In animated movies, landscapes are usually the last thing viewers notice, but in Disney-Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur," they're something to behold. Created with who knows how many hours of human and computer labor, these photo-realistic renderings of sunny skies, roiling seas and wind-kissed meadows are impossible to distinguish from the real things. On a technical level, at least, "The Good Dinosaur" is the most dazzling Pixar movie yet.
As a story, however, it's the studio's weakest by far. Written by five people, including director Peter Sohn, "The Good Dinosaur" starts with a dubious premise and then struggles to build a coherent narrative around it. The movie, like its hero, gets increasingly lost as it goes along.
The story centers on Arlo (the voice of Raymond Ochoa), an Apatosaurus whose cartoonish body, big eyes and puppyish feet clash oddly against the lifelike scenery. In this alternative Jurassic world, Arlo's mother and father (Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright) have developed human skills -- planting corn and building stone silos with their teeth. (They're an odd new species: Pioneerus americanus.) Arlo, the family runt, must pull his weight by killing a corn-eating varmint.
It turns out to be a feral but friendly caveboy, later nicknamed Spot (Jack Bright). He's the film's most endearing creation, a little stray who paddles about in leafy underpants. When Arlo is separated from his family -- in a ferocious storm sequence -- Spot may be his best hope for finding the way home.
Right here, "The Good Dinosaur" becomes seriously confused. Among its baffling characters are a Styracosaurus who meditates (Sohn), an insane pterodactyl (Steve Zahn) and a family of friendly Tyrannosaurus rexes who herd longhorn cattle (the drawling dad is played by Sam Elliott in full cowpuncher mode). Arlo tests his mettle by fighting several cattle-thieving raptors by the names Bubbha, Pervis and Lurleane.
Whatever this movie looked like in early drafts, it has ended up a genuine head-scratcher. Its thematic mix of "Ice Age" and "True Grit" makes little sense, and the mismatched visuals don't help. Granted, Pixar's worst is better than most animation studios' best, and "The Good Dinosaur" does have some funny and touching moments. Overall, though, it's a rare stumble from the T. rex of the animation world.