At first glance, The Good Dinosaur looks weird as hell, even by Pixar standards. It’s the story of an alternate world where the dinosaurs never went extinct, and it’s a “boy and his dog” story where the “boy” is an apatosaurus and the “dog” is a human child named Spot. But one layer below the surface, this is a very simple, and fairly conventional, coming-of-age story. What’s somewhat revolutionary here is just how wild and dangerous this particular coming-of-age story is.
Hey, no real spoilers here! None. You’re good.
So we’re up to our eyeballs with stories about young protagonists, and young-adult and middle-grade novels rule all media at this point. But I can’t actually remember the last honest-to-god “coming of age” story, in which someone starts out an innocent child and then grows up. It’s the platonic form of the young-hero genre, and I feel like it’s gone way out of fashion. I’m sure there have been some, but I’m racking my brains and can’t think of any.
And The Good Dinosaur is pretty much a straight-down-the-line story about growing up. Arlo, the main character, starts out as a scared little kid who doesn’t understand anything, and we follow him every step of the way as he confronts some scary stuff and learns to deal with it. His companion on his journey (literal and metaphorical) is the human child, Spot, who helps Arlo but also gives Arlo someone to take care of and be responsible for.
In fact, The Good Dinosaur’s totally conventional, old-fashioned story is balanced out by its completely bizarre world-building. It’s like they used up all the strange sauce in cooking up the world, and had none left for the actual storytelling, but that’s probably a good thing on balance.
This is a world where dinosaurs have agriculture, and build houses, and seem to have developed a complex society despite not showing any evidence of written language or any of the other stuff you’d need opposable digits for. They’ve mastered symbolic logic, without the ability to draw symbols. I guess it’s no weirder than whatever the heck was going on in Cars, but it’s definitely odd.
And meanwhile, this might be a pretty conventional story about growing up and learning about the world, but it’s one in which there’s no safety net. We’re pretty constantly reminded that death is an ever-present possibility, and that any mistake could be Arlo’s last. And the line between slapstick and actual harm is thinner here than in most cartoons—you know that thing where Homer Simpson falls down a cliff and keeps hitting his head on the way down, and it’s funny? That sort of thing happens here, but you feel the bruises on Arlo, and you see the marks afterwards.
And this is a very physical movie—the body language of that pantomime dinosaur and his feral human convey a lot of the story and character development, even when they’re speaking. Long stretches of the film are pretty silent, and major story points are told without a lot of words. Also, Arlo’s facial expressions are very much reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit and other Aardman characters, and that pretty much never gets old.
As Arlo and Spot travel through a painterly landscape with an incredible depth of field and level of fine detail, a lot of the danger and tension comes from their environment. We already talked a lot about how this movie’s landscape is a strange blend of realism and impressionism, and pretty much every shot in this movie is a beautiful painting.
As much as this movie does not want you to think about how this dinosaur society works (Do they have money? Are there laws? If they all speak the same language, do they share other customs? Who taught them complicated agriculture techniques?) The Good Dinosaur does want you to think about nature, constantly, and to be aware of how much it can mess you up as well as serve as a source of help. Nature is sort of the antithesis of the ordered world that Arlo comes from, and it’s populated with wild creatures as well as ruthless, vicious dinosaurs. It’s all about the wrath of nature and the miracle of survival—and surviving means making your peace with danger. One overt theme in the film is learning to cope with fear—and again, this movie doesn’t break any new ground there, but it does have a pretty clean, well-drawn progression as Arlo slowly learns to be brave.
The relationship between Arlo and Spot is the emotional core of the film, but it’s a pretty simple one, without a lot of room to grow once they come together. It’s also pretty one-sided, because Spot is always just Spot, more or less. At the same time, the dynamic between them does change as Arlo grows and takes more responsibility.
That said, the story’s simplicity is its biggest strength, but also starts to feel a bit like a bit of a weakness by the half-way mark. This movie doesn’t quite have enough story to carry a feature-length movie, and some of the movie’s final act doesn’t feel entirely satisfying because we’ve skipped over some crucial groundwork, that might have made it work better. (In fact, the more I think about the ending, the less it works for me.) Also, the structure of this movie is pretty episodic, and some of the episodes feel more crucial to the progression of the story and characters than others. This film definitely suffers a lot by comparison to its Pixar predecessor, Inside Out, though it’s still miles better than most other animated films.
All the same, The Good Dinosaur is such a visual treat, and this is such a great example of a “coming of age” story that comes out swinging, it’s well worth checking out. This is a journey through the wilderness into adulthood, and it succeeds by being both wild and humane.