The Good Dinosaur

by Alex Stroup, staff writer

It is interesting to think about what the elevator pitch was for The Good Dinosaur at Pixar. Three come to mind after watching it:

  1. "Imagine a world where the meteor missed Earth, and dinosaurs and humans coexist."
  2. "It's the familiar story of a boy and his dog struggling to get back home. Except the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy."
  3. "What if we did a remake of The Lion King, but for people who thought the music was the weakest part?"

These are all accurate, and they all indicate problems with the movie.

Official movie trailer for "The Good Dinosaur" (2015). © Disney Pixar.

The first one is what was most known from the advertising. It also has almost nothing to do with this movie. Rather than driving the story, it is a backfill to explain the story they wanted. Since this review is imagining elevator pitches, let's also imagine an early story meeting:

Director Peter Sohn: "So we'll have this dinosaur named Arlo (and we'll get Raymond Ochoa to play the part) and he meets a young human named Spot (maybe Jack Bright can do his voice)."

Executive Producer John Lasseter: "Wait. Humans and dinosuars never lived at the same time."

Peter Sohn: "Yeah, sure, of course. But wouldn't it be cool?"

John Lasseter: "You've sold me, but I'm the one who will get letters from upset paleontologists and stopped by cranks as I wander around DCA admiring my ever-expanding empire. Can you help a senior executive out here?"

Peter Sohn: "Sure. We'll open with a shot of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs not killing the dinosaurs. Then a title card saying "65 million years later..." and then we'll never mention it again. That work?"

John Lasseter: "Sounds good, and let's put it in the trailer so people know we know. Now, why is the human boy named Spot?"

Peter Sohn: "I'll get to that in the next imaginary conversation we have."

So, the fact of humans and dinosaurs coexisting is not remotely a point of interest for the movie. It just is. Kind of like The Flintstones. Except with the societal roles switched. Dino is Fred Flinstone and Fred Flintstone is Dino.

"The Good Dinosaur" (2015). © Disney Pixar.

Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) are farmers living out in the middle of nowhere—Wyoming-ish —growing corn on a farm. Brontosaurus-type farmers, but farmers. They're happy, and it is quickly revealed, about to be new parents as three eggs hatch. Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla) and Buck (Ryan Teeple) hatch first, with Arlo (yes, they did get Raymond Ochoa after all) coming out last and the runt of trio.

As they grow, Libby and Buck are both outgoing and confident, and help the family. Arlo remains small and cowardly (the farm's collection of chicken-like things terrifies him, and the "chickens" know it) and can't do much to help out around the homestead. Dad finally assigns Arlo a task of finding and killing a critter that keeps raiding the corn being stored for the winter. Turns out that the critter in question is Spot, a human boy who is apparently all on his own. And the term critter really is more accurate than derogatory.

For some reason, humans are essentially dogs. Spot walks around on all fours, howls and barks like a dog, scratches himself like a dog, and is able to track by scent like a dog. As far as the movie is concerned, Spot could just as easily have actually been a dog and it wouldn't make the slightest difference.

"The Good Dinosaur" (2015). © Disney Pixar.

Perhaps it is meant to be deep to suggest that if the dinosaurs had lived they'd have evolved human social and engineering characters (but not opposable thumbs) while humans would never have gotten much beyond basic animal levels of cognition (but still evolved large brains and tool using hands). Which is a significant, if deeply erroneous, embracing of evolution.

Anyway, once Arlo and Spot meet, The Good Dinosaur quickly becomes The Lion King II: This Time Without Elton John or Scar. First, there is a very explicit Lion King moment that may be too intense for the youngest audience member—and then Arlo and Spot find themselves lost and far away from the farm, having to learn how to get along in order to triumphantly return.

One benefit of being a child in the audience is that derivative is OK. Odds are they won't recognize it, and even if they do, watching a movie over and over again is what they're best at, anyway. For adults in the audience, though, the hooks are relatively thin; this is very much a kids-first movie. A disappointing turn from Pixar, though hopefully done intentionally.

