Screenplay : John Harrison & Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on an original by Walon Green
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : D.B. Sweeney (Aladar), Julianna Margulies (Neera), Joan Plowright (Baylene), Ossie Davis (Yar), Max Casella (Zini), Alfre Woodard (Plio), Samuel E. Wright (Kron), Peter Siragusa (Bruton), Della Reese (Eema)
Contrary to claims of the obvious, "Dinosaur" is not a movie. Rather, it is an 82-minute demo reel that illustrates the wondrous possibilities of three-dimensional computer animation. It arrives, after many years in development, courtesy of Disney's new $70-million digital studio, which was constructed for the sole purpose of completing this movie.
First, the numbers: The film cost $128 million, took six years to complete, and employed more than 900 animators who amassed some 3.2 million computer hours of work. From those numbers alone, it is obvious that "Dinosaur" was a great undertaking, and the end result is a marvel of technical verve and visual splendor that almost seamlessly blends photo-realistic computer-animated dinosaurs with real backgrounds shot on location around the world. It is, most likely, the closest we will ever come to seeing what the world looked like when it was ruled by the "great lizards." Some of the film's best scenes are swooping aerial shots that show extended plains populated with herds of the great creatures.
The minimalist plot of "Dinosaur" tells the story of Aladar (D.B. Sweeney), a gentle Iguanodon who follows in the footsteps of other Disney orphans like Bambi, Simba, and last summer's Tarzan. In the film's earliest moments, the egg from which Alatar will eventually hatch makes a long journey through the claws of many would-be predators before it finally lands on a small island. Once he hatches, Aladar is raised by a group of caring lemurs who teach him kindness and decency.
When the island is destroyed by a meteor shower, Alatar and his adopted family of lemurs make their way to the mainland where they find themselves among a herd of dinosaurs who are making their annual long march to the fertile breeding ground. The group is led by the harsh, dino-Darwinist Kron (Samuel E. Wright), whose survival-of-the-fittest ethic demands that any dinosaur that can't hack the journey be left behind as food for a pair of roving Carnosaurs who are following them. When good-natured Aladar befriends a pair of elderly dinosaurs, a sassy Triceratops named Eema (Della Reese) and a refined Brachiosaurus named Baylene (Joan Plowright), he tries to get the herd to understand notions of teamwork and helping each other out.
The plot is essentially built around a string of visual set-pieces--the meteor shower, the long walk across a scorching desert, the final battle with one of the Carnosaurs--each of which allows for a demonstration of how completely convincing 3-D digital animation can be. Note the extreme use of light and dark in the meteor shower. See how the screen can fill with realistic dust and debris when the herb lumbers across the plains and marvel at the exquisite detail of the dinos' age-old reptilian skin with all its folds and scales. Watch the incredibly realistic movements and the palpable sense of weight when two dinosaurs fight it out on the edge of a cliff.
Unfortunately, while each of these set-pieces is striking in the visual sense, the story in which they are marred lumbers along much like an aging Brachiosaurus. The dialogue is functional at best, insipid at worst; there are a few positively awful moments, such as when Aladar's potential love interest, Neera (Julianna Margulies), calls him a "jerkosaurus." The only real attempt at humor is a scrawny lemur named Zini (Max Casella) who fancies himself a furry Casanova, right down to the groan-inducing pick-up lines.
The greatest Disney films have always blended superb animation with good storytelling, which is precisely why "Dinosaur," despite its visual accomplishment, leaves you feeling somewhat empty inside. The sheer impressiveness of its grandeur is undeniable, but once the initial excitement wears off, the viewer finds himself stranded in a positively boring story with no interesting characters and not even the faintest whiff of true humor or wit.
Of course, the filmmakers would probably not argue with such an assessment. In fact, "Dinosaur" is admittedly a movie in which the story was wholly reliant on the technical means in which it could be told. The screenplay existed in a constant state of rewrites as new technology and software was developed that would allow the animators to translate the vision in their heads into pictures on the screen. And, while that has resulted in some truly incredible scenes, it has come at the expense of those qualities--namely story and characters--that have made other Disney films so magical
©2000 James Kendrick