A box office behemoth if there ever was one, “Dinosaur” is an eye-popping visual spectacle that serves up a vivid picture of what the planet might have looked like when reptiles ruled the Earth. But Disney’s summer heavyweight has an almost grotesquely touchy-feely take on prehistoric life, one that will please vegans and compassionate anti-Darwinians more than it will cinematic carnivores looking for some dramatic meat. Backed by humongous marketing and tremendous want-see among kids and animation fans, this technical marvel, which at a budget of somewhere between $150 million to $200 million must qualify as the most expensive film of all time on a cost-per-minute basis, appears poised to become one of Disney’s two or three biggest grossers ever and will enjoy life without end as a home entertainment title.
To modern audiences for which technological achievements usually count for far more than artistic ones and special effects coolness very often reps the most valuable possible B.O. component, “Dinosaur” definitely has what it takes. The startling visions of the first few minutes alone-a ferocious toothsome attack and a flight over huge herds of dinosaurs inhabiting magnificent actual landscapes-are enough to thrill any viewer as well as to serve notice that there’s never been anything quite like this before.
The visual splendors continue, to be sure, across the pacy 75 minutes of story time (seven minutes of credits follow). But it’s also the case that, somewhere around half-way through, you begin to get used to the film’s pictorial wondrousness — to take it for granted, even — and start to realize that the characters and story are exceedingly mundane, unsurprising and pre-programmed. Directors Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton seem afraid to show anything that will be the least bit disturbing or upsetting to anybody. Sure, five-year-olds will be momentarily frightened by the sight and sound of giant lizards roaring at them, but this is a dinosaur picture that’s petrified of showing death, for God’s sake, that shies away from all the grand elements that could have given it true stature and resonance: Majesty, terror, grandeur, tragedy and savage instincts in their most primitive state. Pic’s sensibility is closer to a “Sesame Street” lesson in caring and cooperation than to any monster favorite one could think of, from the original “The Lost World” and “King Kong” to “Jurassic Park” and even Disney’s own “The Rite of Spring” episode in “Fantasia.”
The great leap forward here lies in the incomparably “photorealistic” placement of computer generated creatures within real-world settings. Per the press materials, finished film includes more than 1300 individual effects shots, and special attention was paid to such difficult-to-achieve illusions as detailed animal muscle movement, physical contact with water and dust, credible shadows and dinosaur p.o.v. shots. All the effort in these areas has paid off magnificently, to the extent that it’s safe to say that the bar has again been raised in this realm of CGI and effects-based pictures.
Would that one-tenth as much time and energy gone into developing more musculature and a few additional wrinkles for the storyline. Having begun life in 1988 as a script by Walon Green for Paul Verhoeven to direct as a live-action feature with effects by Phil Tippett (one need only think of “Starship Troopers” to imagine what that might have been like), screenplay as ultimately worked out by John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs feels cobbled together with elements from the likes of “Tarzan,” “The Lion King” and, of all things, “Red River.” Result is synthetic rather than elemental, and with a pre-digested taste.
Situated about 65 million years ago, or late in the game as far as dinosaurs were concerned, tale makes use of a couple of scientific hypotheses in order to broaden its dramatic possibilities: That dinosaurs continued to live on Earth for quite some time after the presumed cataclysmic crashes of multiple giant meteors, and that there was a period when the large reptiles may have coexisted here with mammals.
Latter state of affairs allows for the presence of some close-to-human stand-ins, a family of furry Lemurs that one day finds on their island a large, strange egg, delivered in stork-like fashion. The leathery looking beast that shortly issues forth is unlike anything they’ve ever seen, but Dad’s fear of anything different is overcome by the critter’s cuteness, and the Iguanodon known as Aladar soon grows up to be the Lemurs’ large-and-tall-sized pet, a sort of four-footed, toothless T-Rex cousin whose general happiness is undercut only when he realizes, a la Tarzan, that he’s never met a member of his own species.
Scarcely 20 minutes in, the heavens’ most fearsome fireworks show commences, as a cascade of meteors sets the world aflame. Making it across the sea, Aladar and the four Lemurs find a scorched landscape and, after being chased by some pesky snapping Raptors, they encounter, in a spectacular sequence, the great dinosaur migration, a large group of peaceful herbivores traversing the desert in the hope of finding the verdant original nesting ground.
So far, so good: Striking images, sympathetic protagonists and a subversion of expectations by having Armageddon come and go without ending the world or the movie. But it does basically represent the end of the picture’s freshness and dramatic imagination. Grudgingly allowed to join the group by its gruff leader Kron, himself an Iguanodon, Aladar and the Lemurs bring up the rear with the enormous and slow-moving Brachiosaur Baylene and the armor-heavy, sassy Styrachosaur Eema.
A sort of ill-tempered cross between Moses and John Wayne’s Tom Dunston in “Red River,” Kron drives his flock very hard, but he would seem to have no choice. Simply because it otherwise lacks a villain, pic pushes Kron toward this status by having him say that any stragglers must be sacrificed for the good of the community, as if this were somehow a barbaric attitude in the animal kingdom. But stern as he is, Kron never does anything to merit truly villainous proportions, and the film suffers from his uncertain portrayal.
At the same time, a predictable flirtation develops between Aladar and Kron’s sister Neera, who, in a precise replay of the climax of “Red River,” ultimately steps in to bust up a deadly struggle between her tyrannical brother and the young, right-minded upstart. By sticking with the group’s weaklings, Aladar manages to find the only way into the nesting ground, while incidentally showing how the group can stand up to two marauding meat-eaters. Kron, with his outmoded hard-line approach, is relegated to, uh, dinosaur status, suffering a fate befitting an old lion king.
The various creatures are brilliantly rendered; they interact credibly with one another and are integrated seamlessly into the backdrops. But as realistic and expressive as they are, they don’t engage the emotions any more directly than have many more cartoonishly rendered animated characters in the past. Vocalizations of the main characters — D.B. Sweeney as Aladar, Ossie Davis, Alfre Woodard, Max Casella and Hayden Panettiere as the Lemur family, Samuel E. Wright as Kron, Julianna Margulies as Neera, Joan Plowright as Baylene, Della Reese as Eeema and Peter Siragusa as Kron’s cohort Bruton — are uniformly lively and entertaining.
In a film in which the foreground technological wonders will be so widely noted, the superlatively chosen backgrounds should be mentioned; fantastic locations in California, Australia, Hawaii, Florida, Venezuela and Western Samoa have been combined to fashion the world of the late Cretaceous Period. James Newton Howard’s orchestral score is unusually good, and the sound work is expert.