Imagine a parallel universe where 65 million yeas ago, that asteroid that was supposed to hit the Earth and kill off all the dinosaurs went slightly off course and missed. Now imagine what might have happened to those surviving dinosaurs had they lived in a world created by Disney; they might evolve.
In the new Disney/Pixar computer animated adventure The Good Dinosaur, that’s exactly what happens. Like the title of that 1970 Hammer Horror When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, here the dinos do just that: they run their own farms, grow their own food, and even herd cattle, plus, of course, they talk.
It’s millions of years later after that asteroid went askew; an Apatosaurus family are tending the farm. Poppa Henry (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) ploughs the ground with his snout and plants the seeds, Momma Ida (Frances McDormand) tends to the food and the farmhouse while the three kids, Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla) and the smallest of all, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) generally help, or hinder, with farmyard chores. “If we don’t get this harvest in before the first snow,” states momma, “We won’t have enough food for the winter.” For the Apatosaurus family, it’s life as usual on the prairie.
Echoing all kinds of recognizable Disney moments while set to the caveman era, young Arlo is rescued by his father from the ever-flowing river and tossed to safety just at the moment when a torrent of water hits. Like Mufasa who can’t survive the stampede of hyenas in the gorge, Poppa Henry can’t survive the crashing wall of water, and Arlo becomes a dinosaur without a dad. Like Simba who finds his true worth and role in life by leaving the Pride then eventually returning, young, clumsy Arlo does the same, only with Arlo it’s hardly voluntary. A knock on the head by a rock and another fall into the river causes the dino to float miles away from home, unconscious.
When he wakes, he’s lost, hungry and lonely, except for the company of a pesky little human caveboy – something Arlo has presumably never seen before – who attaches himself to the young dinosaur in the way a stray canine might attach itself to its master. Arlo even names him Spot. In this parallel universe, roles are reversed. But Arlo remembers his dad’s words; not the philosophical one about getting though your fear in order to see what’s on the other side, but the one that will point Arlo back in the right direction to safety: “As long as you can find the river, you can find your way home.” And that’s what Arlo and his un-evolved but faithful companion Spot do; they follow the river.
What follows is a series of comical and often exciting episodes that evoke the spirit of a pre-historic Jungle Book; Arlo and the devoted Spot navigate their way through the terrain while encountering both friendly characters and dangerous creatures at every corner, but without the songs. Particularly effective is the episode reflecting a western where Arlo and Spot help a Tyrannosaurus trio, led by Butch (Sam Elliot), to herd prehistoric longhorns and rescue them from the hillbilly Velociraptor rustlers. When T.Rex Butch runs while rounding up the longhorns, the bottom half of his body gallops like a horse, while the top half appears to ape a cowboy holding the reins. It looks like those Monty Python knights with the coconuts, except this T.Rex can really run. The John Ford/Monument Valley vista background adds to the humor.
A problem Pixar must continually face with each new release is the constant comparison with its now considerable repertoire of features. The incredible Ratatoiulle, the Toy Story franchise, and most recently, the spectacularly inventive and oh-so human Inside Out are in a league of their own. The Good Dinosaur is not part of their world, and reviewers should be fair and note this – it’s not meant to. In the way that Brave fell back on a more conventional animated adventure, Arlo and Spot do the same. The path they take, the situations they encounter, and the lessons Arlo will finally learn are time-honored and traditional Disney fare with a ton of fun experienced along the way, but make no mistake, the animation is anything but; it’s astonishing.
Looking occasionally photo-realistic, the details of the computer generated pre-historic landscape are dazzling to the point where the water, the lake and all the surrounding mountains are virtually tangible. It’s as if the more stylized, animated appearance of the characters were incorporated onto a backdrop of real-life film, something that probably won’t register with children but older viewers might find themselves needing to adjust to the two slightly differing styles melding as one. Arlo’s design isn’t exactly a copy of Fred Flinstone’s Dino, but the overall look is certainly there.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 100 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)