While I prefer to judge a film on its own merit, nothing exists in a vacuum. An artist’s work is always weighed against their past efforts or, in the case of Pixar, against the reputation of the studio. And indeed, no review of The Good Dinosaur will print without comparing it to Inside Out. Nor will any review ignore the fact that the original director of the film, Bob Peterson (Up), was prematurely ejected from the project. If that’s not enough, The Good Dinosaur commits the second sin of making you feel without being wholly unique. And since 2015 is the first year ever with two Pixar releases, audiences and critics were always going to argue over which was best.
Well, if everyone else is going to do it, I might as well get the ball rolling.
Make no mistake, The Good Dinosaur is a story you’ve heard before. Last time it was a Western, A Boy and His Dog or The Land Before Time. You haven’t seen those three stories combined, but you know the beats. And somewhere along the way, we convinced ourselves that’s a bad thing. A story has to surprise us. It’s not enough to be good.
The animation in The Good Dinosaur is gorgeous, but this is Pixar and everyone already knew that. The American Northwest environments look so real you might assume they were taken out of a National Geographic documentary, not a render farm. This realism is, unfortunately, quickly undercut by a wealth of cartoonish anthropomorphic dinosaurs. But the disconnect isn’t large enough to push the film into the Uncanny Valley. The character designs are coherent enough to retain emotional weight. The characters themselves are compelling and fun, and shepherded by a top-notch voice cast (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand and Sam Elliot, to name a few). Plus, it’s hard to look at a T. rex galloping like a cowboy and respond with anything but a smile.
It certainly helps that the animation is wrapped in the kind of story that would work whether it was told now or 50 years ago; all that’s changed is technology’s ability to tell it. There’s a timeless quality to this narrative of companionship. That doesn’t mean Pixar hasn’t put their own spin on it, creating a setting akin to Little House on the Prehistoric Prairie. But their take also avoids the most common cliché of A Boy and his Dog stories: the Dog being unrealistically smart.
The “Boy” here is Arlo the Apatosaurus, if his species evolved to develop language and agriculture, becoming us in all but DNA sequence. Conversely, the “Dog” actually is us, a human, so his wit never strains belief. Quietly, that’s a stroke of genius. The Good Dinosaur doesn’t just flip A Boy and His Dog—it transcends it. Arlo and Spot’s relationship never feels like master and pet, simply because they’re equals. They’re two people, thrown together by fate, who struggle to help and understand each other. Their development is pitch perfect and sublimely heartfelt.
In the context of trope and narrative history, it’s clear that The Good Dinosaur is not as novel as the journey inside the mind we took earlier this year. But Inside Out was also far more expository, devoting its first five minutes just to a narrated explanation of its world. In contrast, The Good Dinosaur sets up the board in just three shots: The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missing Earth entirely, a “Millions of years later” title card, and an Apatosaurus planting corn in the American Northwest. No narration, no dialogue—just showing without telling. The Good Dinosaur has strong narrative economy afforded by visual acumen and Peter Sohn’s capable hands at the wheel.
After all, film is, first and foremost, a visual medium. Sound is absolutely integral to the format, but one need only look at the earliest films (and the earliest animation) and note their lack of sound to determine which perceptual sense, sight or sound, is more intrinsic to the medium. And by that means, The Good Dinosaur excels at what makes film work.
The Good Dinosaur is a familiar story. That doesn’t change how well it’s told. It features strong characters getting the wind knocked out of them by life, weathering the gorgeous struggle, and living to find pride in their scars. Have we ever really needed anything else?
Movie Verdict: Win