The Good Dinosaur just might be the best Pixar movie that they’ve ever made. The weight of that statement is huge, but it’s a struggle to even come up with how else to describe what I saw last night. It’s becoming clear that Pixar are the Michelangelo’s of strumming your heartstrings. However, it certainly feels like we need a new word to describe the mix of emotions The Good Dinosaur stirs up.
Pixar’s sixteenth film is, quietly, a breathtaking mixture of an animal adventure (just like Dumbo and The Lion King) and survival story (think Shane) where morality plays as big a role in the film as the dinosaurs in it. The Good Dinosaur made me think about how fragile life can be, while also marveling at the wonder of it all (maybe because I have a son, and will soon be welcoming a second in January). This mixture of sentiment and existential depth builds a wonderfully serene atmosphere.
The idea behind The Good Dinosaur is hashed out in a very effective opening sequence. We learn that what (allegedly) wiped out the dinosaurs missed the planet. As a result, dinosaurs have remained Earth’s dominant life-forms. They’ve learned how to talk, build simple structures, and take care of other animals. It opens on a family of Apatosaurus living on a homestead (much like a western) in the shadow of the Claw Tooth Mountains – a jagged collection of mountains that look so realistic (we will get into that a little later) that it looks like that Grand Tetons from the aforementioned Shane.
Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus (voiced by Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright) are teaching all three of their children how to work on the homestead, but Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is too timid to even feed the chickens, let alone work around the homestead. Poppa apatosaurs comes up with a “great” idea and makes Arlo the person responsible for finding out which wilderness creature (humans) are raiding their corn storage in the night. Predictably, this goes horribly wrong, so Poppa takes Arlo down the river to track down these pesky winderness creatures and show him how it’s done. This is again a short-lived endeavor. Dramatically, in a flash flood, the pair are separated (note to parents: this is a pretty intense scene even for the adults in the audience). At Arlo’s lowest moment and getting home seems impossible, a friend shows up: his name is Spot, he’s the boy that was initial cause for all of these problems. Spot seems to feel remorse for Arlo and decides to tag along with him trying to help where he can. It’s a classic boy-and-his-dog story except the dog is a cave-boy and the boy is a 20 ft apatosaur.
One of the things that immediately strikes you about The Good Dinosaur is just the unusual visual style. It blends some of the most flamboyant cartoon characters to date with some breathtakingly realistic, mind-blowing, detailed backdrops. First time director Peter Sohn resorted to using more classical pans and tilts that allowed the landscape to shine on screen. There are shots of raindrops bouncing off leaves and clouds curving around mountains that look like real-world documentary footage.
It’s worth noting that The Good Dinosaur is only the fifth Pixar film to be rated PG, and its storms and mudslides are certainly enough to warrant it. Even some of the good guys can be intense as well. For example, Butch, an elderly grizzled Tyrannosaur rancher voiced by Sam Elliot, talks Arlo and Spot into helping him and his clan chase off some Velociraptor cattle-rustlers.
The theme of The Good Dinosaur is making your mark. Pixar certainly has made its mark as The Good Dinosaur is the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made. With such a powerful message, such amazing visuals, and a tremendous story- it’s is destined to be a Pixar classic. You will be hard pressed to find a better film to see over this holiday weekend.