Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is a “boy and his dog in the Old West” movie, except that the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy. As a result, it lands squarely with Brave and Monsters University in the studio’s output as a well-done but very conventional movie, suffering only in comparison to the highly unconventional fare that we’ve come to expect. It is a much more enjoyable movie than some of the more negative reviews might lead one to expect and (like the overly-maligned Cars) it is a movie that embodies its own theme that the journey is more important than the destination. However, the The Good Dinosaur is ultimately another example of a Pixar movie whose unusual surface trappings can’t fully compensate for the overly-familiar territory it travels.
Like most of the movie, the opening moments of The Good Dinosaur unfold without dialogue, revealing that the film’s alternate history where the dinosaurs remained the dominant species on Earth, evolving into higher life forms over millions of years. Young Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is an apatosaurus whose family farms the land, but his naturally fearful nature often makes him as much hindrance as help. When Arlo gives chase to a small human boy (brought to grunting, hooting life by Jack Bright) who has been stealing the farm’s food stockpile, both he and the boy are suddenly swept downstream by the river running alongside Arlo’s home, ending up so far away that Arlo can’t see the distinctive mountain structure that has always been his navigational beacon. The bulk of the movie centers on the pair’s odd partnership as they make their way back to Arlo’s farm, navigating natural obstacles and those presented by other dinosaurs.
Like Cars, The Good Dinosaur is a movie where the pleasures come from the journey, not the destination. It is a series of vignettes whose only real common element is Arlo and the boy (who Arlo names Spot). Their initial antagonism and misunderstandings give way to a deep and abiding friendship, which lets Arlo find the courage to face his fears and grow as a character. It’s all done quite well, with the surprises coming from incident rather than from concept. It’s a surprise when a set of pterodactyls (whose leader is voiced by an extremely amusing Steve Zahn) are not what they seem, but it’s not a surprise that Arlo needs to learn a lesson in misplaced trust and looking deeper than surface appearances. The movie pulls off a number of genuinely surprising plot twists, gathering much emotional power by the end, and the overarching themes of family laced through all of Arlo and Spot’s encounters culminate nicely to the movie’s unexpectedly touching conclusion. Even so, it’s impossible to shake the sense that the film is a little too familiar despite its fantastic trappings, in the same way that Monsters University was disappointing for feeling a bit too much like a conventional college movie that happened to have monsters in it.
The Good Dinosaur can certainly claim extraordinary technical accomplishment. It is an absolutely beautiful movie where the landscape and the scenery plays as much of a role as any of the speaking characters. Ironically, it is easy to miss exactly how well constructed the world is exactly because it looks so natural. That same skill is also on display in the much more stylized renderings of the dinosaurs, who are more cartoony and less realistic than the landscape they inhabit. Again, that skill makes it easy to miss the way that long stretches of the movie unfold without dialogue, and how extraordinarily well these wordless passages can still communicate important plot points and deep feelings. It’s the same trick that Pixar has pulled since the first Toy Story movie, making all the prodigious amounts of technology and technique and artistry vanish in service of the story. You spend five minutes gawking at the pretty pictures, and the remainder of the film completely caught up in Arlo and Spot’s adventures.
The Good Dinosaur looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray, with the high-definition video bringing out the richness in the images and the DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio soundtrack re-creating all the details in the soundscape with crystal clarity. The excellence in presentation also extends to “Sanjay’s Super Team,” the delightful short film that accompanied the feature in theaters and which is very demonstrates how immigrant culture evolves into American culture, and how American culture can be enriched by the immigrant viewpoint. Even though this is only a one-disc set, there are a substantial number of bonus features provided, anchored by the feature-length commentary track led by director Peter Sohn, who is joined by story supervisor Kelsey Mann, supervising animator Mike Venturini, visual design Sharon Calahan, and supervising tech director Sanjay Bakshi. The track is very informative, tending to focus a bit more on technical aspects and the film’s journey to screen. I definitely appreciated the way Mr. Sohn’s would stop a commentator to ask them to expand on something they just mentioned, especially when talking about more esoteric animation topics. The commentators never go so deep into animation minutiae that interested fans can’t follow along, but the expansions and explanations did a lot to improve and deepen the commentary experience.
