"The Good Dinosaur" Is Simply Moving

There’s a refuge for parents fatigued by the chaos of contemporary family films (hi, “Minions”) and it’s called “The Good Dinosaur.” (And their kids won’t mind either.)

Disney•Pixar’s latest isn’t as distinct or as imaginative as their last effort (the well-meaning but undercooked “Inside Out”). It’s not as elegant as “Ratatouille” or as emotionally booming as the “Toy Story” trilogy. But it’s a gentle, thoughtful, gorgeous movie that borrows liberally from the best (“The Lion King” and “The Land Before Time”) to leave a substantial footprint of its own.

Strangely enough, “The Good Dinosaur” is a western. If the score’s slinking guitar lines and wiry mandolin licks don’t make it obvious, writer-director Peter Sohn and his team of scribes do with their use of cowboy movie plotting and expansive vistas, all painstakingly realized by Pixar’s animators. The visuals are painterly and awe-inspiring; the studio’s best to date.

Through some amusing revisionist history, the screenplay imagines a world where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct, but evolved into sentient creatures with jobs and families. Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), a bright green Apatosaurus, is the baby in a family of five farmers. Like in most Disney films of yesteryear, our protagonist is a perpetual underdog, a dyed-in-the-wool scaredy-cat forced into growing up by a tragic loss and a subsequent accident that sees him lost in the wilderness.

But Arlo isn’t alone. He’s joined a similarly adrift wild caveboy named Spot, the same nuisance partially responsible for Arlo’s misfortune. As lost souls tend to do, the duo bonds, with Arlo struggling to make sense of Spot’s unintelligible growling and the latter’s fearlessness empowering the former. This gives way to a few blissful sequences of physical comedy, the best of which is a hilarious, literal game of whack-a-mole that should leave viewers of all ages in stitches.

Though the story’s episodic nature keeps it from soaring – minor characters come and go without rhyme or reason – the supporting voice cast (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin) is perfectly understated with all but Elliott disappearing into their roles. The lack of star power is a huge asset here, laying bare one of the biggest problems of 21st century animation: few jobs for actual voice talent.

Big names sell tickets but seldom serve the final product. Even though Pixar relies on celebrity voice actors as often as any animation studio, it has the luxury of being a name unto itself and, therefore, the ability to buck trends. Going with a cast of character actors is one of several choices that separates “The Good Dinosaur” from the pack, a gutty call that pays off in both immersion and emotional stakes.

True to Disney form, the picture has a handful of startlingly dark moments that might be too much for the under-five set. There’s real peril here with significant weight behind it, much of it more intense than what’s become the norm for kids movies.

Nevertheless, said darkness makes “The Good Dinosaur” what it is: a deeply felt animated fable that’s not targeted to any age range in particular. No matter how predictable the journey, the visuals and heart-tugging moments are both timeless and top of the line; a beam of light in a fog of slapdash computer animated fare.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 25, 2015
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Director: Peter Sohn
Screenwriter: Meg LeFauve
Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand
MPAA Rating: PG (for peril, action and thematic elements)