Pixar makes tearjerkers. The studio almost prides itself on being able to turn an audience into a pile of blubbering sobs and tear-stained viewers. While The Good Dinosaur definitely has its lip-quivering induced moments, it feels emotionally manipulative considering the story just isn't there to back up the cathartic scenes.
Unlike previous Pixar films like Up and Wall-E, The Good Dinosaur just tosses out emotional scenes whenever it feels like it should, instead of building up the character narrative that naturally leads to emotional revelations. The Good Dinosaur is about one young apatosaurus and his journey to discover himself, but that's almost impossible to do in a film without very much direction.
The rest of the time is spent watching Arlo run through this journey of self discovery as he teams up with a human critter named Spot and tries to find his way back home. But much like his journey, the narrative is scattered. The film gets distracted within itself and tries to focus too much attention on random characters that don't help move the plot forward. If anything, the introduction of secondary characters, like a family of T-Rex they stumble upon, hinders the development of the important relationship between Arlo and Spot.
When the movie decides to focus on these two characters, who come from opposite ends of the prehistoric world, it's hard not to get swept up in their tale. But it doesn't spend nearly enough time addressing their relationship. Instead, it chooses to make every interaction between the two as emotional as possible to reinstate the bond and love these two develop for each other without really prepping the scene. It's just a series of funny events followed by a heart wrenching emotional moment between the two.
That's not to say there aren't aspects of the film that don't succeed. The Good Dinosaur is, without a doubt, the most beautiful movie to come out of Pixar. The actual world these dinosaurs and critters inhabit is seriously stunning, with an attention to detail on background imagery that was simply shaved over in the past. It's impossible to not be drawn in by the beauty of it all. The use of lighting, especially for an animated film, is exquisite and the coloring is incredibly realistic. Even the characters are surprisingly detailed. Cuts, scrapes and bruises they amass over the course of the film are vivd and the facial expressions are some of the most emotive yet for a Pixar venture.
But even with the stellar visuals, the film fails to be anything more than bland in most places. Spot, for example, is one of the more interesting and downright cute components of the film, but the movie never treats him as much. He's painted as a fearless critter who Arlo effectively imitates as the movie wanes on, but that's all that he is; a point of imitation. He could have had his own interesting story that was further explored, and as the more engrossing character, it definitely would have made the movie that much better and well-rounded. But it's that kind of laziness that infects the entire film. The Good Dinosaur feels strung together by a series of random revelations rather than a strong, continuous arc with characters you actively want to root for.
The Good Dinosaur is one of the weaker films to come out of Pixar, and it's a shame because the studio has proven time and time again they know how to do great storytelling. If it had spent even a few more months in development and had the script reworked a bit, it could have been an incredible feature, but the entire production feels rushed. While Arlo may have figured out what kind of dinosaur he wanted to be, the film never makes the same realization about what kind of movie it wants to be, and becomes tedious at times to watch. The Good Dinosaur could have been the great dinosaur, but instead barely manages to scrape by as the mediocre dinosaur.