Dinosaur (2000)

D: Eric Leighton, Ralph Zondag
S: Voices of: D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard

If your children are interested in animation techniques, then Disney's Dinosaur will probably prove worthwhile. As a technical accomplishment, the studio's first computer animated feature (the Pixar-produced Toy Story and Toy Story 2 apart) is breathtaking. Detailed character animations, excellent use of natural and invented scenery, careful lighting effects, wonderful movements, subtle, layered colour palettes and sound effects: the film represents the inevitable results of years of development and big-budget studio finance for top-flight technical personnel. But as a story, Dinosaur is an insipid dumbing down of Don Bluth's The Land Before Time with uninteresting characters and a deadening pace. The film is also a clumsy blend of realism and anthropomorphic fantasy. The characters do talk (though they don't sing: a small concession from the studio to the makers) even though gargantuan effort has gone into making the dinosaurs and their environments as authentic as possible according to present research and understanding of the prehistoric world. Unfortunately the dialogue is the most mundane sort of preaching possible. It is like something out of a cheap after-school special rather than a feature film. Few kids will remember anything about it other than the visuals when its over, and most adults will be bored silly long before it comes to its end.

The story follows the adventures of a dinosaur named Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney) raised by Lemurs (shades of the far superior Tarzan?) who apparently learns the value of co-operation from the mammals which is not shared by his saurian kin. When the planet-killing asteroid hits, our hero and his adopted family flee their island and arrive at a ravaged land populated by dinosaurs who are all in search of their traditional breeding grounds. The herd (composed of all kinds of species) is led and essentially united by a hard-bitten dinosaur named Kron (voiced by Samuel E. Wright), who believes that the weak must perish and the strong survive as the quest becomes tougher. Aladar tries to show them another way, primarily by hanging out with the elderly dinosaurs towards the rear (voiced by Alfre Woodard and Joan Plowright). Meanwhile a pair of carnotaurs are in pursuit of the herd and both internal and external confrontations are inevitable.

Four people are credited with the story of Dinosaur. Two are credited with the screenplay. Then there's the peculiar credit for Walon Green, who receives acknowledgement for an 'earlier screenplay' which one presumes this small committee rewrote together. The problems with the film are all here. The screenplay is a boring mess of clichéd dialogue and situations which create only the most banal of crisis encounters, which are usually resolved with flat platitudes instead of dramatic action. The plot is motivated only by the necessity for there to be one, as most of what happens is simply a demonstration of visual style and animation technique. The characters are colourless ciphers whose goals and motives seem to have been worked out on a graph, and though no one is calling for three-dimensionality, Disney films like Tarzan, Beauty and the Beast, and even The Hunchback of Notre Dame have provided considerably more rounded and genuinely interesting personalities in the past. The script seems to have been sewn together from elements discussed around a table rather than felt by a creative artist and committed to paper, and the whole thing barely hangs together. It does so eventually only by sheer force of cliché, because it is difficult to get the mechanics wrong when your vision extends only to formula.

Even still, its most obvious predecessor, The Land Before Time, managed to make more out of this same basic scenario. By establishing quasi-racial tensions between individual species, that film allowed more interesting character dynamics to hold the centre of the tale. Dinosaur concentrates entirely on the tension between Aladar and Kron, a difference of philosophies which is all too painfully obvious and makes the film pedantic. The rest of the characters might as well not be there at all, and there simply isn't enough going on here on a story level. Despite the presence of what seems like way too many dinosaurs to be even vaguely believable from a zoological perspective, few enough are given personalities and the film seems full of slow stretches and empty spaces which are filled only dogmatic exchanges.

Though kids will have a higher threshold for cliché than most adults, Dinosaur is simply not a film that even children will remember. It is visually spectacular, and there may be some memories to be gleaned from the many set pieces, but even by Disney standards, this is not a film which will give them something more to take home other than dull sermonising. Some may ascribe this level of blandness to Disney in general, but this is simply not fair. They may not have the courage to really follow through with their more interesting stories, but they exel in the moment and frequently provide both mental stimulation and entertainment. Dinosaur is one of the weakest films they have made in the past decade in spite of its technical excellence. One hopes that the renaissance in animation which began with The Little Mermaid hasn't simply lost the run of itself as technicians push the boundaries of the possible further and further away from any sense of value or worth. Your kids will still want to see Dinosaur, the Disney marketing machine is too powerful to ignore, but really they're better off with some videos or DVDs of other recent studio films rather than this particular one. Try telling them that, of course, when the merchandising is bursting out of every lunch box and fast food outlet in your area, I know.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.