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The Good Dinosaur

by DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette | November 27, 2015 at 4:00 a.m.

It's only fitting that The Good Dinosaur, a movie about facing one's fears, gets a little scary. Fortunately, the minds at Pixar are well practiced at handling tricky emotions. Their movies may be aimed at children, but their refusal to condescend means children will still be enamored of these films when they become eligible for retirement benefits. While director Peter Sohn and a legion of collaborators are out to tug at your heartstrings, they do it in such a clever and earnest way that the manipulation is practically invisible.

The film gets off to a strong start by suggesting how humans and dinosaurs separated by millions of years might have co-existed. In Sohn's version, the comet that led to the mass extinction of the giant reptiles simply zooms by without causing any harm.

The Good Dinosaur

87 Cast: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott and, of course, John Ratzenberger

Director: Peter Sohn

Rating: PG, for peril, action and thematic elements

Running time: 100 minutes

Sohn and primary screenwriter Meg LeFauve provide almost no explanation for why the dinosaurs have managed to not only last until the present day but have learned how to farm and ranch. With their size and appropriately shaped bodies, they can plow and even make barns and silos. Because it's a cartoon, they can also talk.

Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) take a break to raise three children and teach them how to run their sprawling farm in the shadow of a mountain. While the first two children, Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla), seem genetically predisposed to working the land, their short, scrawny brother Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) has some difficulties.

Actually, he has one big difficulty: He's seemingly frightened of everything.

The giant chicken-like birds that Arlo's family raises intimidate him, and Poppa struggles with a variety of techniques to help the lad overcome his fearfulness. He even teaches Arlo how to set up a trap so that the younger Apatosaurus can catch the mysterious animal that has been stealing grain from the family's silo.

It turns out the varmint that has been pilfering the grain the family needs for winter is actually a small, feral boy who answers to the name of Spot (Jack Bright). Spot doesn't say a word, but he can frequently outmaneuver and even outsmart the sentient creatures around him. Because of his timid, sensitive nature, Jack can't bring himself to kill Spot.

Actually, there may be more than cowardice at work.

Spot knows a few survival tricks that Arlo doesn't. When the two get lost and can't find their way back to the farm, Arlo learns the importance of friendship, even if his friend acts more like a dog.

One thing that's refreshing about Pixar movies is that they retool standard tropes into something more rewarding. As Arlo slowly becomes a "good dinosaur," he learns from a longhorn ranching T-Rex (who else but Sam Elliott?) that fear is unavoidable but doesn't have to be paralyzing.

While The Good Dinosaur might be a little too violent for younger children (some mean pterodactyls get a scary dose of karma), Sohn effortlessly explains how courage and fear can exist side by side. There are movies aimed at grown-ups that are unable to do that.

Thankfully, Sohn is not interested in making an animated Grand Guinol. Much of the film is sidesplittingly funny, and the scenery is consistently breathtaking. If John Ford is looking down at The Good Dinosaur from movie heaven, I'm sure he'd be smiling at the gorgeous computer generated landscapes and the nail-biting chases.

Pixar's name has become so tied to quality that the studio can afford to take risks on its content and still expect to be rewarded at the box office. It's hard to imagine another studio making a film about the mind of a teenage girl (Inside Out), much less doing it so well. With The Good Dinosaur, they demonstrate there are things to fear while also reminding us that we miss out on so much by surrendering to fright.

MovieStyle on 11/27/2015

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