Almost 10 years ago, Pixar Animation Studios established the high standard of photorealism in computer animation with Cars. The 2006 film is far from perfect (its story is thin, as are its characters), but its approximation of the American Southwest is a pinnacle of modern animation, capturing the grandeur and awe of the sweeping vistas and plateaus that comprise states like Arizona and Nevada, in between all the suburban lights and noise of cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. In the intervening nine-plus years, Pixar has pushed itself into darker, riskier creative territory, all while hitting the same visual bar that Cars set, if not clearing it. Of the handful of projects since that film, only WALL-E came close to achieving new heights in photorealistic design; there, too, was a film that utilized a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio to fill the screen with unique and inventive wonders.
Now, finally, the bar has been raised. The Good Dinosaur arrives in theaters this week after a rocky production history. The ups and downs of its production inspired years of worrying among both fans of Pixar as well as those waiting for the studio to make a stumble commercially as well as creatively. (To date, Cars 2 is the studio’s sole creative flop, but even that was a hit worldwide. Maybe this will be Pixar’s first financial stumble, but the equation of Pixar + dinosaurs + a holiday weekend suggests otherwise.) The film went through notable changes: Its release date was pushed back 18 months, its director Bob Peterson was removed, and almost the entire cast was reshuffled and replaced. But it’s clear why Pixar didn’t want to give up on this project: If nothing else, The Good Dinosaur is the most beautiful film this studio has ever made. Much—though not enough—of the film is dialogue-free, allowing the lead characters as well as the audience take in some of the most jaw-dropping visuals Pixar has ever come up with.
There is no uncanny-valley effect in The Good Dinosaur; while the backdrops and panoramic western-U.S. setting are so lovingly, accurately rendered to suggest that the studio used photo plates à la the Disney misfire Dinosaur (2000), the characters here are deliberately cartoonish. From the large eyes of our perpetually fearful hero, Arlo, to the canine tendencies of his eventual sidekick, a human boy he names Spot, new director Peter Sohn sets a balance of real and unreal that’s less heightened than might be expected. From the outset, the design of the Apatosaurus family, of which Arlo is a member, simply blends in naturally to the tactile natural world of the story. The less real the characters look, the more awesome (in the literal sense) their environment becomes.
It’s easy to glom onto this film’s visuals, in no small part because they are so clearly its greatest asset. After this summer’s all-around triumph Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur has a story of slighter heft, befitting Arlo’s stature. The high concept here, depicted in a brief pre-title prologue (the majority of which was present in early trailers), is simple enough: What if the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs missed Earth 65 million years ago? The story jumps forward to an undefined time “millions of years later,” where dinosaurs and humans coexist, the former treating the latter like feral animals of a sort. Arlo is the youngest of three in a family of humble farmers, and he’s also the weakest and most skittish. His parents (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand) love Arlo, but they and the older children seem more capable and willing to live off the land and make their mark. That metaphor, of making one’s mark, is literalized very early on by way of all of the family members placing a muddied footprint on a makeshift silo on the farm—all, that is, except Arlo, who’s yet to prove himself, to earn his mark.
Soon, a fatal disaster strikes, and Arlo chooses to shift the blame from his own inadvertently cowardly actions to that of Spot, the primal kid who’s hoarded the dinosaurs’ crop of corn. Arlo and Spot wind up tussling and falling into the raging river next to the farm, and the duo wind up far from Arlo’s home very quickly. The rest of the film recedes into a familiar journey-home scenario, one that’s recognizable from much more than just past Pixar stories. What sets this apart is primarily the visual element, but the way in which Sohn and screenwriter Meg LeFauve (who also co-wrote Inside Out, and who shares story credit here along with Sohn and three others) depict other dinosaur breeds in this alternate reality suggests a wry humor bubbling underneath the overall somber tone.
Whatever problems The Good Dinosaur has can be primarily relegated to its dialogue, specifically in the first act; this is because, aside from a clever sequence with T-Rexes taking the place of cowboys, led by a garrulous Sam Elliott, there’s very little dialogue outside the first 20 or so minutes. Wright and McDormand are fine actors, and young Raymond Ochoa voices Arlo with solid timidity; however, the dialogue these folks are working with goes too far out of its way to spell out the major themes of this story in capital letters. Pixar has, in past films, experimented with silent sequences; WALL-E, for one, goes nearly 40 minutes without dialogue. In the moments where The Good Dinosaur pushes itself to communicate without words, it’s wonderful, but in the moments where it goes the other way, it stumbles. The studio keeps teasing it, but hopefully in the future, they’ll go whole-hog and make a fully silent picture in the line of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The Good Dinosaur is, like Cars, an inherently American-seeming film. There’s never a clear idea of exactly where the action takes place, but with its perilous rapids, forbidding yet beautiful snow-capped mountains, rustling wheat, and herds of buffalo rampaging through the underbrush, this is a film indebted to the American Western more than any other genre. Sohn and his exceedingly talented group of animators display an extraordinary and painterly eye for depicting the natural beauty of this country, more than tipping their hat to John Ford’s iconic entries in the genre. The bildungsroman that Arlo embarks upon has a predictable conclusion (you don’t even need to read between the lines of this review to figure out the final image), but the steps on his path are portrayed in genuinely beautiful fashion. This may not be Pixar’s greatest creative success, but simply as a piece of animation, it is their most gorgeous to date.
Note. As is standard these days, The Good Dinosaur is preceded by a short, this one called Sanjay’s Super Team. Earlier this year, Lava played in front of Inside Out before becoming the Internet’s favorite whipping boy. (Consider this a #hottake if you like, but while Lava isn’t solid by any stretch, it’s also a better short than, say, Pixar’s The Blue Umbrella.) Thankfully, Sanjay’s Super Team is a leap forward in every possible way: the short, written and directed by Sanjay Patel, is as exciting and remarkable as possible. The story–inspired by the director’s own childhood–depicts young Sanjay combining his love of superheroes with the Hindu gods his father prays to on a daily basis. The unique marriage of religion and comic books makes for a striking visual feast, and Patel’s control of pacing and emotion is equally laudatory. This is Pixar’s best short since Presto. Now, we can only hope that Patel gets a feature directing gig at the studio.