|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 January 2001|
Actually, 'Dinosaur' was a hit, but just not as big as was hoped. The screenplay credited to John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs leaves more than a little to be desired, but 'Dinosaur' is a genuine feast for the eyes, from the first moments inside an iguanodon egg, to the last scenes of a lush green valley with hundreds of dinosaurs bellowing in joy.
The story is told clearly and well, with strongly delineated (though stereotyped) characters, and effectively-structured rising and falling actions, including a literal cliff-hanging climax. The biggest tribute to the movie is that after initially marveling at the computer graphics, you become caught up in the story and characters. Basically, it doesn't matter that it's told via CGI animation; it's an entertaining movie on its own.
The plot plays like a cross between 'Tarzan' and 'The Land Before Time', with a little 'Red River' tossed in for flavor. An attack by a vicious Carnotaurus (like a T-rex with knobs and spikes), sends an iguanodon egg on a journey. It's passed from one predator to another, finally landing on an isolated island. The hatchling iguanodon is found by a family of lemurs headed by patriarch Yar (Ossie Davis) and his daughter Plio (Alfre Woodard).
Some years later, the dinosaur baby is now huge iguanodon Aladar (D.B. Sweeney), loved by all the lemurs on the island, particularly his "brother" Zini (Max Casella) and "sister" Suri (Hayden Panettiere). But a giant meteor crashes into the sea; in seconds powerful forces hit them, and Aladar, so much larger than the lemurs, scoops up his family and leaps off the island just as the heat wave from the planet-busting meteor destroys it.
After wandering through fiery desolation, Aladar and his friends encounter herd of dinosaurs, mostly iguanodons, bound for the fabled nesting grounds. The leader of the herd is Kron (Samuel E. Wright), a tough, dictatorial, no-nonsense leader. His younger sister Neera (Julianna Margulies) is taken with Aladar's naivete and earnestness, but she is still loyal to Kron.
Aladar and the lemur family befriend two "old ladies" who are hanging way back in the herd, regarded as outsiders by Kron and his lieutenant Bruton (Peter Siragusa). One of the elderly dinosaurs is Baylene (Joan Plowright!), a towering brachiosaurus; the other is wobbly old Eema (Della Reese), a styracosaurus. The herd is followed by carnivores of various types, particularly two carnotaurs, but the real threat is Kron's unyielding pride and his resentment of the upstart Aladar. Can they elude the carnotaurs and get to the nesting grounds? Will Neera and Aladar fall in love?
Talking animals are a long-established tradition in movies, so talking dinosaurs, even realistic ones, are hardly a stretch. But when they use contemporary references ("he puts the 'prime' in 'primate'") or slang ("jerkosaurus"), or just painfully lame wisecracks ("I'm the professor of love"), we're hauled out of the reality of the movie by the scruff of our necks. Also, lemur Zini (Max Casella) is a bad joke stretched out for no good reason. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that this kind of junk, the worst side of Disney, was forced on directors Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton by Disney brass.
But visually, it's a wonderland, a richly beautiful film with a painterly use of color. The backgrounds are almost entirely real locations photographed all over the world, seamlessly blended with the CGI dinos. Each of the main characters was under the direction of a different animator; all the dinosaurs are quite well done, but the animation of Eema by Gregory William Griffith and of Kron by Eamonn Butler is particularly impressive. The characters seem remarkably real and consistent, and their scaly flesh ripples and sags with near-perfect realism.
James Newton Howard's score is excellent, sweeping, majestic and epic, a perfect match for the power of the visuals. But the movie itself is not at all heavy; it's graceful, as light on its feet as its iguanodons (which at times seem almost dainty, though they're 25 feet long).
Overall, it's really a big adventure melodrama, a cattle-drive story in which the cattle themselves are doing the driving. But it's all about dinosaurs, which makes it exotic and fascinating; it's the first CGI movie to be essentially realistic, and it's Disney's own first major step on this promising new road.
The DTS sound on the DVD is outstanding, a great demonstration of the technique. The sound design for the film was by Christopher Boyes, and as often the case with entirely "artificial" movies like 'Dinosaur,' he exercises masterful control. The sound is carefully spread from speaker to speaker; the invisible orchestra is balanced as usual, with the various areas locked in "place" -- but the sounds of the forest and desert envelop the listener expertly. Rocks tumble down off to the right, a dinosaur's foot scrapes gravel off to the left. Pursuing creatures "pass" us before they're seen. The two sequences in which Boyes' sound design are demonstrated most spectacularly are the attack by the carnotaur in Chapter 1, and the meteor impact and its aftermath in Chapter 6. Here, the effects and music are particularly well-spread; this is a highlight of the movie in every way.
The various extras on the disc are standard; for example, there are several "behind the scenes" discussions of how effects in different scenes were accomplished. If you're interested in technical aspects of movies, you'll find this stuff fascinating; if you're not -- well, the disc does include the movie. As well as a few games aimed at children. In 'Aladar's Adventure,' interactive video takes you through some caves to solve a problem; at one point you "are" Aladar. 'Dinosearch' allows the user to piece together dinosaurs, then seen in CGI model form. 'Dinopedia' offers encyclopedia-like entries on the dinosaurs seen in the film. All of these are unwisely narrated by a child.
The CD-Rom features include some "behind the scenes" documentaries which look suspiciously just like the ones actually on the disc. It also provides links that, typical of CD-Rom features, are really just advertising for the distributor, in this case, Disney.
It's hard to imagine that even being (maybe) the most expensive movie of all time, 'Dinosaur' didn't eventually return a big profit to Disney. This elaborate, handsome DVD is just more money in the Mouse's bank.