Four instalments of monster mashing in Jurassic Park have taught us to be thankful that an asteroid supposedly impacted Earth around 66 million years ago and wiped out the various prehistoric predators.
Pixar Animation Studios begs to differ.
Director Peter Sohn and his animation wizards conjure an alternate version of events: the ill-fated asteroid bypassed our third rock from the sun, allowing Tyrannosaurus Rex and other hulking beasts to thrive.
Consequently, the evolutionary food chain is reversed: dinosaurs learn to talk, build homes, raise dysfunctional families and expand their horizons while humans are an untamed species that roams the wilderness on all fours and communicates in crude howls and growls.
It’s a cute concept that provides a solid foundation for Sohn’s life-affirming tale of friendship and loyalty, inverting the touching central relationship of How To Train Your Dragon with similarly teary-eyed results.
At the heart of the film is a family of Apatosaurus comprising patriarch Henry (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), his wife Ida (Frances McDormand) and three children Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla) and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).
They own a farm and work hard to harvest crops for the bitter winter months.
“You got to earn your mark by doing something big for something bigger than yourself,” Henry teaches his offspring.
A tragic accident robs the siblings of their father and soon after, Arlo tumbles into a raging river and is swept far away from his loved ones. Lost in the wilderness, Arlo meets a feral cave boy called Spot (Jack Bright), who becomes the dinosaur’s protector.
Beast and human embark on a magical adventure of self-discovery, bound for Arlo’s home in the shadow of the Clawed-Tooth Mountains. En route, they fall foul of villainous Velociprators and a scavenging Pterodactylus called Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), and befriend a Tyrannosaurus herder called Butch (Sam Elliott).
After the heartbreak, hilarity and narrative sophistication of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur is a step backwards for Pixar. The plot is formulaic and predictable, and the finale is drizzled in emotional syrup.
While the script lacks daring and invention, the visuals are truly jaw-dropping and push the boundaries of photo-realistic animation.
Gentle humour is concentrated in the opening hour, before the obligatory harsh life lessons including one pivotal scene in which Arlo and Spot communicate their loss and loneliness through actions rather than words. The pay-off is an emotional gut punch that has become the studio’s trademark.