The team at Pixar Animation Studios are often described as innovators, but the fact is they keep telling the same story over and over: a naive protagonist strays off the beaten track, meeting some new friends and learning some life lessons in the course of trying to get home.
Neither the best nor the worst of Pixar products, The Good Dinosaur at least registers as a film made for children – as opposed to the vastly over-praised Inside Out, which seemed to be made by one committee of child psychologists for another.
For children, the adventures of the timid young apatosaurus Arlo (voiced by child actor Raymond Ochoa) ought to be good for some straightforward laughs and thrills. For adults, the main interest of the film lies in the background, in a few senses.
First, the landscapes set new standards of computer-generated hyper-realism: the setting is recognisably the American north-west, and it’s easy for the eye to drift away from the action to dwell on rugged mesas and snowy peaks.
Second, the screenwriters have supplied this talking-animal fantasy with a bizarre science-fiction rationale. As we learn in a prologue, the film takes place in an alternate universe, where the asteroid that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs zipped straight by Earth rather than colliding with it.
Millions of years later, these dinosaurs have become “civilised”, growing crops and tending livestock – while humans, who have evolved in the meantime, are stuck in the Stone Age and treated as pests.
Finally, the film is a Western pastiche, with different dinosaur species standing in for the stock characters of the genre. There’s a band of pterodactyls who are no-good varmints, and a menacing but decent clan of T-Rexes, led by a father voiced by professional cowboy Sam Elliott.
There’s even a dinosaur who tastelessly suggests a Native American stereotype: a lone styracosaurus who talks like Eeyore (his voice is supplied by the film’s director, Peter Sohn) and lets birds and other critters sit on his horns like good luck charms.
Yet the film pointedly lacks the traditional Western theme – the idea of a struggle over territory occurring at a decisive historical moment. While some of the dinosaur characters prey on others, all appear equally at home, part of an ecosystem that has endured for millennia.
If anything, it’s the humans – “savages” compared to the civilised Arlo and his family – who are viewed as interlopers. But they remain too marginal to pose any threat: children are sure to be delighted by Arlo’s harmless caveboy friend Spot (Jack Bright), who runs round like a dog with his tongue hanging out.
Considering its sheer wackiness, the film is often absurdly solemn: calendar-art images of dinosaurs huddled by a campfire or gazing wistfully toward the horizon are reminiscent of Far Side cartoons, but don’t always seem meant to make us laugh.
And if we take them seriously? Consciously or not, Pixar has pulled off a remarkable trick, inviting American viewers of all backgrounds to identify with a group that really did belong to the land before anyone else.