I’ll probably have to see Disney Pixar’s family-themed The Good Dinosaur again to fully appreciate its artistry. After the manic, disjointed Inside Out earlier this year, and the middling Frozen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But unlike those fragmented movies, neither of which I think are very good pictures, The Good Dinosaur is slow, steady and restrained.
Staying with one character, like Remy in Ratatouille, which Dinosaur director Peter Sohn had a hand in, the action in this coming of age tale unfolds in shifting, occasionally surprising plot points. Evoking classic Disney films such as Bambi and, especially in its focus on the maladjusted character, Dumbo, this is an outdoor prehistoric adventure with strange sojourns, tracing the maturation of an awkward, jittery brontosaurus named Arlo. Arlo’s literally afraid to come out of his shell when he’s born and, being the youngest in a family of hyper achievers, he’s not fast to adapt to the world. It doesn’t help that his brother Buck and sister Libby don’t show much interest in him. His parents aren’t helpful, either. But they’re a farming family in this incarnation of Disney dinosaurs, so everyone’s too consumed by working the land to teach the lad any lessons.
Arlo wants to grow, learn and earn his pride. It just takes him a long time to realize it and the only one willing to make up for the family deficiency in bringing up the rear is the father, voiced by Jeffrey Wright (Catching Fire), one of two actors besides Raymond Ochoa and Jack McGraw as Arlo—the other is Sam Elliott voicing a tyannosaurus rex named Butch—to make a lasting impression as a character, unless you count a grunting prehistoric human boy who bonds with Arlo when the young dinosaur gets lost.
The kid is crucial to the character and plot development.
Apparently written by committee going by story credits, the plot is strange, from dino-farming and herding to bizarre country and western regionalism among the dinosaurs, who variously come off with earsplitting twangs from Texas and clipped talk from Wyoming to Deep South accents in a trio best described as rednecks. Weird subplots and touches can be clever, too, such as a flock of vultures that represent pure religionism (and the religion, subversively, is the weather; hmmm). But these distinct animation and story junctures do not detract from plot and character progression; they generally add to the momentum, leading to a critical character test for Arlo that has less to do with blood, family and trying too hard and for the wrong reasons and everything to do with the supremacy of going by one’s own chosen values.
With flourishes and simple visuals, including the jagged, curving and severe landscape and meteorology of Arlo’s home near Clawfoot Mountain and its lesser twin peaks, Sohn’s imaginative movie is a boy’s story of earning self-esteem through self-reliance in nature and learning to inhabit and command the world around him, whatever dangers may come. It’s not a bad theme, really, and The Good Dinosaur is not a bad movie for kids, and not the same old frenzy of noise, jokes and sermons about sharing or ecology. Though the script sometimes belabors a point, and dinosaurs are depicted as anthropomorphized as you’ve never seen them, it’s as odd a movie as its leading character, which makes The Good Dinosaur sort of endearing and, I suspect, rather enduring, too.