The Good Dinosaur is, in the first place, a kids' film. That's meant to be a categorical judgment, though there've been more than a few people out there making it as a value judgment. And that's fair - it's been a rocky few years for Pixar Animation Studios, with their first outright bad film, Cars 2 only four years in the past, and the shockingly average Monsters University reigning indifferently over the first missing year in the studio's release schedule since 2005. This past summer's Inside Out wasn't at the nigh-unto-flawless level of Ratatouille or WALLยทE, but it was a return to their form, at least as far as that form appeals to the adult and young adult audiences who are the voices in charge of this or any film's initial online reputation. That form being, of course, that Pixar was back in the business of making movies that were kind of kid-friendly but also really more for grown-ups, even if they were somewhat about children, childhood, and childish things - or in the case of The Incredibles and Up especially, films that are entirely for grown-ups, but marketing and bias against the medium of animation in America still got some kids to check them out.

The Good Dinosaur is not that. I honestly don't know that Pixar has ever made a movie that is this much a kids' movie in the 20 years it has been releasing features - not even the unabashed toy commercials of the Cars franchise are so wholly and significantly built with kids in mind, with very basic and very familiar themes spelled out in straightforward language and a plot that consists of only one moving part at a time. It is simplistic to the point of being insubstantial, and this has made many people sad who were hoping for a second consecutive film at the Inside Out> level of emotional sophistication and narrative creativity. That was really never going to be in the cards; frankly, the movie doesn't seem to have any designs on that kind of sophistication, and if the rumors are true about what got cut when initial director Bob Peterson was taken off the movie and replaced by Peter Sohn, the film specifically abjures such sophistication. Anyway, I think I loved it a little bit. It is warm and immediate, where Inside Out is sometimes so intelligent that it requires work to get at the emotional resonance. The earlier film is better, clearly (though as far as their animation and design go, I think it's pretty much a push), but The Good Dinosaur is probably the one I would reach for first on a rainy day.

But no, it's not terribly creative. The film is a basic boy and his dog adventure in which a pair of characters face off against a cruel natural world: the boy is a apatosaur named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), in an alternate world where the K-T extinction event never happened, and the dog is a human boy, a feral bundle of energy that Arlo names "Spot" (Jack Bright), and the plot takes the form of Arlo's struggle to return to the family farm after he's washed into the wilderness by a river. One could start rattling off the various movies that this calls to mind, but then there'd be no room for the review left. Heck, even if we just limited ourselves to things produced and/or released by the Walt Disney Company, there's more than enough of a list of predecessors to prove that whatever else The Good Dinosaur is, it's hella derivative.

What it has to compensate for this is character - basic characters, sketched in crayon. But engaging and likable characters, with beautifully big cartoon faces all full of expressive detail; Arlo in particular has some of the biggest anime eyes of any Pixar character to date. It's a fine cross between squishy shapes and body forms on the model of old-school cartooning, and the almost inevitable textural realism of a CGI film that can't help but make characters seem to take up physical space, even when they otherwise feel derived from a tradition of 2-D animation. That's the least of the film's aesthetic tensions; (in)famously, The Good Dinosaur sets its dinosaurs in the most incongruous settings conceivable. These uniformly-colored, vinyl-like bath toys of characters - even a rugged Tyrannosaur with scars all over his squinty face, voiced, almost inevitably, by Sam Elliott, is some kind of cuddly - are stuffed right into realistic backgrounds. Not even "realistic". That's not enough of a word. These are some of the most photorealistic backgrounds I have ever seen rendered in CGI, not just in animation, but in "live action", as if that phrase has meaning when we're talking about the creation of artificial worlds. Hell, let's go bigger: The Good Dinosaur has backgrounds that look more photorealistic than the ones in Disney's misbegotten 2000 tech demo Dinosaur, and those backgrounds were photos.

