Sometimes, Pixar can be its own worst enemy. The pioneering animation studio has been around long enough for the least visually-inventive of its recent films—like, say, 2013’s Monsters University, nice-looking but nothing you haven’t already seen—to have a look wholly superior to its first feature film, 1995’s Toy Story. They’re just too good at what they do; every film looks that much better than the previous, and their story department is without peer.
It’s because of this that some people might try to tell you that The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s 16th feature film, is one of the studio’s lesser offerings—“it’s good, but not great.” They’re wrong, but you can’t blame them: They’re still under the spell of the last Pixar release, this summer’s Inside Out—a film that was (rightfully) accorded instant classic standing. Any Pixar film that followed Inside Out was bound to suffer in comparison, and The Good Dinosaur comes less than six months after Inside—the first time Pixar has released two films in the same year. The effect of that first, intoxicating taste hasn’t fully worn off.
Comparisons notwithstanding, The Good Dinosaur is great Pixar—it is sumptuously beautiful, its storytelling is rock-solid and its heart is equal measures of The Lion King, Old Yeller and Bambi. You just have to get around the fact that this dinosaur movie, which has the word “dinosaur” right there in its title, isn’t really about dinosaurs at all. In The Good Dinosaur, Pixar has given us the best boy-and-his-dog-movie since E.T., and the first dinosaur-western mashup that’s actually worth watching.
Set in a world where dinosaurs never faced an extinction-level event (the fateful meteor comically streaks past Earth, nearly unnoticed by dinos more interested in eating dinner), The Good Dinosaur reimagines the denizens of the post-Jurassic period as farmers, ranchers and rustlers, using simple tools they can manipulate with their mouths or tails.
The film doesn’t delve too deeply into the ramifications of this—are there dinosaur towns? Dinosaur governments?—and instead introduces us to Arlo, a young, knobby-kneed Apatosaurus (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) determined to prove his worth to his parents, Ida (Frances McDormand) and Henry (Jeffrey Wright). Circumstances force Arlo out into the wild, where he meets a feral human boy he names “Spot.” The two journey home through a landscape that looks like the early American frontier, with all its wonders and perils.
That’s really it. There are no hidden layers or dimensions to the story, like the way Ratatouille turns out to be story about art and Inside Out a story about learning to embrace sadness. Yet The Good Dinosaur’s simple themes—courage, family—are made more potent by the innate weirdness of the film’s world. We’re accustomed to seeing humans taming animals, not the other way around. That cleverly executed switcheroo enables The Good Dinosaur to really get its hooks into you, because you’re too busy giggling at the boy fetching sticks to notice that you’re also crying buckets at the poignancy and humanity of it all.
Plus, it looks great. Peter Sohn, a 12-year veteran of Pixar’s story department directing his first feature for the studio, opts for photorealistic environments that nicely compliment the rounded, mildly cartoony look of the film’s characters. (In one scene, the characters are silhouetted against the setting sun; it’s easily one of the most gorgeous moments of any Pixar film.) And the lyrical score, by Mychael and Jeff Danna, brings a glow to every moment.
The Good Dinosaur is a grower, pure and simple. Given a few years, audiences will give it its proper due. They might even do so sooner than that, when—in a moment of Inside Out-like melancholia—they’ll remember that story of a dinosaur boy and his caveman pup, and the journey they took together. Their adventure grows inside you, as if you were there. It’s that kind of movie.
The Good Dinosaur (PG): ★★★★✩