"This is Dreamcrusher. He protects me from having unrealistic goals."
It's a real shame that Pixar's sixteenth film was released in the same year as the masterful Inside Out, if only because it can't help but feel like an inferior film. Pixar's track record is such that it's impossible to expect anything less than brilliance from them every time out of the gate. Truth be told, I'd rather watch even the weakest Pixar efforts than about 80% of the other animated films being put out by other studios. The Good Dinosaur, like a number of other Pixar films, was plagued by production delays, all of which stemmed from the studio wanting to make sure they were putting out the best product possible. Thankfully, they took their time and released a beautifully realized film that is sure to delight audiences of all ages.
Pixar veteran Peter Sohn makes his directorial debut—stepping in for his colleague Bob Peterson—and proves himself a capable storyteller. The film's conceit is that the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs missed Earth, and dinosaurs have begun to evolve, now co-existing alongside humans. While this is an interesting idea, it's not what the film hinges on, thankfully. The film centers on Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the runt of an Apatosaurus litter who watches as his father (Jeffrey Wright), mother (Frances McDormand), and siblings all "make their mark" on one another's lives. Arlo longs to do likewise, but like so many other Pixar protagonists, his best intentions often cause more chaos than results.
Through a series of complications, Arlo finds himself lost in the wilderness and attempting to return home. He soon meets Spot (Jack Bright), a feral young human who seems to take a liking to Arlo. The two then set off on a journey back to Arlo's home, with important lessons about bravery and fear to be learned along the way. Sure, it all sounds like a been there, done that series of incidents, but credit screenwriter Meg LeFauve's brilliant screenplay for never making the film feel as by the numbers as it may sound. I may be beating this point to death in my reviews, but a great story can cure a multitude of sins.
Never ones to put beautiful animation ahead of a story worth telling, Pixar excels in both areas here making a film that's every ounce as beautiful as it is to look at. The juxtaposition of photorealistic backgrounds and more cartoonishly realized characters is a tightrope the film walks exquisitely. It's interesting that the makers of Walking with Dinosaurs attempted essentially the same thing two years ago to much lesser results. The film's dinosaur designs are also a ton of fun, exhibiting a playful air of "what if" to the multitude of fictional creatures Arlo and Spot encounter. However, many of the film's best scenes—such as an extended sequence spent with a trio of T-Rexes—don't need such visual flourishes to succeed. The writing and voice work make the scenes come to life in ways for which even the greatest animation in the world couldn't compensate.
The Good Dinosaur may not be Pixar's best film, even in this calendar year, but it's a testament to the studio's commitment to quality that it's easily the best dinosaur film in years. There is a beauty to the film that is second to none in Pixar's catalog and it bears all the hallmarks of the studio's best work. It is a touching and beautiful film that is full of real and palpable emotions, all of which are complex yet simple enough to touch viewers of any age. It's a shame that the film will be better remembered as Pixar's lowest grossing film at the box office than as a beautiful story about friendship and family. Time will be kind to The Good Dinosaur, and like its great story and animation, will eventually erase the memory of any perceived failure. The Good Dinosaur is a rousing success, and that's how I prefer to keep it.
This review originally appeared on Double Viking