"The Good Dinosaur" (2015). © Disney Pixar.

Foremost among the pleasures for parents are the strikingly realistic backgrounds throughout the movie. Every character in The Good Dinosaur is animated in a cartoonish style but the settings are photo-realistic throughout. Rushing water is a recurring theme, and every time an engorged river was shown running through rapids, it would be easy to believe that they'd simply filmed on the river in Kings Canyon rather than actually animating it. The discordant animation styles are abrupt at times (especially when a cartoon character is shown in that perfectly animated water), but it's still impressive eye candy throughout.

The second pleasure is a weird surreality throughout. Much of it doesn't work particularly well (again, such as the humans being, essentially, dogs, and then actually naming one of them Spot) but a few scenes do, such as a scene involving some fruit or another irritating some prairie dogs. Unfortunately, they're all too brief and spread out too far to overcome the essential blandness of the story.

Young kids will likely love the movie, and parents will have to settle for the vicarious joy of that rather than the direct pleasure Pixar usually provides.

"The Good Dinosaur" (2015). © Disney Pixar.

  • The Good Dinosaur is a Disney Pixar release
  • Wide theatrical release on Thursday, November 26, 2015
  • Directed by Peter Sohn
  • Screenplay by Meg LaFauve
  • Starring Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott
  • Running time: 100 minutes
  • Rated PG for peril, action, and thematic elements
  • Alex's rating: 6 out of 10 stars



  1. By carolinakid

    Sounds like Pixar's first clunker. I'll wait for the DVD.

  2. By DwarfPlanet

    I've noticed in your reviews Alex that after reading them I expect to see a 3 or 4 stars but then you rate them rather high such as a 6 for Dinosaur.

  3. By Alex S.

    Well, it's a 10 point scale so to me anything below 7 isn't really all that good. At least not good enough that I'm recommending you go out of your way to see it.

    But Disney rarely puts out anything truly awful. And The Good Dinosaur isn't awful, it is just mediocre.

    That said, I do regret having put a star rating on my first review way too many years ago. I don't like it when my thinking goes to things like "well I just gave such-and-such a 7 and this is slightly worse so I guess I have to give it a 6" or "I don't want to give this a 3 because that doesn't leave much room for something to be worse." Generally my goal isn't to put movies into competition with each other (if I were reviewing everything that came out that might make more sense), just trying to give my own reaction to that movie and explain why and leave it to the reader to decide if that has any weight or merit.

    I don't really put much thought into the number. And I'm also generally reviewing a movie within a day or two of seeing it which doesn't give it any chance to settle in my mind. A year out I might give something a very different review. But looking at the last 10 reviews I've done, the ratings do sort them into a pretty good approximation of my preferences:

    The Good Dinosaur - 6
    Ant-Man - 7
    Inside Out - 9
    Tomorrowland - 6
    Avengers: Age of Ultron - 7
    Cinderella - 3
    McFarland - 8
    INto the Woods - 7
    Big Hero 6 - 8
    Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day - 6

    Looking at that now I'd say I was too hard (in stars, can't remember what I said) on Cinderella. I'd probably bump that up a couple. I was also apparently too easy on Tomorrowland, that has only soured further in my memory, I'd knock it down a couple. I'm surprised to see Avengers with a 7 because that hasn't aged well either.

  4. By AVP

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    I've noticed in your reviews Alex that after reading them I expect to see a 3 or 4 stars but then you rate them rather high such as a 6 for Dinosaur.

    I was expecting a 4 also.

    I saw the movie during a preview for DVC members, which meant I was the first of my friends to see it. I didn't want to provide any spoilers, so when friends asked what I thought, I said that my favorite part was when my 16-month-old started crying, and I got to leave about halfway through.

    I will need to see it again when it comes to DVD just to see the last half of the story, but the first half left me grateful to have an excuse to leave. I also *hated* The Lion King, and having That Scene reused for no reason just set me off.


