The latest Pixar animated film hit me harder than expected, though I suspect it might be just me. My wife recently gave birth to our first child, a beautiful girl who was born two months early, a “preemie.” I divulge this information because of how an early scene in “The Good Dinosaur” affected me. We see three brontosaurus eggs hatching, the first two revealing rambunctious newborns. The third egg busts open and appears empty. We lean in on the egg and see that a tiny little wide eyed baby is inside, fearful of fully emerging. I started to weep.
The little newborn brontosaurus, named Arlo, goes on a journey in which he must overcome his ongoing fears and fend for himself. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Spot, a human boy who is more beast-like and less articulate than Arlo.
Becoming a new father will do that to you, though this from Pixar, a studio known to blend cutting edge animation with especially heartfelt (and occasionally devastating) storytelling. Another scene that just about wrecked me occurs when Arlo and Spot wordlessly express to one another how many of their family members have died. The gentle way the two express their grief and heartache is a gem of a character bit; these movies may be composed of code, CGI imagery and digital sleight of hand but there’s genuine soul and feeling within the pixels.
My plot description might make this sound like a CGI remake of “The Land Before Time” but the result is far less conventional than that. This is an odd hybrid of dinosaur adventure and an honest to goodness western. The characters all speak like frontier figures. This is a world where dinosaurs are farmers, speak English and build homes, while the few humans on hand walk on all fours and act like dogs. The dino-western angle didn’t draw me in at first, until a gorgeous shot at the midpoint: the silhouette of buffalos and dinosaurs against a gorgeous sunset, signifying a perfect union of two very different genres.
The cowboy dinosaur angle isn’t the only study in contrasts at hand, as the look of the film is also unique. While the landscapes are photo-realistic and gorgeously rendered, the dinosaurs themselves have a cartoonish, toy-like appearance. Sometimes this works fine, while other moments make the lead characters resemble wet stuffed animals.
Of all the voice actors, Steve Zahn’s work as Thunderclap will stay with me, and it’s hard to resist Sam Elliot as a T-Rex with a cowboy twang. Jeffrey Wright voices Arlo’s father and the character is an irritating, walking cliche, though he thankfully exits after the first act.
When you think about it, the final moment isn’t necessary and the film should have ended with the breathtaking overhead shot before it. There are traditional qualities to this tale of self-actualization and bits of “Bambi,” “The Lion King” and “The Odyssey,” but the constant clash of mood makes this uneven. Unlike masterpieces like “Monster’s Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” this one takes calculated risks (like a hallucination scene that is bold but doesn’t work) that doesn’t always pay off.
Tonally, it’s all over the place, alternating between moments that are cute and funny, then switching abruptly to intense and occasionally harrowing moments. As with most other Pixar works, this is way too scary for young children.
I liked the film very much, suspect future viewings will only enhance my appreciation of the more offbeat qualities and was emotionally engaged with little Arlo from start to finish. While this isn’t one of the definitive works from Pixar, it’s adorable, funny and, at times, quietly powerful. Childhood can be a character-building endurance test, even for a dinosaur.