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A Great-Looking If Underpowered Adventure With A 'Good Dinosaur'

An Apatosaurus named Arlo meets a human boy on his adventures in The Good Dinosaur. Courtesy of Pixar hide caption

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Courtesy of Pixar

An Apatosaurus named Arlo meets a human boy on his adventures in The Good Dinosaur.

Courtesy of Pixar

Pixar's The Good Dinosaur imagines what would happen if our Mesozoic-era ancestors, instead of being wiped out by an asteroid, survived to star in John Ford Westerns. An opening scene shows the fatal rock whizzing by Earth harmlessly; "millions of years later," Apatosauruses own family farms while Tyrannosauruses herd bison on the frontier. In their shadow, humans must have evolved from the Carnivora clade alongside dogs and wolves, judging by how they bark and scamper in the wild unless a dino can domesticate them. It sounds silly, but after the teeth-gnashing nonsense of Jurassic World, just be glad one film this year treats dinosaurs with something approaching respect.

The studio conjures this universe in its lushest, most visually stunning film to date. The Good Dinosaur is full of gorgeous mountain landscapes inspired by the American West and voluminous clouds floating against a purple-orange-blue sky. Water effects are lovingly detailed, whether the flow of the river that runs through the landscape or raindrops from the frequent storms that threaten it. The characters may look cartoony—and cloyingly cute—but they're wandering through what could be Thomas Hill paintings in panoramic widescreen.

But no one, child or adult, would sit through 100 minutes of pure wandering. So there's a by-the-book story here, too, one that recycles several familiar Disney and Pixar elements in rather prehistoric fashion. A shrimpy Apatosaur named Arlo (voiced by child actor Raymond Ochoa) must face both a Long Journey Home and, shall we say, an early parental absence. While hunting a "critter" who threatens his corn-farmer family's winter food supply, Arlo's strong, proud Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) meets an early, Mufasa-like fate. He leaves his son only with endless dad-platitudes—Daditudes—which are never quite enough to help overcome Arlo's fear of the outside world. When a storm later washes Arlo away, he'll have to team up with the "critter," who's really a small, panting human child named Spot, to find his way back into adulthood.

Any hope that Pixar's second 2015 release would meet the incredibly high narrative bar set by studio masterwork Inside Out is dashed early on, once we realize the story (which has five different names on it) is almost exclusively concerned with lessons of bravery. But it's also a leisurely and contemplative script, deliberately lacking the rapid-fire dialogue of Finding Nemo or the Toy Story films. Spot doesn't talk, after all. When he and Arlo are on their own, director Peter Sohn is perfectly fine to just let us bask in the way they live. That gives us more time to enjoy the wonderful score by Jeff and Mychael Danna, which packs in fiddles, flutes, and horns sounding across the valley—everything you could want from a frontier soundtrack.

Hard to believe that a tale this simple could have caused so much trouble for its makers, but The Good Dinosaur also has the most tortured production history of any Pixar film. The studio replaced director Bob Peterson midway through development and drastically reworked the script, tossing much of the original voice cast (including Judy Greer, Bill Hader, and John Lithgow). Seams are visible, especially in the early scenes, which spend a long time introducing family members we'll rarely see.

Is Pixar doing the right thing quality-wise by pushing two films out in the same year? Increased production demands will lead to less vital finished films, and could threaten early extinction for an animation studio that has become a national treasure. Still, the final cut of The Good Dinosaur includes Sam Elliott as a tough-as-nails T. rex cowboy who tells campfire stories about dueling to the death with crocodiles. That has to count for something in this dino-dizzy modern world.

A note on the preshow: The accompanying short this time out is "Sanjay's Super Team," a candy-colored charmer detailing a kid's superhero obsession and his father's efforts to interest him in Hinduism. The autobiographical film is refreshingly open about its spirituality and multiculturalism, and will hopefully herald exciting feature-length projects for director and in-house Pixar talent Sanjay Patel.