"The Good Dinosaur" arrives saddled with two potential liabilities: an 18-month delay after dozens of layoffs at Pixar last year, and the unenviable status of being the follow-up to "Inside Out," one of the best films the animation studio has ever produced.
But none of that matters, for first-time helmer Peter Sohn and screenwriter Meg LeFauve ("Inside Out") have created a fantastic and frequently exhilarating feature that showcases Pixar's greatest strengths: technical brilliance, emotional texture, crossover appeal, and an impish sense of humor that takes the utmost advantage of the animated form. (Sohn is probably best known as the inspiration for the character of Junior Wilderness Explorer Russell in "Up.")
In addition to letting me cathartically sob my eyes out (always a plus), the survivor's tale and family/pet/coming-of-age drama showed me images I'd never seen before and perfected scenes that I have seen in other films. "The Good Dinosaur" isn't just a holiday treat, but an experience to be savored.
Strangely enough, though, you'd never guess that from the picture's first 15 minutes, which is as schmaltzy and baldly expository as the rest of the feature is subtle, original, delightful and psychologically rich. At its center is Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the runt of a brontosaurus litter in a world where dinosaurs live on homesteads, chop down trees, plow the fields, store grains for winter, and, in our protagonist's case, get intimidated by monster chickens. Arlo's the only one in his small, tough, hard-working family not pulling his weight, and the tale of how he learns to contribute is just one of the several compelling storylines that make up the neatly braided plot.
After the disappearance of one of his family members, Arlo ends up stranded and lost. His long and arduous journey home, together with a new friend named Spot, makes up the bulk of the film, which celebrates the splendor of nature (with photo-realistic animation) while never underestimating its perils. "It's terrifying out here," observes a wizened xenoceratops who, despite the dozen horns that protrude from his face, is as much a scaredy-cat as Arlo.
Cuteness certainly provides no special protection here. Rubbery and delicately mottled, Arlo ends up with cuts, scars, and bruises as he tumbles down rocks and trips over branches. A surprising viscerality, especially for an animated film, accompanies his throbbing, stinging voyage.
Also tagging along for the ride is the Spot, a wild, wordless human boy who springs around on all fours and ends up being Arlo's pet dog. Freckled and lightly sunburned with leaves tangled in his dirty hair, the lonely but resourceful Spot is the film's true achievement. Easy with a snarl and always ready to behead a Jurassic bug twice his size with his teeth (you've got to see it to believe it), he and the talking Arlo not only make for an adorable and charmingly odd duo, but also forge an achingly deep bond, especially in a scene that finds the pair sharing their losses nonverbally through beautifully primal rituals and illustrations.
These weightier moments are balanced by a goofy wit and a few contemporary touches. Along the way, Arlo and Spot meet a few deftly sketched characters, most memorably a cowboy T-Rex, (Sam Elliot, who's enjoying a stellar year) with an arc of teeth marks grooved on to the side of his face, who delivers a lovely speech about how fear should neither be surrendered to nor ignored.
But the film's most extraordinary moments lie in its unexpected images, like Arlo and his usually gruff father dancing in the cornfield at night to stimulate the fireflies into patterns -- in essence, drawing with their whirling bodies -- and the ominous appearance of gray-black beaks poking through dense clouds, churning portentously like shark fins, but up above.
When Pixar does what it does best like this, the result is so marvelously and excitingly imaginative that it's impossible not to feel let down that four of its five announced productions for the future are sequels. For all the trouble it had getting to the screen, "The Good Dinosaur" is a triumph of creativity. Too bad the studio's business plan is as derivative as they come.