In the clever opening sequence of The Good Dinosaur, a giant space rock shakes loose from an asteroid belt, hurtles toward Earth, and . . . misses.
Grazing dinosaurs look up to see a meteor streaking across the night sky, but there is no impact. The creatures are not wiped out.
The movie mulls the possibilities. What if dinosaurs and primitive man developed alongside one another?
Because the movie is made by Disney and Pixar, a little dinosaur and little boy become fast friends who go on a life-altering adventure.
The little dinosaur is Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa), runt of the litter, perpetually trying and failing to impress his towering father (Jeffrey Wright). When Arlo is assigned to keep "critters" from raiding the family's stockpile of food, he fails. A trap captures a Neanderthalish boy (Jack Bright), but squeamish Arlo sets him free.
The boy has a chance to return the favor later on, when Arlo, separated from his family by a storm, finds himself alone and starving in the wilderness. That wilderness, by the way, is spectacular - apparently modeled on Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, rendered by Pixar animators in gorgeous and technically polished 3D images.
The movie's smart visuals mask some storytelling problems. The Good Dinosaur takes the boy-and-his-dog formula and turns it on its head. Here, the dinosaur speaks and has the leadership role, and the feral boy hops about on all fours and sniffs the air like a dog.
Does that make primitive man his own best friend?
The Good Dinosaur intends to shake up anthropomorphic assumptions, but the way it assigns behaviors and motifs gets a little messy. Arlo comes from a family of corn farmers and later hooks up with cowboy T-rexes that tend a cattle herd menaced by redneck raptors.
Hippie pterosaurs add to predator-prey and character confusion.
The Good Dinosaur is better when focused on the budding friendship between Arlo and the wolflike boy, a courageous little fellow who teaches the timid Arlo to be brave.
The movie also has an eccentric streak that plays well. Director Peter Sohn provides the voice of a too-long-in-the-wilderness triceratops, and Arlo has a lotus-eating interlude brought on by psychedelic fruit.
The jokes and the visuals carry us to the satisfying conclusion, which closes the circle around classic Pixar/Disney themes of friendship and family.
The Good Dinosaur *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Peter Sohn. With the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn. Distributed by Disney/Pixar.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: PG.
Playing at: Area theaters.