The 16th computer-animated theatrical release from the trailblazing whizzes at Pixar, "The Good Dinosaur" fits snugly in the middle of the pack, full of feeling but missing out on the unbounded imagination and consequence of the studio's most beloved films. The core conceit of the premisewhat would have happened if the cataclysmic meteor that destroyed the dinosaur population 65 million years ago narrowly missed Earth?is cleverer than its "The Incredible Journey"-esque story proper, while the screenplay by Meg LeFauve (2015's "Inside Out
") wavers between inspired and pedestrian depending on the moment. This is a pleasant family adventure, to be sure, but it isn't particularly memorable.
Apotosaurus Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) always seems to be one step behind his bigger, stronger, braver siblings Buck (Ryan Teeple) and Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla). Working on his family's farm, he wants nothing more than to make his marka paw-print rite of passage his Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) have created. When tragedy strikes and Arlo loses a loved one, he determines to step up and help the rest of his family in their time of need. Before he can fulfill this goal, he is swept away in the rapids and suddenly finds himself lost. Remembering what his father told him ("As long as you can find the river, you can find your way home"), Arlo and a mischievous orphaned caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright) embark on a long, perilous trek back to the ranch.
A role-reversal twist on the classic tale of a boy and his dog, "The Good Dinosaur" pairs an anthropomorphic prehistoric creature with a feral human child. Peter Sohn (an animator and storyboard artist making his appealing feature-length directorial debut) is better at imagining dazzling vistas for his two lead protagonists to walk across than providing them with involving situations to face and overcome. The rocky cliffs, the snowcapped Clawed-Tooth Mountains, the endless fields and forests, the rushing river snaking through the valleyeach landscape is very nearly photorealistic and quixotic to behold. Arlo, nicely voiced by Raymond Ochoa, is a plucky, lovable underdog who yearns for acceptance and earns an unexpected friend in Spot. A delicate scene where they find common ground, bonding without words as they mourn the loss of their families, is especially moving.
"The Good Dinosaur" is fairly straightforward, an old-fashioned road movie without a road. It is destined to be compared to 2015's other critically lauded Pixar release, "Inside Out
," and pales in comparison. The gist of the story is overly familiar, its messages about believing in oneself and overcoming fears are well-meaning but old-hat, and development is lacking for the many colorful, if squandered, passersby Arlo and Spot meet along the way. There's a kind, likely certifiably insane Styracosaurus named Forrest Woodbush (Peter Sohn), who has collected a variety of critters on his voyage; a wise, advice-giving T. Rex named Butch (Sam Elliott) and his kids, Nash (A.J. Buckley) and Ramsey (Anna Paquin); a flock of ferocious Pterosaurs led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), and a gang of wild velociraptors who appear to be descendants of the "Chilly Down"-singing Fireys from 1986's "Labyrinth." They all show promise, but are in and out of the picture so quickly they get little to do. Fortunately, Arlo is the warm beating heart of this story, the rightful hero the viewer wants to follow, and does. "The Good Dinosaur" is slight but sweet, the script's nagging moments of déjà vu smoothed over by the sheer beauty, care and detail of the earthy visuals.