  5. By AnotherJenny

    I knew in the middle of the preview in DCA that I wouldn't be seeing this movie. I also read that they dropped some characters/voice cast a few months ago. The fact that they were still changing the story that late wasn't a great sign.

    As far as star ratings, I think you have to rate things for what they are. I might personally like a 7 star drama better than a 9 star action movie because that's my preference, but that doesn't mean that the action movie wasn't better for what it was supposed to be. Just a thought.

  6. By MidwayManiac

    As with most anything, it's all relative to what you're expecting. As a Pixar flick, I would've expected something quite fantastic and may've ended up thinking it's a meh movie. BUT ...

    As it turns out, I read this and several other reviews ahead of time. As such, my expectations were tempered considerably. So when it ended and my wife turned to me and said "It was good, not great - I expect more from Pixar" I retorted "It was actually better than I thought it would be, based on the reviews."

  7. By cstephens

    First repeating what I wrote in the movies thread:

    "The Good Dinosaur" - Overall, I enjoyed it. There were a few parts that were a little slow, and there were some characters and character bits that didn't work for me. But, oh my gosh, Spot. And Spot and Arlo. But, Spot! There were a few scenes/situations that I thought would be fairly intense for younger kids.

    Warning for those who might need it - there's a reptile scene. I totally forgot about that.

    "Sanjay's Super Team" - Very different from other Pixar shorts, and I loved it.

    I've been looking forward to this film for a few years now, with the teaser about the meteor missing Earth. I guess I didn't really expect the movie to be about that, that it was just funny and a "what if" to set up a situation where the dinosaurs weren't all obliterated. As for humans and dinosaurs co-existing, it was just a conceit of the story that I accepted.

    They showed the scene with Arlo and Spot and the sticks at D23 Expo this year, and I was almost sobbing, as were all of my friends sitting near me and a ton of other strangers sitting near me. It wasn't quite as bad for me when I saw the scene in the film, although I started tearing up earlier because I knew the scene was imminent. There were also a few other scenes later in the film that brought tears. Pixar seems to do that to me a lot.

    I probably wasn't as engaged in this film as much as I was in some other Pixar films, but then, I actually wasn't that enamoured of "The Incredibles" and "Cars" and "A Bug's Life", and I was so bewildered by the beginning of "Up" that it took me a long time to get into the main film.

    I agree with Alex about the quality of the animation. When I first saw scenes from the film, it was hard to believe they weren't just live-action shots in the wilderness. In the preview scenes I saw, it was very jarring to have Arlo in all his greenness in the midst of all that, and he seemed to stick out a lot. I didn't seem to have that problem in watching the film itself.

    I really liked the development of the relationship and interaction between Arlo and Spot. And I'm glad the resolution was what it was and wasn't hinted at in any of the trailers.

  8. By MidwayManiac

    from Variety today:

    ‘The Good Dinosaur’: Pixar May Suffer First Loss at Box Office


    With a production budget of $200 million and roughly $150 million spent on marketing, industry analysts and executives say that Pixar and its parent company Disney must make $500 million to break even theatrically. Currently, the film has made $131.3 million globally and is showing signs of fading fast. At this point, many project that “The Good Dinosaur” will be lucky to crack the $400 million mark. That would make it the lowest grossing Pixar film since “A Bug’s Life” made $363.4 million worldwide in 1998.

  9. By DwarfPlanet

    So I don't watch much television but for a company who spent $150 million on marketing I lost track of this movie and if it hadn't been for Alex review I probably wouldn't have known it was out there. It seems I am seeing more marketing after it was a "financial flop" (don't shoot me for the word) then prior to its release. I will keep an eye out for it in the $5-10 bargain bin in a few more months and then give it a watch.

  10. By stan4d_steph

    The background and scenery animation was amazing. The recreation of natural landscapes was so clear it was hard to believe it was animated. However, they decided to stick cartoonish dinosaurs and other creatures into that landscape, along with a weak hero and flat story. I would like a super-cut edit of just the background animation with some nice music.

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