Pixar plays it safe with ‘The Good Dinosaur’

Pretty prehistory: Spot and Arlo admire the wonders of nature in The Good Dinosaur.

Three stars

The Good Dinosaur Voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Frances McDormand. Directed by Peter Sohn. Rated PG. Opens Wednesday.

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur was first announced way back in 2011, and at one time it was set for release in November 2013, with a voice cast including John Lithgow, Bill Hader, Neil Patrick Harris and Judy Greer, under the direction of Pixar veteran Bob Peterson (Up). None of those cast members ended up in the version of the movie that’s being released this week, and while Peterson still receives a story credit, he was replaced as director by Peter Sohn and as screenwriter by Meg LeFauve. This kind of radical retooling is usually a red flag for live-action studio films, but it may just be a byproduct of Pixar’s typically meticulous perfectionism.

We’ll never know what Peterson’s original version of The Good Dinosaur might have looked like, but the years of rewriting and reanimating and rerecording have resulted in a movie that is curiously bland. Not surprisingly for Pixar, the animation is gorgeous to look at, and it’s solid, pleasurable entertainment for kids. But it’s only slightly more sophisticated than the similarly themed Ice Age movies, with a straightforward story about a young dinosaur conquering his fears while on a quest through the wilderness. Although the movie takes place in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, the filmmakers do little to explore how dinosaur life might have evolved over millions of years.

Things have changed a bit, at least, as scrawny Apatosaurus Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) lives on a farm with his parents and siblings, cultivating corn. The Good Dinosaur is a Western of sorts, with the frontier family battling the elements and worrying about having enough food for the winter. After his father’s tragic death (a fairly stock, Disney-style moment), Arlo ends up separated from his family, with only a dog-like caveboy he names Spot (Jack Bright) for a companion as he attempts to find his way home.

Arlo and Spot’s episodic adventures take them to pretty familiar territory, although their boy-and-his-dog dynamic is entertaining to watch. After facing peril from carnivores and battling the elements, Arlo learns to find his inner strength and stand up for himself. It’s a simplistic story with a simplistic moral, especially compared to Pixar’s other 2015 movie, the much richer and more complex Inside Out. Still, its visuals are often breathtaking, and its characters are lovable (not to mention merchandisable). After all the delays and changes, though, that feels like a bit of a letdown.

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