Pixar has spoiled us. All those fresh, funny, touching movies have transformed the stale genre of kids entertainment into must-see viewing for the masses. It wasn’t just children flocking to “Inside Out” and “WALL-E,” “The Incredibles” and “Toy Story.”
But heavy is the head that wears the Pixar logo. What happens when one of the studio’s movies doesn’t live up to its pedigree? The disappointment is inevitably more acute than when another studio serves up a half-baked dish.
Pixar’s latest, “The Good Dinosaur,” succeeds on one level. It’s a gorgeous piece of art. Photorealistic images of mountains and trees form a backdrop for colorful beasts and brilliant displays of prehistoric fireflies. The movie is worth seeing just for its remarkable depiction of shimmering water. But the story? We’ve seen this one before: Take one underdog, kill off his parent, throw in a wacky sidekick and send them on a journey. It’s a nice, conventional story, but it’s not Pixar-level imaginative.
Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is the Apatosaurus of the title, and he lives on an alternate-reality Earth where his species wasn’t wiped out. We first meet him at birth. His siblings have already cracked through their shells, exploding into the world with boundless energy. But Arlo’s egg — the largest of the lot — just sits there, intact. It’s going to be a big one, his father (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) exclaims. Except the huge egg houses a tiny, terrified runt with knobby knees and worried eyes.
As Arlo grows up, he remains the weakest and most anxious member of his farming family. (They’re highly evolved herbivores.) His siblings begin to get more responsibilities in the corn fields, but this tiniest dino is stuck feeding the chickens every day, and even that chore terrorizes him. (In his defense, prehistoric chickens are much more aggressive than the modern-day variety.)
There’s never any doubt that fear is going to be Arlo’s biggest adversary, and so, after a predictable turn of events, he ends up washed down a river and far from home. Luckily, he picks up a buddy along the way. Spot is a little boy who growls, barks, pants, walks on all fours and, in short, looks a lot like a ferocious terrier. The humans are the beasts in this world. But Spot is tough and clever, and he comes to Arlo’s rescue continually during the pair’s trek home. It turns out man is a dino’s best friend.
Along the way, they meet some creepy villains who sound like the prehistoric version of rednecks, plus some fun new friends, including a buffalo-rasslin’ crew of T. Rexes (the patriarch, Butch, is voiced by Sam Elliott, naturally). Meanwhile, Spot and Arlo bond. No surprises here, other than one hysterical interlude when the two accidentally eat some psychedelic fruit.
“The Good Dinosaur” had a less-than-seamless transition to the big screen. It was rewritten multiple times; the original director, Bob Peterson, who dreamed up the idea for the movie, was jettisoned, and Peter Sohn took over; voice actors were hired and replaced. Usually these kinds of setbacks hint at big-screen calamity. “The Good Dinosaur” is hardly catastrophic. But the movie is a lot like Arlo. On its own, it seems fine; just don’t compare it to its capable siblings.
PG At area theaters. Contains action sequences, depictions of death and perilous situations. 100 minutes.