It started in 2012, when — in what looked at first glance like some sort of Freaky Friday-style soul-switch gone awry — Disney and Pixar each put out the wrong movie. Pixar released Brave, a dull slog about a free-spirited princess and her mother, who gets transformed into a bear; Disney released Wreck-It Ralph, a smart, pop culture-savvy, melancholy comedy about video game villains. We all sort of scratched our heads and went on with our lives. This year, something even stranger happened: Pixar released a Pixar movie and a Disney movie. The Pixar movie was last summer’s delightful, inventive Inside Out; today, they release The Good Dinosaur, an ode to cute animals and dead parents. What gives?
At the risk of yelling at clouds, there was a time — not even all that long ago! — when the Pixar brand meant something. For a decade and a half, they rarely stumbled, and few studios in recent memory have given us a run of movies as innovative, intelligent, and moving as Pixar circa 2007-2010 (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3). Though released via the distribution banner of Walt Disney Pictures, the Pixar pictures separated themselves from their corporate overlords; even when dealing with cartoon rats and children’s toys, these films plumbed deeper emotional depths, tackled more mature subject matter, and held parents in their grasp as tightly as children.
But that run was bracketed by Cars and Cars 2, a pair of atrocities that first proved Pixar wasn’t perfect; the brand has been further compromised by the aforementioned Brave, the perfectly-fine-but-nothing-special Monsters University, and now The Good Dinosaur. The latter film’s premise, elegantly and simply laid out in the opening scene, is that the meteor that killed the dinosaurs just barely missed, giving us a Creationist Museum-friendly reality where dinos and humans roam the earth side by side, the former working farms with their families, the latter as feral “critters.”
The high concept here was apparently “dinosaur western,” with the expected twangy score, campfire chats, and Sam Elliott appearance. The focus is on Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), the runt of the family, a tiny, wide-eyed kid who’s scared of pretty much everything, and struggles to do his part for the homestead. Much is made of the importance of Arlo “making his mark” — literally, putting a muddy hoof-print on the property — with his aphorism-spouting papa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) trying to help him “get through your fear,” which backfires badly, resulting in a classic Disney Parent Death™. Arlo finds himself far from home, trying to find his way back (as in The Incredible Journey) with the help of tiny human “Spot” (Jack Bright), and they have adventures along the way, and lessons are learned, and so on.
The Good Dinosaur isn’t necessarily a bad movie — and, credit where due, it looks amazing, full of inventive compositions, gorgeous movement (a sequence of Arlo and Spot running through a flock of seagulls is a jaw-dropper), and convincing creatures. But the script is puzzlingly devoid of wit, the conflicts and character arcs are unimaginative and stale, the pacing is inexorable, and the plotting is rudimentary at best — would you believe Arlo finds himself in the exact same situation that killed his dad? Do you think he’ll rise to the occasion? Do you?
None of this will matter all that much to Good Dinosaur’s key demo — kids are gonna love it, especially dinosaur-crazy kids, and they are legion (I’ve got one, so I know that of which I speak). But as it wound around to its ponderously foregone conclusions, I found myself nostalgic for a Pixar that reliably made movies not for kids, but for families — films that parents could enjoy, rather than merely sit through.
The Good Dinosaur is out today.