A brazen The Land Before Time rip-off that takes a cornball cast of characters on an adventure through photo-realistic environments, teaching its male hero to face the future with bravery and love for his family. This is what you’ll find in Disney’s 2000 feature Dinosaur, which found critical and commercial success via dazzling computer-animated graphics that have since aged as well as the Rio.1 It is also a film that makes Pixar’s long-awaited take on prehistory, The Good Dinosaur, shine even brighter, and not just for having a title that derisively invites the comparison. Saying, as the Tomatometer does, that it doesn’t rank among the studio’s absolute best is a testament to the monumental legacy the studio is crafting for itself, because any of their contemporaries would be thrilled to make something of even this calibre.
While Pixar is responsible for dropping a plotty Save the Cat! screenplay rubric into Disney’s lap, they have received in return a penchant for reifying the nuclear family by fracturing it over and over again. Here, after establishing an alternate history where dinosaurs are the English-speaking civilisation, one household is formed in a golden-lit barnhouse as the so-called Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) watch their three children hatch. Fiddle-scored slapstick introduces us to each little rascal, the last of which is our protagonist Arlo, cowering in his own eggshell. He grows into a lanky sook (Raymond Ochoa as the older Arlo) that struggles to, as his father urges, “make his mark” and stick his long neck out for the sake of the family. Arlo’s reluctance inadvertently gets Poppa swept away and killed by the nearby river, and when a guilt-stricken Arlo tries to vengefully kill the caveboy (Jack Bright) that lured them out there in the first place, he gets caught by the tide himself and winds up a days-long walk from home, with only the boy to help him survive.
For all its infamous production turmoil, the narrative still holds together, blunt though it is in the opening reel. It generally falls to Wright to flatly state the themes of the oncoming story, like Mufasa to the would-be king, and while it goes on to find a similar grandeur to that Disney Renaissance jewel, the initial sermonising about the nature of fear, the power of heritage and the role of both in wrangling a wild world threatens to raise the alien ghost of, oddly enough, M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth. Director Peter Sohn and his team thankfully have a much more mature outlook than the Smith family’s outing, always crediting Arlo’s accomplishments to him rather than his super-competent dad (best summarised by Poppa’s heartfelt recurring line “you are me and more”) and treating fear as a necessary part of living, which screenwriter Meg LeFauve also did for Sadness in her script for Inside Out.
Where truly picks up is when Arlo is thrown out into the wild, starting with a slow awakening that sharpens dancing bokeh into the glinting river that took him there and then leads into a sequence where he gradually figures out how to survive. This wordless stretch of him hunting for berries, making shelter and wrestling with his emotions contain some of the most deft film-making the studio has ever produced.
That’s not to say that everything after Arlo’s initial struggles pales by comparison, but it transitions to more talky and bouncy happenings like in previous Pixar films. Key in this is the puppy-like caveboy Spot, who bounds in as both comic relief, and their unexpected friendship is slowly built with the same consummate care as any of Pixar’s numerous buddy duos. Even more impressive is the fact that it’s the first of Pixar’s ‘buddy’ narratives to have one member effectively mute,2 and curiously, the first to include what could only be described as a communal acid trip, thanks to a strange but quick scene involving a bad batch of berries. Of course this all plays well to kids – anything basically spirited will do in a post-Minions world – but the broader emotional waves feel earned in a way that’s bound to resonate into becoming at least their nostalgic favourite.
The supporting characters also factor in significantly, especially in their relationships with Mother Nature. As mentioned, Arlo’s own family farms the soil, digging holes and growing corn cobs as a snow-peaked mountain looms above them. Before one uses a tired phrase and calls the landscape an antagonist in its own right, Arlo encounters overt villains by way of not one but two packs of rabid creatures. The first is a flock of pterodactyls fanatically devoted to the Earth’s bountiful wrath (“the storm provides” goes their creepy mantra, said by the likes of Steve Zahn), and the second is a pack of velociraptors with a weirdly similar gait and craving for human flesh. Before it pulls that old dino-tale trick of segregating meat-eaters as villains, along a group of Tyrannosaurus rexes that are more like a posse of tough-but-friendly cowboys, with their leader voiced by Sam Elliott and their run making them look like horses galloping across the frontier. Sure, We’re Back! and the much more recent Jurassic World showed that T-rexes can be good guys, but melding them with the Western genre is the kind of unique twist only Pixar would do. Unfortunately, anyone hoping that the largely quadruped cast would hold back heteronormative character designs is in for disappointment – I never would have a thought a carnivore could look svelte and feminine.
Pixar’s technical goalkicks, from circumventing the uncanny valley in The Incredibles to rendering the misty and firelit glens of Brave, have always gone hand in hand with its narrative achievements, with neither being so effective without the other. As a result, the whipping winds and rock crags of this new frontier would be a tenth as convincing without a hero whose lime-green skin is coarsened by it all.3 Arlo might stick out like a sore thumb in photo stills, with his saucer-wide eyes and Aardman jaw, but seeing him drag his weight over rocks, crush berries underfoot, and strain to carry himself through hell and (literal) high water is as sublime as 3D character animation gets.
By the time Arlo and Spot have covered the land, and both home and country have been unified by Mychael and Jeff Danna’s stirring score, the dinosaur-boy becomes a man and an animation giant reasserts its great potential. If the sumptuous yet delicate story doesn’t revive Pixar’s reputation well enough in the wake of lacklustre critical reactions and Disney’s third wave of quality in-house productions, a moment after the credits that repurposes the movie’s most poignant symbol to their real-world MO just might. Their artistic credibility may still be strained by the prospect of four sequels in as many years, but if that was the price paid in order to see this and Inside Out out the door this year, it was well worth it.