Pixar has been known to rework films in the middle of production if there are signs of potential trouble, and the outcome of this tendency has a mixed legacy; for every Toy Story 2, there’s a Cars 2. But The Good Dinosaur has a particularly noteworthy chaotic production reset, with the story and cast both retooled in the middle of production. This pushed the film back 18 months from its original release date, and also created an unusually small gap between Pixar releases (Inside Out precedes it by a mere five months). The resulting film is a bit of an oddity for the studio: it’s a visually striking film that combines photorealistic backdrops with abstract takes on dinosaurs, paired with an unusually small-scale story that includes its fair share of weird moments.
Chief among the weird moments in The Good Dinosaur is its alternate timeline, which suggests a potential outcome if the meteor that took out the dinosaurs instead merely came close to hitting Earth. In this world, dinosaurs have evolved to become the dominant intelligent form of life. They not only speak, but have learned how to farm and use tools. Humans, meanwhile, speak in a series of grunts and walk on all fours.
It’s in this world that a young apatosaurus, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), lives with his family. Arlo, the runt of his litter, wants to earn his mark and meet the expectations of his Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), but he struggles to overcome his anxiety. When he’s swept away from home by a rapid river and cast ashore miles from home, Arlo has to find his way back home with a human wild child named Spot (Jack Bright) in tow.
It’s a fairly standard story, and more surprisingly, it’s told at a decidedly languid pace. Significant stretches of the film rely on the characters interacting with their environment or non-verbally with other characters. The humor leans more towards physical bits; one scene after Arlo and Spot eat some questionable fruit ends up turning into the most surreal drug trip since Dumbo‘s “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence. This emphasis on the visual aspects of the film pays off with a gorgeous level of detail in the animation. The characters are illustrated in dazzling detail, with their unique forms being all the more vivid against backgrounds that look astonishingly real.
Unfortunately, this attention to animation is paired with an unusually narrow focus on character development. Arlo is defined by his fears, and how he eventually confronts them. There isn’t anything more complex than that with him. The supporting dinosaurs who pop up on Arlo’s journey provide most of the film’s personality, from a triceratops who carries a large group of small animal friends on him to a group of cowboy Tyrannosaurus rex with outsized accents. These supporting characters drift in and out of the film with some regularity, though, leaving most of the film on Arlo’s back.
None of this makes The Good Dinosaur an out-and-out disaster, to be clear. If this was coming from any other studio, it may in fact be more impressive. But The Good Dinosaur has to contend with the legacy of the studio that created it, and compared to most of those films, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t work as well. Still, there’s something admirable about a Pixar film that pushes against many of Pixar’s tropes, especially coming after a film that exemplified the best of those tropes. Even if it doesn’t completely work, The Good Dinosaur does work at expanding what constitutes a Pixar film.