There has always been one thing we could count on whenever Pixar trotted out a high-concept premise: The movie itself wasn't going to be about that high-concept premise. Whether it was sentient toys, a floating house, suburban superheroes or anthropomorphic emotions, it was always an idea in service of something bigger.
The Good Dinosaur begins with one such high-concept premise: What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed the Earth? And then, as a timid runt-of-the-litter Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) winds up separated from his family, trying to return home with the help of a feral, apparently orphaned human boy he calls Spot (Jack Bright), it launches into another high-concept idea: What if you had a "boy and his dog" story in which the boy was the dog?
Both of the concepts are solid, and director Peter Sohn finds several fun concepts within that framework, like a family of T. rex buffalo ranchers (with a patriarch voiced by Sam Elliott) trying to protect their herd from a pack of Velociraptor rustlers. And from a visual standpoint, The Good Dinosaur is almost certainly the most stunning thing Pixar has ever produced, reproducing the mountain landscapes and whitewater rivers of what appears to be the American Rockies with a gorgeous, almost tactile realism.
The only thing that's missing is that distinctive emotional punch that comes when you realize what a Pixar movie is really about. The Good Dinosaur is a coming-of-age quest adventure, and it's an effective coming-of-age quest adventure; it just isn't much more than that, even as the narrative arc evokes The Lion King and tries to address the ties of both biological and chosen family. There's no reason to dismiss something that's often funny, charming and exciting, even if the moment when the movie is clearly reaching for your tear ducts inspires more of a nod and a smile.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR