In the same year they gave us Inside Out, one of their most clever and emotionally complicated films, Pixar has turned around and given us The Good Dinosaur, their simplest and most visually lush, telling a spare story that doesn’t skimp on the gorgeous design or generous feeling. What a way to show off their range! Twenty years after inventing the very idea of a computer animated film with Toy Story, the company remains on the cutting edge. The artists have been pushing water, fur, faces, cloth, and landscapes into impressively textured and convincing places, but by now we’re well aware they’re doing more than admirable demo reels. They tell stories, high-tech razzle-dazzle built on sturdy construction. Technical brilliance is always in the pipeline. But those lines of code, those digital breakthroughs, are made to live and breathe and, in doing so, move audiences of all ages. They’ve done it again. Pixar’s latest is about a little dinosaur named Arlo in a heartfelt narrative told through dazzling visuals.
Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the smallest and weakest of his siblings, who are stronger, faster, and tougher. In this cozy green apatosaurus family, his proud father (Jeffrey Wright) and mother (Frances McDormand) are encouraging, letting his brother (Marcus Scribner) and sister (Maleah Nipay-Padilla) do important chores around the farm. Poor Arlo’s too scared to even feed the chickens properly, but his parents smile gently, telling him he’ll grow into his confidence and capabilities. It’s an idyllic country life, surrounded by dramatic natural beauty: pine forests, rolling prairies, distant mountains, and a roaring river. Now, you might be asking yourself why this dinosaur family is farming. The answer is simple. The asteroid that wiped out their species never hit, allowing dinos to remain the dominant species. They’ve learned agriculture, while humans are nowhere to be seen. Well, almost nowhere. Some varmint is eating their corn, a pre-verbal feral wild child, growling and spitting, barking at them when cornered. What a pest.
It’s a fine high-concept colored in quickly and wordlessly, no fuss. We’re thrown into this pastoral world, and because Pixar’s animators are as good as anyone at characterizing their fanciful designs with warm eyes, and detailed gestures, it feels instantly real. Arlo moves his bright round head on his long stalk of a neck with a shy bobble, ashamed he’s not as helpful as the others. They’ve already made their marks, allowed to add their footprints to a silo Poppa made. Arlo’s too fearful, timid, doubtful, yet to accomplish a chore great enough to feel important. The movie’s invested in this little guy’s feelings of inadequacy, while keeping an eye on nature around him, crops growing, critters scurrying, and even a family member’s sudden death. (A bit of Bambi there.) This is treated with gravity, solemnly taken in as a sad fact of life. We see a humble grave with a wooden marker sitting off to the side of the dinos’ property, like something out of a Western. Life on the frontier is hard.
In his grief, Arlo gets careless and falls into the river, quickly swept far from his family. So there’s the story in a nutshell: lost dinosaur must find his way home. Along the way he befriends the wild child, also lost, who acts like an eager puppy, fetching, tracking, and protecting his big buddy. It’s a boy-and-his-dog, except the boy is an apatosaurus and the dog is a boy. You can guess how this Incredible Journey will develop. Also not surprising is how Pixar’s technicians are able to imbue this wordless friendship with great interior feeling, allowing the creatures to bond, play, express sympathy, and grow close. When the muddy little boy crawls next to the dinosaur, looks up at him with big wet eyes, and slowly embraces him, there’s a genuine emotional charge. Here are two vulnerable creatures – the kid is the only human in a world of massive animals, the dino has trembling legs and weak ankles – clinging to one another for comfort and safety.
Not pushy or insistent, director Peter Sohn (a longtime Pixar employee making his feature debut) and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (also a writer on Inside Out) allow a patient, episodic pace. The two characters – another of the studio’s reluctant buddy team-ups – encounter other dinosaurs: a nutty triceratops (Sohn), a sneaky pterodactyl (Steve Zahn), a t-rex (Sam Elliott), and more. Just as unpredictable as strangers are cliffs, storms, mudslides, and raging rapids. Through each new obstacle we find the pair growing closer, and the good little dinosaur adding ever more bravery to emotional toolkit. Keeping with the Western theme, the film is filled with beautiful silences and vast pretty terrain – buttes and valleys, fields and canyons. When the film looks out over a forest of gently swaying pines, the dense blue sky (arranged with software for “volumetric clouds”), or a buffalo stampede backlit by a vibrant red sunset, you’d almost think you were looking at the real thing. Add in a soft fiddle-heavy score by Jeff and Mychael Danna, and it’s all of a relaxed southwestern piece.
How many animated kids’ movies can be compared to John Ford or Budd Boetticher films’ straightforward pace, clear conflict, and wide framing? There’s also a little Old Yeller here in easy morals and the coming-of-age-through-pet-ownership and proving-yourself-a-worthy-frontiersman aspects. (Thankfully not so much rabies, though.) By taking a calm and classical approach where others would go manic and jokey, Pixar’s filmmakers once again prove their unique talents. The movie has real danger and heft. When Arlo is hit in the head with a rock, it looks like it hurts. We see his bruises purple up over the course of his journey home. But the characters also have a faintly rubbery cartoony quality that keeps it from feeling dour and frightening. It’s a cozy, energetic movie, dryly funny – a t-rex says, “If you’re pulling my leg, I’ll eat yours” – and with slapstick peril located right next to real danger. The friendship in the center is appealing and the yearning for home is strong. It’s touching and sweet, with tough uncomplicated lessons and colorful kid-friendly charm.