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11.27.15 4:59 AM ET

‘The Good Dinosaur’: Pixar’s Biggest Production Nightmare Crash-Lands into Theaters

It’s taken six years, two directors, and several script and cast changes, but the 3D animated The Good Dinosaur is finally here. Sadly, it’s an uneven adventure.

Pixar’s second movie this year after the Oscar-bound Inside Out posits a hypothetical scenario for the ages: What if, 65 million years ago, that asteroid had hurtled through space just a smidge off course, missing Earth, never decimating the dinosaurs… who then evolved into talking, farming prairie folk living off the land like pilgrims and cowboys while humans remained wild?

The Good Dinosaur unfortunately also answers a more nagging question audiences haven’t had to reckon with much, to date. What if the gold star geniuses of Pixar faltered in their proven storytelling-by-committee methods, scrapped a large part of their script and already-in-the-can vocal performances on a high-profile project, benched their director, called up a rookie in his place, delayed the film’s release by 18 months—and it turned out to be just OK?

That’s the cross borne by The Good Dinosaur, which might seem a perfectly respectable achievement for any lesser animation entity if it didn’t come affixed with the promise of excellence that is the Pixar name. But our predecessors help make us who we are, as the film itself declares. And yet you can’t forge your own path in the world if you’re living in the shadows of ghosts.

Doom and destruction loom curiously heavy over Pixar’s 3D animated coming-of-age adventure starting from its opening preamble, in which a fateful chunk of space rubble is knocked into the orbit of our planet while oblivious dinosaurs munch away unawares on the surface below. Instead of landing with a sudden impact severe enough to trigger cataclysmic mass extinction, it barely skirts past. The dinos don’t even blink. Adults in the audience will get the morbid joke, but good luck explaining to the littlest ones—or Dr. Ben Carson—what really happened to those cute creatures after the end credits roll.

The titular hero of The Good Dinosaur is a pipsqueak Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the runt of the litter born to hard-working farmer dinos Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand). Arlo’s a fearful soul from the moment he hatches from his oversized egg—the first of many expectations he can’t quite fulfill. Compared to his brawny older brother Buck and clever sister Libby, he never can seem to measure up as the family tends their agrarian life tilling the land and raising chickens on their idyllic country farm. The other members of the brood earn their stripes and the right to proudly leave their mark, literally, on the side of their corn silo in the form of a muddy footprint. Try as he might, Arlo can’t match his siblings or parents in bravery or smarts. His place on the family’s wall of achievements stays bare, taunting him with its nakedness.

For a movie with such a cheery title and aw-shucks warmth, The Good Dinosaur plays with heavy subject matter as its young hero grows from childhood to adolescence and learns the hard way just how harsh life can be. Tasked with protecting the family’s silo by catching and killing the critter that’s been stealing their food, Arlo discovers a young feral boy with wide eyes and freckles eating his way through their crops. His failure to club the wily creature to death angers Poppa, who hauls Arlo into the perilous mountains in a frustrated attempt to force his boy to become a man.

As if enduring the withering disappointment of a parent isn’t enough punishment, a Lion King-esque twist leaves Arlo alone, lost, and far from home in unforgiving wilds. Helpless and pitiable, he forges a reluctant bond with the feral child, whom he names Spot. As they traverse the land encountering strange beasts, kooky dinos, and new dangers together, the tenuous alliance turns to true companionship. Unfortunately, that heartwarming thread gives way to another tangent, knocking The Good Dinosaur off any semblance of a focused path. The patchwork script reveals its joints as it shifts gears into a homeward bound odyssey across the great North American plains. Tally the film’s themes to reveal a confused, if well-meaning kids movie: Self-realization. Family. Alternative families. Death, death, death. More death.

When first time feature co-director Peter Sohn was called upon to replace original helmer (and Up co-director/Pixar lifer) Bob Peterson as the director of The Good Dinosaur in 2013, the project had, by all accounts, been sharply diverted away from Peterson’s original vision. “It’s time to do a movie where you get to know the dinosaur, what it’s really like to be a dinosaur and to be with a dinosaur,” Peterson explained in 2012, identifying the quality of being resistant to change—being a “dinosaur,” so to speak—as one of its central themes.

The Good Dinosaur Director Peter Sohn during an art review on July 16, 2014 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Deborah Coleman/Pixar

Peter Sohn and the team behind 'The Good Dinosaur.'

Sohn, best known outside the studio as the inspiration for Russell in Up thanks to his unsinkable enthusiasm, took the reins the next year. Pixar parent Disney delayed the film’s release twice, and the studio had to undergo staffing layoffs as the production fluctuated. Major changes to the script were made as recorded performances were scrapped and the majority of the cast was replaced, save for McDormand. Entire characters disappeared and were added, and Arlo was made younger to give the character more room to grow. Script revisions downplayed the Amish influence on Arlo’s family of farmersauruses and made nature more of a character in the script.

Nature indeed is a captivating element in The Good Dinosaur, a film filled with gorgeously rendered CG vistas, lush forests teeming with whimsical creatures, roiling rivers connecting vast and far-reaching mountain ranges. It is fickle and ominous, as when a massive flash flood rushes toward Arlo and leaves him just traumatized enough so that he may conveniently face his fears in a third-act dash of bravado. But while it works as an endless source of peril in a scary, scary world, it’s a weak antagonist for a tale of a bright young thing who must come into his own.

If Inside Out taught children to embrace their full range of emotions with grace and understanding, The Good Dinosaur aims to not-so-gently confront them with the realities of life. Death strikes early with the shock of Bambi’s mom biting it in that clearing, or Mufasa falling under the feet of a thousand wildebeests. And then it lingers around every corner, in every shadow, in the sharp-toothed dinosaur friends and foes Arlo and Spot meet along their journey home. Even the friendly trio of cattle-herding cowboy T. rexes they team up with are intimidating at first, until the most fearsome carnivores of the Cretaceous Age prove themselves teddy bears compared to a gang of conniving Velociraptor rustlers and the flock of psychotic Pterodactyls who circle menacingly above in the clouds, like great whites of the sky.

The most original moments in The Good Dinosaur are truly delightful, but too few and far between: A psychedelic mind trip unfolds as Arlo and Spot accidentally eat hallucinogenic berries, another episode that should be fun to explain to the youngest of viewers; a visual gag involving dozens of subterranean prairie dog-like creatures is downright inspired. The heartstring-pulling moment in which our hero and his loyal companion bond over their common grief is a beautiful scene to behold.

Alas, even the look of The Good Dinosaur’s main character seems outdated, blocky, and out of place in his own world—not exactly the kind of design that stands the test of time alongside the most iconic of figures in the Pixar/Disney vaults. The darkness is not what bogs The Good Dinosaur down; the gloomiest of plot turns also make for some of the film’s most emotionally wrenching pivots. It’s the confused and contrived paths the disjointed script sends its hero scampering along that never let him really earn his way home.