The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Breathtaking images can be found in “The Good Dinosaur,” directed by Peter Sohn, which is not a surprise given that is, after all, from Pixar Animation Studios. What is a surprise, however, is that it is arguably the studio’s simplest picture, especially when it comes to the plot, and yet it can also be considered to be the most daring. One can make the case that, in its core, it is a western told through a computer animated lens.

The story involves a long journey across various terrains when a young and very fearful Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Jack McGraw and later by Raymond Ochoa) regains consciousness after having been carried by the river’s violent current. His sole companion is Spot (Jack Bright), a human child, the pest that made it a habit to steal corn from the repository which sits in the middle of the farm that belongs to Arlo’s family. Without a storage full of food, Arlo’s family is likely to starve during the winter.

Like in Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava’s “Ratatouille,” clearly one of Pixar’s best projects, it is expected that these two vastly different beings find a way to bond without using words. What is new in this film, however, is that it uses the environment to directly cement a special friendship. Nature is a major character here—take away the vibrant colors, precise textures, and technical proficiency in terms of how the camera glides across landscapes, one feels a lack of adventure and urgency in the voyage. Notice how the water in the river, though animated, looks so real. Pay attention to how the blades of grass move along the wind, how rocks appear eroded, how fog hides certain places from a distance yet highlights the rainbow overhead.

The material takes its time showing the dinosaur and the human sharing a sense of wonderment. The script builds a relationship not in terms of words but through sensations. They experience curiosity together, they experience fear together, and they experience exhilaration together. Because the duo do not exchange words—at least not through standard two-way communication—the filmmakers are forced to be efficient in how the relationship develops. As a result, the movie shows rather than tells—as it should be, especially if a work is designed to entertain. Thus, complex emotions summoned during the more heart-tugging scenes come across genuine and earned.

Based on the screenplay by Meg LeFauve, “The Good Dinosaur” offers an amusing premise, is clever at times, but most enjoyable is its more subversive elements. Limbs get torn. Animals get eaten. There is safe, family-friendly entertainment and then there is daring but still family-friendly entertainment. I appreciated that it leans toward the latter.

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