Dinosaur (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

While watching Disney's Dinosaur, with all of its incredibly rendered creatures and seamless blending of animated objects with real backgrounds, a question occurred to me: In movies like this, can the writing keep pace with the technology? Films like Toy Story and Toy Story 2 (released by Disney, but produced by Pixar) confirmed that dazzling computer animation does not have to overshadow the screenplay. Unfortunately, Dinosaur (done entirely in-house at Disney) argues the opposite. As stunning as this movie is from a visual point-of-view, it boasts little else of great interest. Like so many big summer extravaganzas, this is a classic example of the triumph of style over substance.

Of course, since Dinosaur is a Disney animated effort and is geared primarily towards a younger audience, one has to make certain allowances. And kids will love the film. Although old and young alike will be awed by the spectacle of dinosaurs coming to life, the adventure, romance, and moralizing are all aimed squarely at the under-10 crowd. Children will enjoy Dinosaur as a fairly typical Disney-generated experience. Adults will appreciate it on another level, marveling at what cutting-edge special effects can accomplish while paying little or no attention to the rudimentary story and bland characterization.

There's not much to the plot. It's essentially a prehistoric road movie with a little Tarzan thrown in for good measure (once again, Disney recycles themes and ideas). Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney) is a dinosaur who has been raised by a family of pre-monkey mammals. His mother (voice of Alfre Woodard), grandfather (Ossie Davis), and siblings are all cute, furry creatures that make the Ewoks look like grotesque monsters. Disney couldn't possibly have further ratcheted up the cuteness level. At any rate, after a good portion of the surrounding terrain is devastated by a meteor strike (not the Big One, apparently, since there's no lasting nuclear winter), Aladar and his mammal friends join a herd of dinosaurs who are on their way to The Nesting Ground (dino-speak for Eden). The journey is arduous, with danger coming from climate changes (water is difficult to locate), roving predators, and in-fighting among the dinosaurs. In the end, it's up to Aladar to prove his mettle and be a hero.

One of the ironies of Dinosaur is that creatures that are so fully animated (it's possible to see their detailed skin ripple) can possess such a lack of personality. Aladar is pure and righteous to a degree that's almost sickening. The mammals serve no purpose beyond providing occasional comic relief and modeling for the stuffed animals that are soon to be on store shelves. An aging diplodocus (voice of Joan Plowright) and triceratops (Della Reese) spout sage wisdom. Neera (Julianna Marguiles) is a personality-deprived love interest for the heroic Aladar. The only one to show vague signs of multidimensionality is Kron (Samuel E. Wright), the leader of the herd, who pushes the exhausted dinosaurs hard because he thinks that's the only way to save them. Unfortunately, since he opposes Aladar, he is cast as the villain. Admittedly, we don't expect completely rounded characters in an animated film (although efforts like the Toy Storys and Beauty and the Beast gave them to us), but we deserve something a little more substantial than what Dinosaur offers.

While the dinosaurs look great, their appearance is not necessarily an attempt to represent reality. The animators have taken liberties, making the creatures viewer friendly. The "good dinosaurs" seem clean-cut and streamlined. Their colors and overall look is pleasing to the eye. Only the "bad dinosaurs" appear ugly, with knobs, spikes, and bumps marring the smoothness of their hide. Comparisons to the BBC television series Walking With Dinosaurs are inevitable, since both that program and this movie employed the latest computer-generated animation to create life-like dinosaurs. While the work for Dinosaur is more vibrant and colorful, Walking With Dinosaurs gets the nod for realism. (It's also worth noting that the mini-stories told during the course of the TV series were in many ways more compelling than the plot of this movie.)

Dinosaur contains two sequences of eye-popping majesty. The first is the ten-minute opening, which shows various facets of everyday dinosaur life: herbivores munching on plants and wading through water, small carnivores snapping at each other, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex bursting from its hiding place and finding prey. Subsequently, an egg is stolen from a nest, then makes a long journey by land, sea, and air to the island of the mammals, where it hatches. The flying scene, which depicts landscapes dotted with herds of dinosaurs, is especially impressive. The second sequence occurs when the planet is bombarded by hundreds of small meteors and one large one. Although images of destruction are sanitized to avoid traumatizing some viewers, younger children may become frightened.

Dinosaur becomes the first Disney animated picture in years not to feature any songs. Since the "new wave" films were ushered in by The Little Mermaid, characters have sung and danced their way to the end credits. Tarzan reduced the number of musical numbers; Dinosaur eliminates them entirely, sparing us the experience of hearing a dinosaur croon the words to a Phil Collins or Elton John pop tune. The score, contributed by James Newton Howard, is a grand, orchestral affair that works perfectly to heighten the impact of the movie's visuals.

Co-directors Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag have crafted a film that will be an unqualified success with their primary target group. Children, more interested in fast-moving action than in a story with characters, will adore every moment of Dinosaur's relatively short, 84-minute running time. Adults may be more restrained in their praise, but, even though the traditional aspects of cinema are lacking, it's hard not to be impressed by the package as a whole. Dinosaur is worth seeing. And seeing, as they say, is believing.

Dinosaur (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: 2000-05-19
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1