It's become a sort of oft-repeated lament that Pixar had lost its Midas touch ever since Disney co-opted the studio into its ranks. But even if it is true, it's not as Pixar has given up on rekindling its flame; its two 2015 releases were hardly safe bets or easy-sell material. Although so far the critical vote seems to fall towards the brilliantly-realised abstraction of Inside Out, it's certainly unfair to dismiss The Good Dinosaur (whose script is credited to Meg Lefauve, who was also one of the writers on Inside Out) as a minor entry when in many ways it's the riskiest of the pair.
The latest in the studios' series of troubled productions (following the directorial replacements and turmoil on the sets of Ratatouille, Brave and Cars 2), The Good Dinosaur was delayed by almost two years when Peter Sohn took over original director Bob Peterson. However, the finished film carries little trace of its troubles as it ingeniously builds up an alternate-universe Earth where the meteor responsible for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years zipped by without falling, and the pre-historic reptiles have essentially become the dominant life form.
In this upside-down world, dinosaurs rule the roost while humans are primitive nuisances, "critters" making their lives scavenging around the dinosaurs and other beasts. No more far-fetched that the car country of Cars or the anthropomorphised ocean of Finding Nemo, the concept does open itself a bit too much to merchandising opportunities in the best Disney tradition, but it also suggests a leap of imagination that Pixar takes full advantage of to create in the same movement a breathtakingly visual case for our stewardship of the natural world.
The heart of the film's plot is a scaredy, lonely teenager's voyage back home from the wilds of nature, as he "adopts" as pet a savage beast who will become his best friend. The teenager is Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), the youngest of a herbivore dinosaur family that tends the land for vegetables, and the pet is the human orphan Spot, reversing the traditional boy-and-his-dog plan with almost throwaway nonchalance. The key to the success of The Good Dinosaur lies in the fact that the reversion is so swiftly absorbed into a standard Disney-meets-Tom-Sawyer adventure about growing up and making your mark - one that occasionally slides into a (very Disneyish) idea of what a family western would have been, in the picturesquely designed mountains, fields of grain and pastures. (Only the herds of aurochs are here rounded up by a tough-as-nails family of cowboy T. Rexes whose patriarch is, naturally, voiced by Sam Elliott.)
The fact these thinking beasts have an eye for making sure nature keeps supplying them food and comfort while giving them something new to admire everyday is a refreshingly discreet way to make the wonders of the natural world relatable to younger audiences. There really isn't much new at stake in the storyline, which seems to confluence the classic Disney narratives of the boy who grows up to be a man in the absence of a father figure such as Bambi, Dumbo or The Lion King; but that it does so by placing the humans at the bottom of the ladder is smart enough in itself to make us look at it differently.
Where The Good Dinosaur does break new ground is in its stunningly photo-realistic approach to scenery and setting, as the natural settings of (what would have been) wild America in this parallel Earth are breathtakingly realized in animation as clear, crisp and consummate as anything Pixar has ever come up with in the past. The slightly rounder, more recognizably animated traits of the characters fit the landscape like a glove, giving them the much-needed humanity to offset the just-this-side-of-perfect digital settings, but they also suggest just how almost effortless the studio's vision has become in matching story to character and setting.
If you look at it within the curve of a slow return of John Lasseter's studio to its heights, The Good Dinosaur is the next logical step after Inside Out - one that reaffirms the company's attachment to an integrated approach of narrative and visuals that tell a story that could not be told any other way.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
US, 2015, 93 minutes
With the voices of Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Jack McGraw, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Peter Sohn, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter, A. J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant and John Ratzenberger
Directed by Mr. Sohn; original creative concept by Bob Peterson; screenplay by Meg Lefauve, from a story by Mr. Sohn, Erik Benson, Ms. Lefauve, Kelsey Mann and Mr. Peterson; directors of photography Sharon Calahan and Mahyar Aboubaeedi (widescreen); music by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna; production designer Harley Jessup; film editor Stephen Schaffer; produced by Denise Ream, for Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation Studios
Screened November 23rd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon