An odd duck in Pixar’s filmography, The Good Dinosaur appears determined to not be a big deal, an impression that’s immediately, inescapably apparent in the character design. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the titular Apatosaurus, is animated in such a fashion as to suggest a tossed-off pencil sketch that’s been filled in with fluorescent green paint. He’s an anonymous blob with round, white, bobbly cartoon eyes, rendered with pointedly little of the painstaking detail that often abounds within even the most fleetingly glimpsed of Pixar’s creations. The other dinosaurs are similarly basic in design, sometimes amusingly so, as is the case with a T-rex (Sam Elliott) with a huge, rudimentarily square head that juts out from its neck like the front of a tractor trailer, its body trailing behind with a dainty reserve that memorably contrasts with the character’s fulsome western manliness.
The primary quality of the character animation is clearly the result of a decision that was consciously made by director Peter Sohn and the other artists who worked on The Good Dinosaur. Because Arlo’s surrounding world is built from traditionally tactile Pixar stock, which is comprised of a specific mixture of photorealism and comparatively more idiosyncratic impressionism. The film’s landscapes are often strikingly gorgeous, occasionally even lyrical. A riverbed that Arlo wakes up in is particularly dense with detail, with rocks that one feels they could reach out and grasp. It’s a flourish that intimately emphasizes Arlo’s exposure to a vast realm outside of what he knows. The great, billowing trees, the farmlands, and the fields that Arlo’s family plows with their reaching necks are also fashioned with Pixar’s painterly panache.
The contrast between the generic animals and their vivid environment highlights an unexamined subtext. The film’s premise suggests that an asteroid missed Earth 65 million years ago, allowing dinosaurs to flourish as the planet’s dominant species. Humans eventually came along, but are subservient to the dinosaurs, behaving like dogs. Which is to say that the dinosaurs of this film never properly existed, residing in an alternate world, and Pixar’s method of animating them consistently calls out this unreality, this sense of divorce from an otherwise known atmosphere, while also affirming Arlo’s gentleness and vulnerability. Surrounded by this impressive Pixar world, he’s just a goofy little dino.
The Good Dinosaur is stranger and more interesting in theory than it is in reality. The film establishes this parallel history, initially proffering a narrative that suggests a cattle-drive western with giant reptiles in place of cowboys, only to disappointingly fall back on the same story that fuels virtually all significant Disney titles: an eccentric child must learn to become an adult, mastering their issues with their parents and themselves.
At least the first act benefits from tension that Sohn isn’t willing to properly interrogate. Arlo’s father (Jeffrey Wright) tells his children they should strive to “make their mark,” before pressing a mud print onto a silo he’s built to protect their crops. Arlo’s mother (Frances McDormand) also makes a print, saying that, one day, the children can do the same. The siblings are instantly able to fulfill their chores, earning their “marks,” while Arlo’s success is routinely undone by fear. Arlo’s a pacifist, though he doesn’t know it yet.
In other words, Arlo’s parents are deliberately fostering a situation in which one of their children, obviously developing at a different pace than the others, is to feel inferior to the rest of his family. The parents are encouraging the sort of groupthink mentality that makes high school a living hell for those who aren’t immediately adept at the physical activities that command a culture’s attention at the expense of everything else. Yet Sohn portrays Arlo’s father as a good parent, as yet another Disney patriarch to whom the hero must prove everything. The conformist implication of this scenario is so ghastly as to nearly throw the viewer out of the film, yet it lends The Good Dinosaur a hint of neurotic emotional friction.
The Good Dinosaur has its poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow Arlo to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity once the domestic abuse has subsided, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to.