A set of “making of” featurettes are also provided. “True Lies About Dinosaurs” is a very short, borderline trivial featurette about how the movie’s fictional dinosaurs differed from what we know and hypothesize about real ones. “The Filmmakers’ Journey” focuses on the crew and the challenges they faced in getting the movie onto screen. It is the only bonus feature that touches on the movie’s troubled production history (noting a few times that they had a very short timeline to deliver a finished film), but it doesn’t repeat much information from the commentary track and serves as an interesting look behind the curtain. “Recyclosaurus” takes an amusing look at a competition at Pixar among the different crew departments working on the film. It’s not directly tied to the movie, and mostly underscores how much cooler it is to work at Pixar than almost any other day job. “Every Part of the Dinosaur” is more technical and slightly shorter, focusing on the particular animation challenges that The Good Dinosaur presented and how the animators dealt with them. Even duplicated information from the commentary track is nicely expanded on by showing preliminary animation and other partially finished work. Some deleted scenes in storyboard format are included as well, along with introductions by Peter Sohn and explanations for why they were ultimately cut from the film.
One of my favorite sequences in the film is when Arlo encounters a trio of Tyrannosaurus Rex ranchers (on the justification that if herbivore dinosaurs evolved into farmers, then carnivores would have evolved into herding their own food supplies). It’s a richly realized sequence, mostly anchored by the larger-than-life presence of Sam Elliot voicing the T-Rex patriarch in a pitch-perfect casting choice. “Following the T-Rex Trail” may be the most fascinating featurette on the disc, since it reveals that this ranching family is based on friends of production manager Ann Brilz. The McKay family herds cattle in Oregon, and this featurette takes us to meet the family and follow the filmmakers on their research trip. It is a featurette that’s full of surprises and definitely worth watching. Finally, a set of promotional animation clips and trailers is included. I am old enough to remember when the super-mega-deluxe Toy Story laserdisc included seemingly all the trailers and promotional material for the movie, and I’m saddened that most home video releases have all but ended the practice of including a movie’s own trailers. While The Good Dinosaur on Blu-ray doesn’t have a comprehensive set of its own trailers, it includes one U.S. trailer, one trailer from Russia, and one from Germany; a nice touch that also gives as glimpse at the internationalization of the movie.
The combo pack also includes a DVD and a Disney Movies Anywhere promotional code for a digital copy. The digital copy also comes with a special featurette, “Just Listen,” which looks at sound, music, and (very briefly) voiceover of the movie. It’s a very good featurette, although I am disappointed that there is not much focus on the voiceover talent. In addition to being a topic of personal interest, Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand as Arlo’s father and mother turn in some marvelous performances, along with Sam Elliot as Butch the T-Rex. I’d have loved to see any of them discuss the roles or performing in the booth. I would also have loved to hear how Jack Bright dealt with the challenge of voicing a main character who literally says nothing for the entire movie.
The Good Dinosaur is extremely satisfying, and I will have no problems revisiting the movie repeatedly over the years. It might just be that it came out in the same year as Inside Out, which succeeded despite a degree of difficulty an order of magnitude bigger than any other Pixar film from the past few years. It might also be a side-effect of the movie’s troubled birth; perhaps it’s less important that The Good Dinosaur is a successful but conventional movie but rather that it is successful at all. But as I felt with both Brave and Monsters University, a solid, well-constructed, and successful film from Pixar still feels disappointing because they have conditioned us to expect more. Nevertheless, The Good Dinosaur is still a solid entry into the collected output of Pixar, it can make its mark proudly among that highly esteemed body of work.