dinosaur" is now in theaters. Read about its many Easter eggs here.
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