Everyone knows the dinosaurs died in a large-scale mass extinction event at the end of the Mesozoic Era. What The Good Dinosaur presupposes is — maybe they didn't? The new movie — the first feature to be helmed by longtime Pixar animator Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy), the company's first director of color — envisions the asteroid that might have caused a global catastrophe 65 million years ago whizzing safely by, leaving the Earth still populated by dinosaurs that eventually evolve into socialized beings who struggle under familial expectations.
It's a setup that's clever in the way that Cars feels clever, because it presents a universe in which dinosaurs till the soil with their noses and water crops by spraying water like a sprinkler and herd cattle. It's like The Flintstones without the humans, or rather with the humans still preverbal and wild, not equals but pests to be driven off. When the movie's main character, an undersize young Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), befriends a human child he names Spot (Jack Bright), the relationship is more like a boy with his dog. Spot, a wiggly, ferocious tyke, provides a lot of the cuteness, while Arlo's journey back to his family and the lessons he learns in terms of dealing with his fears provide the slightly grown-up messaging.
But that setup is calculated in the way that Cars feels calculated, too, because there's little connection between the world The Good Dinosaur creates and the straightforward coming-of-age tale it wants to tell. The toys in Toy Story deal with the obsolescence that comes with their staying the same while their owners get older, the fish in Finding Nemo have reasonable fears of creatures dwelling in a dangerous environment, and the characters in Inside Out are all aspects of a little girl's self whose adventures reflect her internal experiences during a turbulent time. But the alt history of The Good Dinosaur doesn't have any particularly bearing on how Arlo grows and changes — it's a simple story that could have just as easily been about humans living on the frontier. Instead, it's about dinosaurs because dinosaurs are cool (and marketable).
That wouldn't be such a sin, except that this is a film from Pixar, a company famous for being more thoughtful and ambitious than that, and one that reset its bar particularly high with the terrific Inside Out five months ago. But even bad Pixar is pretty good, and if The Good Dinosaur falls low in the rankings of the company's now 16 titles — somewhere higher than Cars 2 and Monsters University but below Brave — it is still leagues finer than the flurry of frenetic colors and screwball pacing of the standard children's animated movie. It's technically marvelous, the deliberate cartoonishness of Arlo and his family contrasting with a breathtaking wilderness that at times look photo-realistic: the river churning, drops glistening on leaves, and the sky big and bright and sometimes bubbling over with an approaching storm.
And The Good Dinosaur happens to be accompanied by the short Sanjay's Super Team, in which director Sanjay Patel draws from his childhood to show an Indian father and son finding common ground somewhere between Hindu deities and superheroes. It combines action sequences with culture reclamation and intergenerational bonding, all in seven fleet minutes. If The Good Dinosaur is Pixar on an off day, Sanjay's Super Team is a reminder of all the company's incredible potential.