Any Pixar fan could tell you how much The Good Dinosaur has changed in its development. The film teased at the Disney D23 Expo 2013 played up the unique agricultural roles that different species of dinosaurs would play in this alternate-universe of prehistory; the movie presented at the D23 Expo 2015 was an “emotional” road movie about a dinosaur and his boy.
The movie we got, though, is a tremendously inspired prehistoric western. In an opening sequence (almost) straight out of John Ford, we are safe at the home of an Apatosaurus family. Momma and Poppa proudly behold the hatching of their three kids: Buck, Libby, and little Arlo, who is too small even for his egg. The clan operates its own farm, and each family member owns a specialized skill to “make their mark.”
Ever the late bloomer, Arlo struggles to find his place among his more naturally talented brother and sister. In one of the warmest father-son relationships in Pixar canon, Poppa takes Arlo aside to help him make his mark – by catching a pest who’s been eating their crop. In the process, however, tragedy strikes and Arlo finds himself separated from his family and lost.
He reluctantly finds a companion in the human boy he names Spot; Spot is the fearless defender and catalyst Arlo needs to move on through a hopeless situation.
The pair journey through a series of familiar western images, transplanted to a prehistoric setting: a spiritual Shaman in the form of a Styracosaurus; outlaw bandits represented as Pterodactyls; even a family of tough Tyrannosaurus Rex ranchers. These western narrative elements complement the western themes of the individual, separated from the home, journeying through the frontier onto his horizon. The western genre is further defined through its musical score, featuring uptempo fiddles, acoustic guitars, and (when the mood strikes) sweeping orchestras.
The Good Dinosaur has one very anti-western (and even anti-Pixar) element: so many Pixar films feature strong, cocky male heroes – Woody, Lightning McQueen, Sulley, to name a few. Arlo is the antithesis of this legacy; he is a frightened, vulnerable boy forced to battle the dangerous world around him. He is not the silent, sturdy western hero to instill order; Arlo is struggling to just survive and return home.
But The Good Dinosaur is more than a clever, somewhat inverted, western for families; in what is undoubtedly Pixar’s most emotional year on record, this film is rich with moving storytelling and heartbreaking scenes. The tragic elements anchor the entire film, heightening the sense of desperation and struggle to endure; the devastating “sticks” scene is just one of many sure-to-be iconic moments of The Good Dinosaur. This complex love story will certainly “make its mark” within the already-stellar Pixar canon.