Across the Plains
by Jeff Reichert

The Good Dinosaur
Dir. Peter Sohn, U.S., Disney/Pixar

Many preteens whose parents brought them to theaters for the 1995 release of Toy Story are likely now contemplating taking children of their own to The Good Dinosaur. It’s enough to make one feel old. Pixar, which is now in its second decade of existence, remains amongst the most publicly and critically beloved of entertainment brands, and that persistent, jumping white desk lamp has become one of our culture’s longest-running visual signposts to worked-over, carefully made mass entertainment. Regardless of the variances in quality one might locate between say Cars or Monsters University and Wall*E or Inside Out, it’s a body of work that hangs tightly, enviably together. Pixar does many things very well, but perhaps nothing better than assembling screenplays and scenarios that can please across the four quadrants of possible audience. Their simple narratives and bold characters are easy enough for children to follow and relate to, yet they handle their material with a certain wry humor and just the right amount of remove to allow parents space to find purchase.

This formula, which perhaps reached its apotheosis earlier this year with Inside Out, has, curiously, been almost totally discarded with The Good Dinosaur. The film has been labeled by some as a straight “kids’ film,” as if this necessarily was a bad thing, and as though other Pixar films, by dint of their cleverness or world-wisdom, were defiantly something else. There is nothing in it that rivals the emotional complexity compressed into that moment in Ratatouille when critic Anton Ego’s bite into a perfectly prepared simple dish sends him back into his childhood, or in the prologue of Up where we chart the course of a perfect love story to its tragic end in just a few moments. There’s little witty banter or cultural self-awareness, none of the consumerist critiques we find in Toy Story and Wall*E. Instead, what we find in The Good Dinosaur is a plainspoken, earnestly told tale of family, featuring a guileless young hero and his trusty pet and companion. This is mostly a good thing: if there’s one complaint that could be lobbed at Pixar, it’s that its tricks are by now too machine-tooled, too expected. In comparison to its hipper brethren, The Good Dinosaur feels like a breath of fresh air. Perhaps it’s the addition of a first-time director, Peter Sohn, whose name is a new one, amidst the usual suspects of Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Lee Unkrich, though given the studio’s collaborative nature, one images a first-time director can only exert so much influence.

The film’s appeal doesn’t emerge solely in the light of comparison. Most immediately pleasing is The Good Dinosaur’s conceit: in the prologue, the asteroid that famously struck Earth and killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is bumped out of orbit, yet, instead of crashing into the blue planet, it misses, allowing the dinosaurs millions of years to evolve. Thus, when we first meet quadruped saurians Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand), they’re farmers working the land and waiting for their three eggs to hatch. They’re introduced in a wordless sequence tilling the soil with their hard heads and clearing the land by knocking trees down with their tails. The sequence accomplishes some of what one assumes Malick was up to in the oft-mocked dinosaur interaction in The Tree of Life, suggesting that human consciousness is not a unique one, and our values and drives (in Tree towards grace, in Dinosaur towards family and comfort) are not solely our own.

Soon, their three eggs hatch, and the last is the littlest: Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), awkward and spindly from birth into adolescence. While his brother Buck and sister Libby seem fully able to contribute to the farming life, Arlo can barely feed the family’s flock of overgrown prehistoric roosters for fear of the creatures. Worried about his hapless, skittish son, Poppa gives Arlo the responsibility of defending their granary and food stores from an unseen critter who’s been thieving from them. But when their trap catches a young human, Arlo can’t bring himself to crush it with a trunk and it escapes. An irate Poppa gives chase into the dangerous country off the farm, and pushes Arlo to run along, setting up a sudden, tragic death that feels straight out of The Lion King or Bambi.

An elegant fade in after a sharp cut to black reveals a gravesite at the edge of the farm. Arlo, now burdened by the guilt over his father’s death, vows not to make the same mistake. When he finds the human boy eating their food again, the young dino gives chase and the two wind up in the nearby river and are washed away. The Good Dinosaur, then, is the tale of Arlo’s quest home through unforgiving landscapes. Along the way, our hero will fall a great many times, often from great height, yell more than is probably necessary, and endure a cringe-inducing amount of bodily punishment. It’s a violent film in its way, and it’s a testament to the creatures’ rendering and the present sound design that we feel the hurt along with Arlo. As their travels continue, the human boy ends up saving Arlo time and again, eventually earning the name Spot and his new master’s affections.

The Good Dinosaur, like so many animated films, concerns a journey of self-actualization, but it’s also a classic prairie western. The central dinosaur family are reptilian cousins to the homesteaders who might have settled in Oklahoma and lived in hardscrabble isolation in the mid-nineteenth century. Across the film, characters feature accents that lead toward the cornpone. Midway through his quest, Arlo stumbles across three longhorn ranchers who are, naturally, Tyrannosaurus Rex that gallop upright through the flatlands on their two strong hind legs like centaurs. Plus, it wouldn’t be a western without a round of campfire storytelling, and Sohn doesn’t disappoint. When Pixar cribs from other films—say Toy Story’s evoking of Todd Browning’s Freaks or Monsters University’s recalling of Animal House—their references are part of a strategy for winning over adults. Sohn, with The Good Dinosaur, isn’t making references for children (and, really, at this point, adults) who’ve likely never seen a John Wayne movie; rather than comment on that canon of films, he’s trying to create a new entry in it and introduce a whole new audience to its pleasures.

In the process, he may have created Pixar’s most singularly beautiful film. The western has long been a genre noted for its visual, often widescreen grandeur, and here, computer animators have seemingly worked overtime trying to create a landscape that’s so photorealistic you could walk through it. The Good Dinosaur may a little too enamored of its own beauty at times: while shots of Arlo trudging with Spot through impossibly vast mountain vistas, endless prairies, and dense forests feel earned and narratively motivated, occasional close-ups of, say, a branch glistening with rain or an intricately rendered forest creature watching the proceedings, feel needlessly show-offy for such a “just the facts, ma’am” production. It’s hard to complain much about such ostentations when the same renderers offer up a computer-generated image of rushing water that looks good enough to drink.

The Good Dinosaur could be uncharitably seen as yet another animated film with rote, mechanized focus on the purity of home, the sanctity of family, and the power of finding a love of oneself. But I think there’s something behind the decision to place the mostly cartoony dinosaur hero in a landscape so minutely rendered and painterly. In that geography, Arlo’s quest comes to feel like something grander. He doesn’t just head home, he also learns to love the wonders of nature. He learns to try and fail and to sometimes be lucky enough to make it in a world that isn’t always friendly. He learns to risk, and to accept himself as worthy of loyalty from another. If these lessons are part of a familiar narrative arc that finds him coming out from under the long shadow cast by his father, so be it.

The Good Dinosaur nicely doesn’t belabor its finale. It’s become all too common for Pixar films to cap themselves with cute epilogues—see the five emotions working in tandem at the finale of this year’s Inside Out or the revelation of the Anton Ego–funded bistro that concludes Ratatouille. (Setting aside those in-credit “outtakes” and other such gibberish that often spoil a perfectly fine ending by introducing tonal inconstancy.) Arlo returns home, reunites with his family and the movie closes. As a Western, The Good Dinosaur may be more Bonanza than The Searchers, and as a Pixar film, it’s certainly not an emotional powerhouse like Up or Inside Out. Yet, in its own way, Sohn’s film quietly makes a statement: clean classicism and familiar tropes handled with care and respect can have timeless resonance.