Have you ever wondered what would have happened if that asteroid had missed the Earth 65 million years ago, and the dinosaurs were not wiped out? Well, Pixar's newest outing, directed by Peter Sohn, attempts to tell us – through the wonderfully sweet coming-of-age story of a young Apatosaurus.
Timid Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) finds chores around his family farm difficult and scary, much to the annoyance of his tougher siblings and his hard-working parents. In an attempt to encourage him to get through his fear and maintain his responsibilities, Arlo's father (Jeffrey Wright) gives him the important job of protecting their crops from an elusive critter that keeps sneaking into their silo and eating all of their corn that has been stored for winter.
But when Arlo compassionately lets the critter go, his father runs after the pest into the dangerous mountains, ordering Arlo to follow. But in true Disney fashion – and way too similarly painful to THAT scene in The Lion King – Poppa tragically gets swept away by a surging river during the chase, leaving Arlo alone and far from home.
As he tries to find his way back to the farm, Arlo encounters the critter again – and realises the nuisance is actually a young human, who he names Spot. As the boy finds different ways to help Arlo on his journey back, he manages to teach the dinosaur about survival and courage while also making him understand that he's much more capable than he ever thought.
Unlike the complex and mature Inside Out, the other Pixar film released in 2015, The Good Dinosaur is confident in its simplicity – but that doesn't mean it has nothing worthwhile to say. While the "lost and trying to find my way home" plot may come across as a little basic, considering how many times it's been done on screen before (ahem, Finding Nemo), it allows for plenty of funny and heartfelt moments between Arlo and his unlikely friend Spot which touch upon themes as broad as becoming your own person and the importance of family to simply having fun.
The film almost turns into a buddy road-trip movie, as much as an emotional quest to get Arlo home to his family, allowing for a more lighthearted tone that breaks up its more piercingly moving moments. This perfect mix of humour and heart is maintained throughout the film, juggling scenes such as Arlo and Spot descending into giggly, trippy-like madness after eating some fermented fruit and one particularly beautiful night scene that sees Arlo and Spot communicate a shared sense of grief without a word being spoken.
You see, Arlo is the only one who can talk, which makes his interaction with the grunting, puppy-like "cave-boy" Spot all the more touching. It gives off a similar vibe to Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon, which so successfully created a bond between its two lead characters that wasn't based on shared dialogue but evident, emotional understanding. It's a universal feeling that can relate to a wide audience – children and their toys, and adults and their pets, for example – which makes Arlo and Spot's friendship all the more poignant.
Typical of the animation studio, The Good Dinosaur is visually stunning, perhaps even taking the crown as it contains some of the aesthetically gorgeous pictures to date. You'll frequently find yourself amazed that the photo-realistic landscape shots of flowing waters and snow-drizzled mountain tops you are seeing are actually CGI, rather than real-life captured in HD.
As the story takes place in an alternate reality where dinosaurs existed years later than they did in the real world, screenwriter Meg LeFauve had free rein when it came to setting the events, and the location she selected was North American deep south. This is only apparent, though, towards the second half of the film, when Arlo's slightly Southern drawl is eclipsed by unmistakeable twang of three cattle ranching tyrannosaurus rexes.
The T-rexes, while only in the film briefly, demonstrate to Arlo that it's not fear of danger that you should try to rid yourself of, but rather fear of thinking you can't achieve what you set out to, during a memorable campfire scene that has the razor-toothed dinosaurs telling the smaller apatosaurus about how they got their favourite scars. With quality voices such as Anna Paquin's and particularly Sam Elliott's, the humorous segment holds gravitas in its message, without being too hard for little ones to understand.
However, the film's PG-rating is understandable given how many times the story stumbles into darker territory. For all the laughter shared during Arlo and Spot's journey, death is lurking around every corner – albeit through starvation, extreme weather or a maniacal trio of pterodactyls (showing similarities to the scavenger hyenas in The Lion King). It will probably be a little harrowing for very young children, but at least such scenes don't last too long before audiences are being made to chuckle again.
It's unrealistic to think that each movie Pixar turns out is going to be as wonderful as previous efforts such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo, but The Good Dinosaur – while lacking the staying power of the afore-mentioned classics – is much more than just good. It so often draws inspiration from films that have gone before it, but while it's recycled material, not at any point does it feel stale, it just feels sweetly familiar.