Serving up a sweet tale of interspecies friendship and a stunning prehistoric vision of the American Northwest, “The Good Dinosaur” is easily one of the great landscape films of 2015, even if what unfolds against that landscape isn’t always as captivatingly rendered. Pixar’s 16th animated feature centers around a boy-and-his-beast dynamic that will strike some of the same audience chords DreamWorks did with “How to Train Your Dragon,” albeit with a crucial reversal of perspective this time around. That largely successful gambit turns out to be the boldest stroke in a picture that, for all its signature visual artistry, falls back surprisingly often on familiar, kid-friendly lessons and chatty anthropomorphic humor. Clever and cloying by turns, it’s a movie that always seems to be trying to evolve beyond its conventional trappings, and not succeeding as often as Pixar devotees have come to expect.
It’s no knock on “The Good Dinosaur” to note that it is neither as ingeniously conceived nor as emotionally wrenching as this summer’s “Inside Out,” a movie it doesn’t even try to emulate; it falls into that humbler category of Pixar efforts, like “Brave” and “A Bug’s Life,” that are content to riff engagingly on material we’ve seen before, rather than imagining an entirely new world from scratch. Marking a solid, graceful feature-directing debut for Peter Sohn (an artist and voice actor on“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and other Pixar productions), this is moving and accessible family fare that should rack up strong global returns in the month or so before the season’s other big Disney release — something involving a star and a war — makes like T-Rex with the box office competition.
At the very least, it’s refreshing to see Pixar churn out two original, non-franchise-based efforts in between sequels (with “Finding Dory” due out next year), even if the movie in question doesn’t always feel like a prize specimen. But then, neither does our hero, Arlo, a runty apatosaurus growing up in a very distant fictionalized past. In the alternate history of Earth set forth in Meg LeFauve’s screenplay, the dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago by a wayward asteroid — as shown in a sly fakeout of an opening sequence — but instead survived, thrived and developed a remarkably advanced agrarian society, which explains (sort of) how a family of green, long-necked dinosaurs came to own a cornfield and a chicken coop on the banks of a river in what looks like prehistoric Wyoming. It’s a lovely, mildly creepy pastoral scene — think of it as George Orwell’s “Jurassic Farm” — where dinosaurs notably behave just like people: laboring, laughing, bickering, and trying to ensure the best for their children.
It’s jarring initially to hear American-accented English pouring from the mouths of Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) and his parents, Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand), especially since their conversations consist mainly of canned banter and platitudes. Relentlessly teased and outshone by his bigger, braver siblings, Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla), Arlo has developed a severe inferiority complex, though Poppa tries to teach him the importance of bravery, as well as proper goal setting and follow-through: “You gotta earn your mark by doing something big.” Arlo will certainly get his chance when a violent rainstorm sends him downriver; he washes up miles from home, battered and bruised, with only a human wild child (Jack Bright) for company.
The runty dinosaur and the pint-sized Neanderthal have good reason to distrust each other at first, and it’s a measure of how adroitly the film has manipulated our sense of identification that we wouldn’t mind, at least at first, if Arlo just finished off the filthy, feral little troublemaker. But the viewer’s sympathies naturally shift as the boy, who tellingly responds to the name Spot, finds ways to help the frightened Arlo, and their antagonism slowly turns to friendship. Crawling around on all fours and talking in growls, grunts and the occasionally well-timed bite, Spot is unmistakably presented as the savage pet in the relationship, a choice that raises some subtle moral and ecological questions about a world where humans aren’t at the top of the food chain. In any event, the characters’ deepening bond is tenderly and touchingly observed, never more so than in a piercingly beautiful nighttime scene where Arlo and Spot find a wordless way to convey a shared sense of sorrow.
The quiet sublimity of that moment may well trigger memories of “How to Train Your Dragon,” though it’s hardly the only animated touchstone that looms heavily over the proceedings. At times it seems that every movie in the Disney critter canon is up for grabs: Echoes of “The Lion King” reverberate loudly through these scenic mountain passes (Poppa is basically Mufasa with scales). And as Arlo and Spot encounter one colorful new species after another, the movie increasingly recalls “The Jungle Book,” another tale of a man-cub and a hissing, roaring menagerie. In the latter respect, Sohn and his creative team have allowed their imaginations to roam free: A salmon-pink cobra with legs and a winged insect the size of a wild boar are among the hostile animals briefly rescued here from cinematic extinction.
A rather friendlier fellow is the Pet Collector, a kooky old styracosaurus (voiced by Sohn) whose amusing horn-aments and deadpan delivery raise the possibility that “The Good Dinosaur” is about to shift into a very different, much trippier mode. (Another madcap sequence, in which Arlo and Spot enjoy some particularly strange fruit, keeps that hope alive.) Unfortunately, the style of humor becomes broader and more funny-accent-driven as the movie progresses, reaching a nadir with a pack of nasty, snaggle-toothed raptors who seem to have been patterned on meth-cooking hillbillies from the Ozarks. Running a close second is a team of hungry pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), whose beach-bum-style mantra is “The storm provides” (he may as well be saying, “The Dude abides”).
By the time Arlo and Spot meet an unexpectedly friendly clan of T-Rexes who double as buffalo ranchers, it’s clear that the film means to be a Western throwback of sorts, one that just happens to be set closer to the dawn of time. It’s a charming enough conceit that’s most fully realized in a delightful campfire scene, with none other than Sam Elliott lending his baritone growl to the role of a scarred, grizzled T-Rex showing off his war wounds (it’s probably the one time you’ll find it odd that a dinosaur isn’t chewing tobacco). And it’s particularly suited to the rugged majesty of the film’s scenery: fir-lined slopes, craggy mountain peaks and babbling brooks, all rendered in staggering widescreen compositions with an almost photorealistic attention to detail, and integrated seamlessly with the more stylized character designs.
As our homeward-bound heroes near their respective destinations, “The Good Dinosaur” seems to falter and lose its way — and then, in almost the same moment, to find it again. Its lush, classical storytelling lapses into familiar beats and payoffs, en route to an outcome as certain as the recurrence of Mychael and Jeff Danna’s often distractingly Tolkien-esque score. But predictability can have its pleasures, too, and the film achieves a gentle surge of emotion as Arlo learns his lesson in courage — not least the courage of befriending another soul. Cross-species bonding may have its limits, but there’s no mistaking the beauty in a boy-meets-beast saga that, by the end, has made it hard to tell which is which.