“We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story” can be seen as “Jurassic Park” for kids who were too young to attend the summer blockbuster. Given the Spielberg name and the fact that Disney’s animated feature for the season — Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”– was released a month ago, it should be smooth sailing at the B.O. for these cartoon dinosaurs brought to New York City.
In spite of narrative problems in this adaptation of the children’s book by Hudson Talbott, the film’s chief appeal is its central conceit — that giant monsters from the prehistoric past can be transformed into intelligent, talking tourists who like to play with children. (“Jurassic Park” is even plugged on a movie theater marquee as the lumbering creatures pass by.)
The source of this miracle is a special cereal invented by Captain NewEyes (voiced by Walter Cronkite), who brings Rex (John Goodman) and his friends to New York so that children who want to see a real dinosaur can have their wish come true. Problems ensue when the addled Dr. Bleeb (Julia Child) fails to meet them and they instead are trapped by the Captain’s evil brother, Professor ScrewEyes (Kenneth Mars).
Film gets off to a slow start, first with a framing story and then the back story of how the dinosaurs make it to New York. Eventually things start to click , especially in the film’s best sequence, in which the dinosaurs pretend to be floats in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The danger from ScrewEyes is both convoluted (it involves a circus where people come to get frightened) and an unseemly attack on the handicapped. It’s stated that the cause of his evil behavior is the fact that he lost one eye. One doesn’t have to be politically correct to question the wisdom of teaching children to be fearful of the disabled.
The animation is a bravura mix of traditional cel animation and computer-generated material. A pterodactyl’s flight through New York City is something that could only have been dreamed about a couple of decades ago.
Among the voice cast, Goodman and Martin Short are the standouts, with Mars and Yeardley Smith, among others, handling their chores well. While it’s a kick for adults to hear the familiar voices of Cronkite and Child coming from cartoon characters, Jay Leno seems to be on board mostly for his marquee value and has little to do.
Prospects are solid because of the subject matter and the lack of competition. Universal is holding off its other holiday family picture — the live-action “Beethoven’s 2nd”– so as not to compete.