Disney films have been whittled down to follow certain formulas and story tropes, so for anyone already familiar with only a handful of Disney films out of the very extensive Disney library, Disney’s latest film, The Good Dinosaur, will have very little to offer, not only in the way of how The Good Dinosaur employs Disney’s old tropes but also in the way of The Good Dinosaur’s own originality, which happens to be extremely offbeat. This latter statement is said mostly in part due to The Good Dinosaur’s employment of 3D CGI to tell a story about talking dinosaurs, which only gets stranger, as halfway through The Good Dinosaur becomes a Western film channeling the style of John Ford, complete with cattle wranglers in the way of a T-Rex family and wide shots of a barren landscape. The weirdness of The Good Dinosaur is appreciated, but the film teeters from one action event to the other and while there is a sense of cohesiveness, the biggest draw of the film—its Western aspects—come too little too late and are mostly tacked on as a forethought of style rather than something to foreground the film in. The elements described above leave The Good Dinosaur as an awkward bag of mixed film elements, some Disney, some old but all around a mess.
In an alternative universe, there exists a world where dinosaurs were never wiped extinct by a comet; the comet missed. Millions of years later, dinosaurs can now speak although whether for the sake of the audience or because dinosaurs have gained the ability via evolution is never stated and doesn’t really seem to matter. The story is focused on a family of Apatosaurus who lead an agrarian lifestyle. The Good Dinosaur’s main protagonist, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), is the runt of the litter and struggles to even feed the hens. As the years go by Arlo’s siblings, Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla), earn their marks by completing various agrarian tasks, thus earning their place in the family. Discontent with his son’s self-confidence, Arlo’s father, Henry (Jeffrey Wright), gives Arlo the duty of capturing whatever creature it is that’s sneaking into their Winter stash of corn and subsequently eating it.
Arlo manages to successfully set the trap, revealing a human child, later known as Spot (Jack Bright) but is unable to kill it due to compassion. Spot escapes but not before father and son give chase into the mountains. The two are unable to find Spot whose small size offers a nimbleness that allows him to hide which thereafter force Arlo and Henry to return home. Things go awry, however, when the two are caught in a storm and in order to save his son, Henry sacrifices himself and is taken by the flood. Unable to keep himself steady upon the rocks, Arlo loses consciousness and floats downstream. He later awakens lost but not alone—Spot is with him. Accompanied by his now human friend, Arlo must find his way of home.
At its core, The Good Dinosaur is about finding one’s potential in the face of adversity. It’s a story about adolescence and learning to become an adult without the safe guidance of one’s parents. It’s also about becoming the father-like figure in order for the family to survive. These themes, in combination with the death of Henry, whose death scene visually echoes Mustafa’s fall and death by trampling, make The Good Dinosaur extremely similar to The Lion King, yet there are key differences that prevent The Good Dinosaur from being as good as The Lion King.
While 3D animation is cheaper than 2D animation, 3D animation lacks some of the aesthetic styles of 2D animation, mostly in 2D animation’s ability to resemble paintings or to create scenes that are only capable via 2D animation. Because of this, 3D animation’s attempts at beauty just resemble live-action except with the obviousness of being computer generated. The Good Dinosaur, then, just isn’t very pretty to look at. As stated earlier, halfway through the film does become reminiscent of John Ford films, but the wide shots in The Good Dinosaur are merely poor imitations of Ford’s own mastery over making dead landscapes appear alive.
As a character, Arlo is hardly likeable and it’s only by the end of the film when Arlo has matured that the character begins to have a semblance of likeability. In comparing The Good Dinosaur to the Lion King, while Arlo does have a humorous companion in the way of Spot, whose humor, fortunately, differs from Timon and Pumba’s, Arlo himself doesn’t have the humorous spirit of a young and brash Simba. Arlo’s story is one of self-pity and his journey is painful to watch, not because of a sense of emotional sympathy but because it’s embarrassing to watch.
The Good Dinosaur isn’t a completely bad film however. The aspect of talking dinosaurs who behave as humans gives The Good Dinosaur a surreal humor and where Arlo fails to capture the audience, the rest of the film’s supporting cast—both heroes and villains, the latter even being so evil that they are in fact fun to hate—more than make up for it.
Ultimately, The Good Dinosaur falls a bit short not because it may be seen as a poor attempt at The Lion King but, because The Good Dinosaur takes tropes from its predecessors and doesn’t seem to know exactly how to run them, leaving a feeling of a film that just doesn’t quite have a polish.