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Disney’s reliable story format continues to work

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    This image released by Pixar-Disney shows Spot
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Disney films have a tried-and-true formula, and "The Good Dinosaur" is no exception. However, there’s something rather soothing about the familiar, and when it’s executed well, it’s cinematic comfort food. The time-tested template is in full force in the latest Disney-Pixar flick: Take one misfit youth, add parental peril and a journey away from home, where our protagonist learns a life lesson or two and displays some hard-won heroism. It’s worked time and again for everything from "Bambi" to "The Lion King." If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This recipe is a family favorite.

This acknowledgement of the formula is not to criticize its use — it’s highly effective, and with gorgeous animation, "The Good Dinosaur" is a gentle and heartening tale. Furthermore, in using this story line, first-time feature director Peter Sohn is able to play with some truly weird and funny elements, referencing classic Disney moments from films like "Dumbo."

"THE GOOD DINOSAUR"
Rated PG
** 1/2
Now playing

The very short premise of the film is that the asteroid that supposedly killed the dinosaurs actually missed Earth, thereby allowing for their continued presence on the planet, which has remained undeveloped, with humans scarce. The dinosaur in question is Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa). He’s the runt of the litter, born to a family of apatosauruses, vegetarians that have taken up agricultural pursuits. Try to get past the sight of dinosaurs planting corn — what’s important is their bucolic domestic bliss. Arlo doesn’t quite fit in with his siblings, and his parents gently but firmly urge him to test his limits.

Arlo is hampered by his fears of everything, and when his Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) pushes him too far, it puts them both in danger. In trying to right the wrong, Arlo ends up on a journey far from home, where, against his instincts, he ends up adopting a feral little human critter, Spot (Jack Bright). Scaredy-cat Arlo finds his counterpart in fearless Spot, and the two realize that they really do need each other in order to get home.

Along the way, Arlo encounters plenty of new and different kinds of creatures. There are predatory pterodactyls, and a curious Triceratops with a collection of bizarre birds and rodents. There are rotten plums with hallucinogenic powers, and a trio of longhorn-herding T-rexes, led by leathery-voiced Butch (Sam Elliot), who spouts cowboy-esque platitudes about the importance of getting through fear.

The animation of the landscape is nearly photorealistic, and the crystal-clear river water is simply remarkable. The simplistic but creative creature designs within this landscape results in a bit of a cognitive dissonance, especially because the dinosaurs have a blocky, Gumby-style look but are also extremely lifelike in texture and dimensionality. It also must be said that the short that plays before the feature, "Sanjay’s Super-Team," has some incredible, eye-popping animation as well.

The lessons woven into the story of Arlo’s journey home ring all the right emotional bells, with some truly moving moments. You witness his growth from a gangly, knobby-kneed dino afraid of a bug to a gangly, knobby-kneed dino who is confident and heroic. It nails the recipe for a heartwarming and affecting family film, with a sprinkle of weird to keep things interesting.

Review by Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

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