The Good Dinosaur's locations are based directly on U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, and treated with awestruck respect by director of photography Sharon Calahan, the overseer of the film's visual style. This is some of the loveliest artificial cinematography in any Pixar film - not the most complex or narratively important (WALLยทE has that firmly sewed up), but lush and caressed by light in the fashion of a top-notch landscape photographer, if only the photographer could manipulate the very sun in God's heaven. Calahan can do that here. She does it extremely well.

This combination of photorealism and caricature is terribly, wonderfully strange; it's definitely an either-or proposition, too. If you never accept that these dinosaurs and this landscape could reasonably co-exist, the movie won't work, period. To my eyes, it works, after an adjustment period: those early minutes are a vacation to the profoundest corner of the Uncanny Valley. But this doesn't feel accidental. The sharp realism of the natural backdrops, is such a severe contrast with the characters (our point of identification and entry into the film's world) that the environment becomes foreign and alien in a most nerve-wracking way it is literally a space that the characters don't fit into; it is a place that constantly reminds us that this is not where the heroes belong, and the environment starts to dominate our awareness of the film (one major shortcoming to this reading: the apatosaur homestead is in the same hyper-realistic aesthetic of the rest of the film, so the one notionally comforting space is just as daunting as the rest of the world. By looking so real to our eyes, the dangers plaguing Arlo are all the more palpable, and he becomes a far more sympathetic figure, since his plight feels authentic - he's in danger in a way that family film protagonists rarely ever are.

For it's a harsh and violent movie at times, kiddie flick or no. The generically necessary death of Arlo's father (Jeffrey Wright, one of multiple talented actors wasted on barely-there roles) that drives the narrative comes too early for the emotional upheaval to hit as well as if we'd actually gotten to know the characters' relationships well; it is certainly not up to the gut-wrenching level of the truly great "parent dying" scene in children's cinema.But once that hiccup is past, everything thereafter is menacing and unpredictable in just the right ways, especially the introduction of a clutch of deeply unsettling and tangibly psychotic pterosaurs, their leader voice perfectly by Steve Zahn. Late in the film there's a scene of them stalking Arlo through a cloud bank, their head-crests poking beneath the clouds like upside-down sharks; it's the scariest moment Pixar has put to film since the mutant toys in the first Toy Story.

The film's tormented production history certainly leaves its mark: the film takes place in a curiously underdeveloped world, with the notional hook of "what if the dinosaurs didn't go extinct, and formed societies while primitive humans were running around?" badly shortchanged. This was, apparently, where most of Sohn's cutting took place: there was to be a full civilisation of wild dinosaurs, cultures and settlements of every stripe worked out in evocative detail. Instead, we have on odd little farm that's almost as incongruous as the world of Cars (why do the apatosaurs need chickens? How do they build things without thumbs?), in the midst of a deliriously underpopulated world. And the opening and closing are both rocky, getting us to the meat of the action in a somewhat labored way; the ending in particular jams on the brakes and rushes us through the film's big emotional catharsis as Arlo and Spot take the stock of their relationship. It is not a screenplay that got fixed. It is a screenplay that got to this point when they had to pull the trigger.

For all that, the great majority of the film really is something to behold: absolutely gorgeous (this is easily the prettiest movie Pixar has made, which almost by default makes it the prettiest computer animation in history), and anchored by a richly sentimental adventure score by Mychael and Jeff Danna that is one of the best things I've heard this year; triumphal and swooning but in a compact, heartfelt way. It is thematically featherweight, with sweet, likable characters learning basic life lessons; but then, the most basic life lessons are the most important ones. It is certainly middle-tier Pixar: we're a long way up from Cars 2, Monsters University, or maybe even Brave, and I'd put this on about the same "really good, but admittedly flimsy" level of A Bug's Life. But middle-tier Pixar is a hell of a lot higher than other middle-tiers: if DreamWorks or Disney made this exact film, it would be much easier to be impressed, and if any other prominent American studio did it, it would immediately become their all-time best film. Lack of ambition and all, I find it hard to be disappointed by a film as heartfelt and gorgeous and quick-moving as this.