'The Good Dinosaur' delivers heartwarming buddy comedy, despite narrative flaws

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pixar

“The Good Dinosaur,” Pixar’s second film of the year following the critically acclaimed “Inside Out,” decides to play it safe rather than innovate. Director Peter Sohn settles for a familiar tale of a fearful, young child finding his bravery, but still manages to find great emotional value through fun, but flawed characters. With the help of some of Pixar’s best animation, “Dinosaur” manages to outgrow a well-examined story, but just barely.

In an alternate reality where dinosaurs weren’t destroyed by a gigantic meteor, the creatures have evolved to a point where they are intelligent enough to manage farms and range cattle. Young Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the runt of his family, is a timid klutz who fears that he will never make his mark as an important contributor to his father’s farm. However, when he gets lost, he finds Spot (Jack Bright), a young caveboy who acts more like a dog than a human. Determined to find his way back home, Arlo comes across a variety of other dinosaurs as he learns to conquer his fears.

The biggest highlight of “The Good Dinosaur” is undoubtedly its animation, which is some of Pixar’s best to date. The diverse locations that Arlo and Spot trek through — from lush forests to great plains filled with prehistoric buffalo — are beautifully detailed. The character animation is also some of Pixar’s best, making the designs of the dinosaurs really pop.

The story is where “The Good Dinosaur” begins to falter. Pixar doesn’t really add any new spin to the familiar setup of a scared child having to find inner courage to make it back home. It’s pretty easy to predict several major plot points. It essentially becomes a chore to root for Arlo, who comes off as severely annoying because his intense fear of practically anything that has a pulse. It isn’t until midway through the film when his character begins to undergo a much needed change. However, his sidekick Spot, a Tarzan-esque feral child who only communicates through growls, steals the show. His fearlessness and ingenuity make him far more interesting than Arlo. The bond the duo create is believable, and makes more some great slapstick and loads of fun visual humor.

There are a number of interesting side characters who Arlo comes across, but their limited screen time keeps them from becoming memorable entries in Pixar’s vast canon. A giant, horned dino voiced by Sohn gets some hilarious lines, but he’s only in the film for a couple of minutes. Likewise, a family of T-Rex cowboys headed by Sam Elliot are also delightfully fun, but short-lived. Unfortunately, the side characters that get the most focus are a group of pterodactyls who serve as flimsy antagonists. Their inclusion feels forced in a story that doesn’t really need any “scary” dinosaur villains . 

Although mixing dinosaurs with the Wild West is a fun idea, it’s disappointing that the world Sohn builds feels empty compared to those in other Pixar films. “Finding Nemo,” for example, featured hundreds of fish traversing the ocean, creating an ecosystem blossoming with life. The diverse locations in “The Good Dinosaur” are gorgeous, but there only seems to be a handful of creatures that thrive in them. 

“The Good Dinosaur” presents several good ideas to play with but stumbles with the delivery by playing it safe with a retreaded story. Opportunities for fun, memorable characters slip through Sohn’s fingers. The film’s saving grace remains its spectacular animation and a strong, emotional core between the two leads. With these elements, “The Good Dinosaur” isn’t a failure, but it lacks the ingenuity that Pixar usually offers.

The Good Dinosaur

  • Director: Peter Sohn
  • Runtime: 100 minutes
  • Rating: 3.5/5 stars