In reading reviews of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” I’ve noticed a lot of critics making fun of the film’s title. Some are calling it “The Bad Dinosaur.” Most recognize that it deserves better and call it “The Mediocre Dinosaur” or something middling like that. I think that “The Good Dinosaur” is accurate enough, though given the heights reached by other films in the Pixar canon, it’s a little disappointing that I can’t bring myself to call it “The Great Dinosaur.”
The stretch of a premise is that the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth, so dinosaurs are still thriving here at the dawn of Man. Along the way, dinosaurs taught themselves how to develop tools, farm, and speak English. Young Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is an adorable Apatosaurus who wants to help out and “make his mark” on his family’s farm. The problem is that he’s afraid of creatures not a hundredth of his size, like chickens and human children. But his stern father (Jeffrey Wright) insists that he contribute by dealing with these pesky critters. A human hunt turns into a family tragedy (this is still a Disney/Pixar film, after all) and Arlo swears revenge on the tyke indirectly responsible. He aggressively yet fearfully chases the child into the wilderness and ends up in danger. Wouldn’t you know it, the kid rescues him. Arlo needs to survive for a while and ultimately get home, and he needs the help of his friendly mortal enemy to do it.
The film is a “mismatched pair on a journey” story, with the twist being that the pair is a talking dinosaur and a non-talking human. The human is at a very early stage in his evolution, so much that he basically acts like a dog. He’s even given the name “Spot” by Arlo. Arlo and Spot have all the typical wilderness adventures, from finding food to bonding over lost family (an impressive scene sees them illustrating their families with sticks) to fighting off predators. Along the way, they meet some colorful characters, including a horned beast with an ineffective team of small woodland creatures at his disposal (the character is interesting, but it’s clear that the script has no use for him), a team of villainous pterodactyls (the otherwise-heroic Arlo frankly loses some of my respect over something he does to their leader), and a family of T-Rex cowboys. Yes, cowboys. This has not been marketed as a cowboy movie, but for a while it really turns into one.
The cowboy stuff is something of an awkward fit, though Sam Elliot as the family’s patriarch is one of the film’s highlights, and it’s one of the few times the film actually tries something unique. Otherwise it’s a pretty standard adventure movie where the main character has to overcome fear and prejudice in order to survive. It’s like the writers thought that if they made their main character a talking dinosaur with a pet human, we wouldn’t notice that this is a story that’s been done many times before. Then again, the target audience for this movie is kids, so maybe they haven’t seen this story enough times to be sick of it. Still, this is not one of those Pixar movies with a lot of multigenerational appeal.
I wish the best for “The Good Dinosaur,” I really do. The animation, especially the scenery, is beautiful; and there are enough funny and touching moments that it certainly qualifies as a “good” movie. I’ve seen trailers for the other kids’ movies that are coming up this holiday season, and I feel pretty safe saying that this will be by far the least painful. This isn’t one of Pixar’s better movies, but Pixar has never made a bad movie, and this one does not break its streak of overall competence.
“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements. Its running time is 100 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006.