From first-time feature director Peter Sohn, Disney Pixar’s latest The Good Dinosaur is a crowning triumph, blending jaw-dropping photorealistic animation with a heart-wrenchingly beautiful tale of friendship against the odds. When Inside Out was released earlier in the year, many thought that it was a sure bet for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards (with some arguing that it might even have a shot at Best Picture). With the release of The Good Dinosaur, its positioning is now less assured.
This is a very different beast to Inside Out. Sohn’s film allows its Pixar heritage to be more overt, relying on a simple, yet emotionally complex, narrative borrowing from the tropes of the western, providing a richly crafted frontier tale, reminiscent of The Lion King and Homeward Bound. The action opens in the depths of space, where an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth. We then see the asteroid zip across the sky narrowly missing our planet. Flash forward a few million years and we see that dinosaurs are still roaming the Earth and it’s here that we meet a family of Apatosaurs, who have developed an agrarian lifestyle.
The head of the household, Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) is like a living tractor, ploughing the field with his head and watering the crops with his mouth, while Momma (Frances McDormand) packs away the harvest. Life is good, with only the looming presence of Claw Tooth Mountain acting as a reminder of the threat nature has on their fragile lives. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the youngest in the family, a gangly runt of the litter who feels out of place next to sister Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla) and brother Buck (Ryan Teeple).
Worse still, Arlo seems ill-fitted to farming life, where whatever task he is set by his loving father he seems always to fail. When he’s asked to hunt and trap a “critter” – a small human boy – he finds he doesn’t have the necessary killer instinct. Despairing at Arlo’s inability to dispatch the critter, Poppa takes Arlo down the river to finish the crop-robbing child off, beyond the safe confines of the farm and in a flash flood the two are separated. Guilt-ridden, Arlo is determined to capture and kill the little critter, which results in him tumbling into the river and carried off downstream. He awakens to find the little wild, wolf-like child – whom he later dubs ‘Spot’ – that he was hunting. Gradually an unlikely bond forms between these one-time enemies, who discover that they have a lot more in common that they once thought and begin try and find their way back home. The landscape the duo traverse is breath-taking. Light bounces off streams, raindrops smoothly fall from tree-tops and their are wide-open horizons that would make John Ford sick with envy.
Sohn and screenwriter Meg LeFauve don’t back away from the violence of the natural world. The predators that inhabit the world – including borderline psychopathic, storm-chasing Pteranodons and slack-jawed Velociraptors (here with feathers for all you budding palaeontologists) – merrily munch down on cuddly critters with deranged delight, reminding us that in the wild it’s a dino-eat-dino world. Then there are thunderstorms and raging rivers that remind us of the awesome, unforgiving power of nature. The Good Dinosaur is up there with Toy Story in terms of its technical achievement and for providing an equally heart-touching, emotional tale and, to the surprise of many, managed to out-do the tremendous Inside Out. One thing is for sure: this has been a great year for Pixar.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh