Twenty fifteen was the first calendar year with two Pixar releases, but that wasn’t by design, just as 2014 was not intentionally the first calendar year in ages without a new movie from Pixar. No, something had to go wrong for that to happen, and that something was The Good Dinosaur. The movie missed its scheduled release date because it had to be radically overhauled, almost to the point of a salvage job. From the final result, it appears that not much original or distinctive could be salvaged.
As is the case with most things that started as one thing and turned into something else, it shows the strains at every turn of being a hybrid creation. It’s got cute, cartoonish dinosaurs against the most photo-realistic backgrounds Pixar has ever created. It’s a dinosaur movie but it’s also a cowboy movie. (Yes, you read that right.) Would that it were also a hybrid of the conventional and the unconventional, but The Good Dinosaur is 100% pure Hollywood schmaltz.
It’s a hero’s journey, of course. That hero is, of course, the runt of his litter, this particular litter being three baby herbivores, lush green in colour. That hero is, of course, trying to impress a stern yet loving father who has certain expectations of his undersized offspring. That father is, of course, sentenced to death from the first moments of the movie, since the death of at least one parent is just about the most reliable aspect of a hero’s journey. That journey is, of course, replete with strange sights and unexpected allies, deadly adversaries and wondrous beauty. That journey also, of course, features a moment when the characters are at their low point, when the successful outcome of the journey seems least certain. That outcome, of course, is ultimately attained.
If you require more of a plot synopsis than this, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t really earn it. It is, however, useful to know that a strange decision was made – probably the one intended to salvage it from wherever it went wrong – to make this dinosaur movie a western. The titular lush-green herbivore, named Arlo, comes from a family of farmers. That’s right, they are dinosaur farmers. It makes a certain sense that they would farm, since they eat crops rather than meat, but it’s otherwise a tad confusing in the logic department. That logic comes into sharper focus when other traditional aspects of a western are introduced to the narrative, like three T-Rexes who serve the function of cowboys, who spend their time wrangling mastodons (the leader of which is voiced by Sam Elliott, the most iconic “cowboy voice” we have). There are also banditos (a role filled alternately by raptor-like creatures and pterodactyls) and more wide open vistas than you can shake a stick at.
None of it really works. Rango made sense as an animated western; The Good Dinosaur does not. This is all supposed to be explained by the fact that this is an alternate timeline, one where the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs actually missed Earth. In turn, dinosaurs had the chance to evolve, to develop traits we identify with human beings. But it still makes for an uncomfortable fit.
While watching The Good Dinosaur, you may feel your very being reaching out and trying to connect with the movie. Over the course of 15 features, most of them ground-breaking and many of them terrific, Pixar has earned its legion of loyal fans. But it would take Pixar’s most loyal to truly forgive the terminal blandness of The Good Dinosaur. After Inside Out, we expect so much more. It’s worth remembering, though, that this movie isn’t after Inside Out, or if so, only by release date. It does contain one tug-at-your-heartstrings moment that’s so reminiscent of Inside Out, you have to wonder how much The Good Dinosaur was trying to ride the hypothetical future coattails of Pixar’s other 2015 release.
It’s this movie’s relentless attempt to tug those heartstrings that is probably its biggest fault. Let’s take, for example, its desire to show us the glorious natural beauty that serves as a grace note of this otherwise harsh world. Not only are their two different scenes where a dinosaur drags his tail through a field of fireflies, inspiring them to take flight and fill the air with their twinkling luminescence, but there’s also a scene where Arlo’s human sidekick (who has gone unmentioned to this point, but is a boy named Spot who behaves like a dog) rides on his neck through the clouds. All three scenes are designed to accomplish the same goal, which is to give us chills and put a lump in our throats. But The Good Dinosaur isn’t wondrous and moving. It’s just lumpy.