The film's opening depicts the dino-killing asteroid of 65 million years ago dramatically heading straight for the Earth - only to skip across its atmosphere. From there, the film jumps to 'millions of years later' (although we aren't actually told how many), and we are introduced to a sauropod farmer, who (in the first of many nice touches) uses his enormous body in lieu of agricultural machinery.
He's the father of our main protagonist, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), who (of course) is the runt of the litter of three, in spite of hatching out of by far the biggest egg (which is weirdly hollow but, hey, good visual gag). His rather weedy frame being unsuited to heavy manual labour, Arlo is tasked with trapping a 'critter' that's been stealing the family's crop. This turns out to be a human child (later named Spot), albeit one who acts exactly like a dog. Ultimately, Arlo ends up separated from his family and must embark on a long journey home, bonding with his man-pet in the process.
The story's rather predictable for the most part - hero is stranded far from home, must overcome his fear, the elements, the occasional villain to make it home, while bonding with companion he initially despised. That sort of thing. In fact, it's a tale familiar from previous Pixar movies. Having a familiar story arc in a kids' movie isn't necessarily bad in itself, but the film is lacking in the memorable characters that made Pixar's previous movies so superb.
Aside from Arlo's wholesome farming family of sauropods (who are only missing the flannel shirts), there's an apparently quite mad ceratopsian found living in the woods, a group of tyrannosaur ranchers, a gaggle of mangy-looking hillbilly dromaeosaurs, some villianous pterosaurs and...that's it. Aside from the amusingly eccentric Styracosaurus-like certatopsian (named Forrest Woodbrush and played by Peter Sohn), the characters are overly familiar archetypes, given previous little time to develop or do anything particularly interesting. Having tyrannosaurs as cowboys is a funny idea, but aside from having them effectively be their own mounts (which looks really rather odd), the concept isn't pursued in many interesting ways.
In fact, the whole movie seems to suffer from this to an extent - it feels like the whole conceit was never fully realised. The characters are dinosaurs rather than humans, and the 'dog' is a human boy, but that's it. The world isn't fleshed out to any great extent. Given the absolutely gorgeous backgrounds and scenery (including true volumetric clouds for the first time among other beautiful weather effects), it can occasionally feel like a tech demo looking for a decent story.
Which isn't to say that it's a bad movie, or cynical - far from it. It remains a compelling watch, and (as I've already mentioned) tender moments between the characters are handled in a manner that seemingly only Pixar can manage. It's a good film, but fails to reach the giddy heights of Pixar's classics, and most of that's down to the characters.
Speaking of which, given what this blog's all about, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the designs of the dinosaurs. Obviously they're heavily stylised, cartoonish and are inteded to represent hypothetical dinosaurs living long after the time when they went extinct in reality. And they talk. As such, any talk of scientific accuracy is a complete waste of time. All the same, the cultural influences behind the creature designs are interesting. The sauropods have more than a touch of the Gertie or Sinclair Oil about them, although Arlo's dad looks a bit like he was designed by Aardman Animations (the face). Elsewhere, the tyrannosaurs look very '90s, while the dromaeosaurs are feathered (albeit sparsely). The designs seem to cover several decades of pop culture representations of dinosaurs in the same movie, but never jar when placed alongside one another or with the environment, which is quite an achievement.
I must confess that, as a dinosaur geek, I'd like to have seen more dinosaurs/pterosaurs in the movie. Most of the choices are rather predictable - brontosaur, raptor, T. rex, horned dinosaur. The only left field casting is Nyctosaurus in the role of the villainous (and, rather cleverly, seemingly religiously-motivated) pterosaurs. Given the panoply of bizarre and often, let's face it, quite amusing-looking dinosaurs known to us now, this feels, again, like a missed opportunity.
Still, it's not a film for dinosaur geeks - it's a film for a general cinema-going family audience, and it's very good at being that. It still surpasses the vast majority of efforts put out by other studios, even if it's not up to Pixar's best. Oh, and the short film presented beforehand is bloody brilliant. Here's hoping a full-length Sanjay's Super Team is part of Pixar's plan...