It would be easy to dismiss The Good Dinosaur‘s simple narrative as minor Pixar. The tale’s themes touch upon the importance of family and finding your place in this world. These lessons have certainly been done before. But delve deeper and what the studio has done here is no less magical that some of their very best. In many ways, the blend of ideas is one of their most subversive. To begin with, it relies on less dialogue than virtually all of their productions. They explored this abstraction in the first half of Wall-E then abandoned it in the second. A cursory look at production stills show a little boy and his dinosaur, a seemingly clichéd set-up that suggests that the dinosaur is a substitute for the boy’s proverbial dog. Leave it to Pixar to flip the script.
The saga begins with a vignette that might not even register if you’ve managed to avoid press materials for this picture. An asteroid flies overhead. Dinosaurs look up. Go back to eating. What the visual tableau is hypothesizing without words is, what if the theoretical asteroid that was supposed to hit earth rendering dinosaurs extinct, never did. How would they evolve, and even more intriguingly, how would they interact with humans? The answer is one of Pixar’s most radical concepts. Naturally the dinosaurs talk. Animals do that in animated films all the time. But Pixar takes the conceit one step further. They’re now highly evolved creatures, developing a sophisticated ecosystem. They grow crops, store grain in a silo and raise what appears to be dino-chickens in a coop.
Pixar has designed a fully realized world that pushes graphic technology to the next level. The plot concerns an Apatosaurus family. There’s Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand) who witness the birth of their three children at the outset: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner) and runt of the litter, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Though the main character is cute and cartoonish, the environment created is not. To say this is the studio’s most visually impressive movie, is an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly or negated. Some of these awe-inspiring landscapes are photo realistic achievements that dazzle the eye. This isn’t a film, it’s an experience. You can get lost in the mood, particularly during the wordless spectacles. After a not so spectacular intro, something tragic happens (Pixar is known for this) and young Arlo is separated from his family. He meets a caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright). Spot is an unexpected individual full of facial expressions and body language. His dirty mangled hair, fair skin, slightly red from the sun and piercing green eyes embody a mesmerizing soul that captivates with tangible cues. In one episode he forages for food and offers some to Arlo. The moment manages to be funny, gross and tender in mere moments. The charm slowly sneaks up on you. I fell in love with this kid.
The Good Dinosaur is a deceptively slight narrative that belies a philosophical exploration of humanity. Is it about a spirit journey? Is it a coming-of-age movie? Is it a western? Pay attention, because there is a lot being covered. Much of the drama evolves like seeds that grow in the mind well after the film is over. It stays with you. Let’s start with the notion that fear is something you learn to live with, not conquer. That’s pretty “out of the box” thinking for a children’s story. Oh but there’s so much more. On the surface, you might not even realize what’s being promoted here because it’s never expressly stated. The evolutionary relationship between Arlo and Spot is a completely subversive idea that caught me quite by surprise. Pixar has drawn inspiration from classics of the past. The close alliance between two species has been explored before. There are many examples but perhaps never done better than in something like The Black Stallion. The Good Dinosaur ranks up there in tender sophistication. When Arlo and Spot “discuss” their families, the communication is a pantomime where sticks are used. Their interaction presents a harsh reality in such a refreshingly simple way, it’s profound. The scene is heartbreaking. I’ll admit I teared up. Ok Pixar, you win again.