In ordinary hands, "The Good Dinosaur" might not be worth your time. It's got its share of gee-whiz elements and isn't shy about imparting sweet lessons ideal for improving 5-year-old minds. But this is Pixar we're talking about, and for those folks doing things the ordinary way is never an option.
Instead, under the direction of Peter Sohn working from a script from Meg LeFauve, "The Good Dinosaur" is antic and unexpected as well as homiletic, rife with subversive elements, wacky critters and some of the most beautiful landscapes ever seen in a computer animated film.
Though those vistas are nominally prehistoric — this is a film about dinosaurs, remember — the animators were inspired by trips they took to the contemporary American Northwest. Visions of raging rivers, an eternity of trees, even a field of fireflies, are reason enough to see the film all by themselves.
Engaging though it is, "The Good Dinosaur" did not come together easily. It's been in development since 2009, a long time even for animation, and though LeFauve has sole screenplay credit, the fact that she shares story credit with four other writers — Sohn, Erik Benson, Kelsey Mann and Bob Peterson (who also has an original concept and development credit) points up how many cooks were involved in this tasty broth.
At its inception, "The Good Dinosaur" begins as a what-if story. What if that celebrated asteroid that supposedly hit Earth 65 million years ago, leading to mass dinosaur extinction, had somehow missed its target? What would have happened to all those creatures?
One of "The Good Dinosaur's" zanier ideas is that the dinosaurs would end up amusingly duplicating the lifestyles of characters in classic movie westerns.
So Apatosaurus protagonist Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is born into a family of homesteading subsistence farmers, constantly worried that the crops will fail and leave them with insufficient food to survive the brutal winters in the shadow of the Clawtooth Mountains.
Arlo is the fearful runt of the Apatosaurus family, headed by Poppa (the honey-voiced Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand). He is a lad so congenitally timid even the family chickens scare him.
But big-hearted Poppa, given to saying encouraging things like "you've got to earn your mark by doing something bigger than yourself," thinks it will all work out.
Attempting to toughen up his son, Poppa tasks Arlo with catching and destroying one of the pesky critters who are breaking into the family silo and eating the corn they're saving for the winter.
This critter turns out to be, of all things, a feral human child, a ferocious and fearless boy named Spot who is considerably more canine than human. Voiced by Jack Bright, Spot lives on all fours, grunts and howls rather than speaks and proves a perfect companion for Arlo on an adventure thrust upon him when (spoiler alert for 5-year-olds) one of his parents dies.
As Arlo and Spot travel on their voyage of self-discovery, the fun of the journey is the wide variety of out-and-out outlandish characters they run into.
— Pet Collector, a quizzical Styracosaurus (voiced by director Sohn) who is an expert at camouflage and has a whole menagerie of creatures helpfully sitting on his horns, including Dreamkiller, "who protects me from having unrealistic goals." Really.
— The vulture gang, a group of pterodactyls led by the whacked-out visionary Thunderclap (a very funny Steve Zahn), who believes "the storm provides" and wants to eat everything that moves.
A family of nasty raptors who live to rustle longhorns (buffalo, not cattle) from their rightful owners.
Those owners, it turns out, are a deeply entertaining T-rex family who embody more cowboy clichés than you would have thought possible. Most fun is Butch, head of the clan, who tells hair-raising adventure stories with punchlines like "I wasn't ready for dying that day."
Just killing it as Butch is the veteran Sam Elliott. He began the year with an equally effective role playing opposite Blythe Danner in the Sundance hit "I'll See You in My Dreams," and it's great to see him ending 2015 in the same high style.
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'The Good Dinosaur'
MPAA rating: PG, for peril, action and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes