It feels sacrilegious to speak ill of Pixar. This is the studio behind “Toy Story,” “Inside Out,” “WALL-E,” “Up,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” after all — the kinds of funny, clever tearjerkers that appeal to everyone regardless of age, sex, race and political affiliation. Pixar was basically the original Adele.
And yet, the studio’s most recent release feels different than its predecessors, because “The Good Dinosaur” is — is it okay to say this out loud? — totally derivative.
That’s not to say it isn’t beautifully made; the visuals are spectacular. And the premise is promising: The movie takes place in an alternate reality where dinosaurs weren’t wiped out. Instead, they evolved and even co-existed with humans. So far, so good — right?
In the end, though, the movie seems like it was made more to show off Pixar’s technical capabilities than its storytelling. The photorealistic rivers, mountains and streams do look amazing. But everything else looks like something we’ve seen in another animated movie. Here’s why.
The movie is about dinosaurs
Is there any species that delights small children more than dinosaurs? Just look at all the four-year-olds who can somehow distinguish between a brachiosaurus and its nearly identical cousin, the brontosaurus. So making a kid’s movie about prehistoric beasts is a nice, safe bet, which is why it’s been done so many times before, like in “The Land Before Time,” “Dinosaur,” “Ice Age,” “Walking With Dinosaurs” and countless others.
But compare the focus in “The Good Dinosaur” to the protagonists in other Pixar movies, and the latest iteration starts to look a little lazy. After all, this is the studio that in “Monsters, Inc.” took something that terrifies kids — monsters — and made a instant classic about them. And just earlier this year with “Inside Out,” Pixar even turned something as scary as adolescent emotions into lovable characters. Now that’s bold.
The protagonist is an uncoordinated underdog
Arlo, an apatosaurus, is the runt of his family. He’s teeny and frightened of everything, even chickens. Plus he can’t seem to walk more than a few yards before taking a spill. He just doesn’t fit in.
Where have we seen this before? You name it! Dumbo, with his huge ears and “Kung Fu Panda’s” obese martial artist, the snail who dreams of being an Indy 500 racer in “Turbo” and Nemo with his tiny tattered fin. The list goes on…
It’s a hero’s journey
Arlo gets washed away from home during a storm and spends most of the movie trying to hike home to reunite with his family. What are the odds he’ll overcome his debilitating fears and return a changed dino?
To answer that question, we need only to recall Arlo’s countless forebears who all made nearly identical treks, such as Fievel in “An American Tale,” Simba in “The Lion King” and Littlefoot in “The Land Before Time.”
A parent dies
This is the crutch to end all crutches, and has showed up in so many Disney movies, people have started posing psychological theories to explain the trend. Like in “Bambi,” “The Lion King,” “Frozen,” “The Jungle Book” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Arlo starts out with two loving parents, but one of them bites the dust.
There are reasons to include this plot point in a movie, and the turn of events will certainly get an audience to feel sympathy for the main character. But in the case of “The Good Dinosaur,” the event seems oddly shoe-horned in. If Arlo’s parents had both survived, the narrative wouldn’t have changed significantly. Arlo could have just as easily been washed away and returned home without offing his dad.
There’s an offbeat sidekick savior
Arlo ends up accompanied by a little cave boy named Spot. This twist is mildly amusing given that the ragamuffin kid growls, barks, fetches and generally acts like a loyal dog. In this reality, dinosaurs are the evolved ones — they’re cattle-herders and farmers. Humans are the pets, but Spot is more than a companion, he’s also Arlo’s protector.
In other words, he’s a lot like other animated accomplices, such as Timon and Pumbaa (with less annoying singing), the Seven Dwarfs, the dapper Jiminy Cricket and “Finding Nemo’s” Dory, who was so beloved she’s getting her own movie.
There’s a psychedelic interlude
One of the most amusing moments in “The Good Dinosaur” is when Arlo and Spot accidentally eat psychedelic fruit and end up transported to a surreal world where they float through the air wearing each other’s heads.
It’s amusing, but it’s hardly original. You don’t see this often anymore, but there was a time when inserting trippy footage into kid-friendly cartoons was fairly standard.
Behold what happens when Dumbo gets drunk off champagne:
And Alice eats those special cookies:
And Winnie the Pooh has what amounts to a bad trip while dreaming of heffalumps and woozles, whatever those are:
T. Rex turns out to be a hero
In “The Good Dinosaur,” Arlo befriends a family of T. Rexes, who look intimidating with their huge sharp teeth, but it turns out they’re just kindly cowboys.
It’s actually a pretty imaginative turn of events, but another movie beat “The Good Dinosaur” to the punch. What are the odds that two blockbusters would turn the most dangerous, blood-thirsty dino into a hero in the same year? But so it goes — “Jurassic World” had the same twist.