“The Good Dinosaur” is Pixar’s most trippy and tripped-up film: a wayward tale, uncertain of its steps, about a Gumby-green young dinosaur lost in prehistoric forests that are rendered in lushly sensory detail and populated by bug-eyed animations.
Any animated movie worth its salt usually has something hallucinogenic about it. More often than not, Pixar has honored that tradition, whether in the day-glow head trips of “Inside Out” or the ooo-ing aliens of “Toy Story 2” who, trapped all their lives in a vending machine, worship “The Claw.”
But in “The Good Dinosaur,” director Peter Sohn and Pixar have, for the first time, wandered out into the wilderness. As if exhilarated by the open air, Sohn and his animators create such dazzling imagery of flowing water and mountainous landscapes that “The Good Dinosaur” might be most attractive to mushroom-eating hikers.
Swept far down a river, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a timid Apatosaurus runt born to a family of farming dinosaurs, attempts to trek home with a young caveman companion Spot (Jack Bright). Their encounters in the wild are bizarre, like a kind of prehistoric “Alice in Wonderland.”
There’s a googly-eyed Styracosaurus with small animals living on his horns and a pack of Pterodactyl storm-chasers addicted to the “higher elevation” of a hurricane. There’s even a psychedelic sequence when Arlo and Spot accidentally eat some bad fruit: Fear and Loathing in the Mesozoic.
The screenplay, by Meg LeFauve from a story conceived by Bob Peterson (who was replaced as director by Sohn, a Pixar veteran making his feature debut), is actually set in a parallel time. In the movie’s opening moments, the asteroid meant to spell doom for the dinosaurs whizzes past the Earth.
It’s a concept that could have meant all kinds of interesting possibilities, but “The Good Dinosaur” makes surprisingly little use of most of them. Here, the dinosaurs have developed into a partly agrarian society (Arlo’s family harvests corn) and the first homo sapiens are pesky critters. As his name suggests, Spot is more like a dog than a human; he resembles a two-foot tall, tongue-wagging Zac Efron.
But he is also more adept in the woods than the fearful Arlo, and the film’s most tender moments are in the wordless bonding between the pair of orphans as they navigate their way through terrain that appears modeled on the Rockies, somewhere near the geysers of Yellowstone.
If the story is uneven, the scenery is consistently pristine. Surely the reason Pixar pushed forward with the long-delayed “The Good Dinosaur” was so that its outdoor animations for the film would see the light of day. Water — whether in pebbly shallows, luminously reflected on stone walls or welling up in the eyes of a homesick dinosaur — has never been more beautifully captured.
And though a host of films from “127 Hours” to “Wild” have in recent years exalted life on the trail, no film will better spur nature-lovers to head for the hills.
But the best part of “The Good Dinosaur” may well be the short that precedes it: “Sanjay’s Super Team,” by Sanjay Patel. In it, a boy and father sit on opposite sides of a room, each crouched in solemn devotion to boxes before them: a TV blaring a superhero cartoon for the boy, a cabinet for Hindu meditation for the father. In a few tender minutes, the short bridges two worlds more sweetly than the dinosaur-human pairing to follow.
“The Good Dinosaur,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “peril, action and thematic elements.” Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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