Maybe Cars and the Hot Wheels-ification of Pixar has been a good thing. Now that the storied studio has, like its rivals, puked onto our screens indifferent kid-distracting junk, its new movies come un-freighted from expectations of genius. Miserable as it was, Planes: Fire and Rescue (from corporate parent Disney rather than Pixar proper) was, for adult audiences, something of a smelling-salts jolt: Oh, right, it is kind of pushy for animators to keep demanding that we weep over the inner lives of our toys. This spring's Inside Out may have been imperfect, marred by aimless chase scenes and Silicon Valley psychology, but at least it found these cutting-edge computer pros staging their scrapes and escapes in vital new territory: the head of an actual girl. That film's flaws seem minor by comparison to the last couple of sequels and cash-ins.
Now The Good Dinosaur stomps into theaters, and it, too, should benefit from the brand's diminishment. It's smart in surprising ways, daring in a few minor ones, moving in the right ones. It's also no Ratatouille or The Incredibles, but what is? Those Brad Bird triumphs often seemed crafted for grown-ups rather than their kids, and here that's reversed. But the movie's honest about it, and never dumb, just thundering and obvious and much too familiar in its storytelling. The Good Dinosaur is another episodic growing-up adventure story, copy-pasted over with the one kid obsession left that had not yet been given Pixar's feature-film treatment.
Still, the vistas are gorgeous, and the setup is clever — and certain to upset creationist types. Underpinning the usual hero's-journey jazz is an alt-history what-if. Sixty-five million years ago, we're told, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs got knocked slightly off course, whizzing close enough to Earth that it briefly dazzles some munching diplodocuses. The story kicks in millions of years later, The Land After The Land Before Time. Dinos have thrived: They've developed agriculture, language, home-building, chicken-rearing and the techniques of lesson-oriented parenting. Apatosaurus runt Arlo is born with two siblings to kindly farmer parents — Mom and Dad till their cornfields by nosing their sauropod faces into the dirt and nudging forward. How these hand- and finger-free lizards erect a stone silo is a mystery that the momentum-minded Pixar can't be bothered with — instead, it's in a rush to subordinate this science fiction Earth to a standard-issue Disney plot in which a young'un gets separated from the family and then comes of age by almost dying lots of times. Soon, young Arlo faces tragedy and is lost in the wild, eager to get back home to his mother — and to prove himself mighty and courageous like his father. You'll probably cry a little, but you might nod off, too. One curiosity: This movie has a sharper, crazier psilocybin freak-out than the 'shroom-fueled The Night Before. When this comes on at your family Thanksgiving next year, keep an eye peeled.
Enlivening all this is the film's best innovation, a feral human sidekick who scampers on all fours and upends the old tropes about a boy and his dog. People are a recent development in the world of The Good Dinosaur, and the first one Arlo meets is a gnashing, vicious hunter-toddler swaddled in a darling diaper of leaves. (Watch out for poison ivy!) The kid can't speak, but he eventually proves friendly, climbing trees and cliffs to gather berries for hapless Arlo, who spends most of the movie screaming and/or falling. As happens so often with Pixar, the strongest scenes are the quiet ones. Here there's a beauty of cross-species pantomime as Arlo and the kid find a way to tell each other about their lost families — and that, together, they're something of a family themselves. At night, the kid wolf-howls at the moon, and there's a shivery poignancy to these moments, especially when, late in the film, his cries get answered.
They poke along, and the movie does, too, avoiding conflict or drama but not noisy spurts of danger. Sam Elliott turns up, eventually, as a cowboy T. rex in Monument Valley. The slide into western cliché is diverting, but it's no inversion, and The Good Dinosaur has as little to say about John Ford pictures as Monsters University did about Animal House. The Searchers is just more data for Pixar's computers to harvest, more familiarity for its storytellers to pass off as pop inventiveness.
As always, there's far too much time-wasting hurly-burly: If you don't know early on that there's a waterfall in that river our kid-dino hero is warned to avoid, then you don't know set-piece-oriented children's filmmaking. And, as with Inside Out, lots of the running time here is given over to wandering, to braving obstacles and strange encounters that kids will pick through à la carte on video. It might play better with a child editor — even kids have sat through many of these scenes too often before, and there's simply not much to think or feel as The Good Dinosaur's pterodactyls or whatever harrow our heroes, again and again. Kids might cover their eyes during the scary bits, but, just like the grown-ups, they won't exactly be invested in them — we're all together in simply waiting for them to be over.
Still beats Planes 3, though.