After a conspicuous absence of 65 million years, the dinosaurs are back... at least in the realm of popular culture. Since 1993, following the release of "Jurassic Park", dinosaurs have caught the imagination of the public like never before. Thanks to advances in computer graphics, animators are now able to depict the long-dead behemoths as dynamic creatures, bringing the static images of science textbooks, not to mention the cold bones of museum displays, to life. Since "Jurassic Park", mainstream audiences have seen a slew of dinosaur-related offerings, including blockbuster productions ("The Lost World"), low-budget rip-offs (the Roger Corman-produced "Carnosaur" film series), niche offerings (the IMAX film "T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous"), and even educational programs (such as the popular BBC series "Walking with Dinosaurs").
Now, the House of the Mouse has thrown its hat into the ring with its latest animated feature "Dinosaur", which is rumored to cost upwards of $200 million, including the costs of creating a new state-of-the-art computer animation facility. Moviegoers first got their taste of this high-tech production late last year, when they were treated to a record-breaking five-minute long trailer prior to "Toy Story 2". And while the seamless animation of the actual film upholds the visual flourishes promised in the trailer, the actual story, a variation of the Disney animated musical paradigm, is the film's Achilles' heel.
The story begins in the age of the dinosaurs, and events in the film imply that it is close to the twilight of the Cretaceous period. Like "The Lion King" and "Tarzan" before it, "Dinosaur" follows the story of an orphan who is adopted by a surrogate family, grows up, learns the way of the world, becomes a leader, and falls in love, all within an hour-and-a-half (in this case, 75 minutes, not including end credits). The orphan here is Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney of the defunct "Harsh Realm" television series), who is born into a family of lemurs after being snatched from his mother's nest by a scavenger. He grows up to become a member of the 'family', who includes grandpa Yar (Ossie Davis of "Get on the Bus"), matron Plio (Alfre Woodard of "Star Trek: First Contact"), and siblings Zini (Max Casella of "Analyze This") and Suri (Hayden Panettiere, who voiced Dot on "A Bug's Life").
However, fate deals them a cruel blow when a visually stunning meteor shower obliterates their island home, and they are forced to wander the desert-like mainland for a new home. Along the way, they run into a mean pack of hungry velociraptors, but are able to elude them by finding cover in a large herd of herbivores, who are on their way to some fabled 'nesting grounds' where they hope to find plenty of food and water. However, conditions in this long march are far from ideal. Led by the tyrannical iguanodon Kron (Samuel E. Wright), who is assisted by his aptly named lieutenant Bruton (Peter Siragusa of "The Big Lebowski"), the rule of the road here is 'survival of the fittest', with stragglers being left to die.
Thankfully, Aladar and his surrogate family are able to make some fast friends in the herd, including a mature brachiosaur named Baylene (Joan Plowright of "Dance with Me") and a plucky styrachosaur who goes by Emma (Della Reese of "Touched by an Angel" fame). Aladar's eye is also caught by the fetching form of Neera (Julianna Margulies of "ER" fame), a female iguanadon who also happens to be Kron's sister. Unfortunately, romance is the least of Aladar's worries, as he finds himself caught between helping Baylene and Emma keep up with the pack, Kron's disregard for the welfare of his flock, and the carnivores closing in on them.
The film's opening sequence is breathtaking, to say the least, as the Disney animators are able to seamlessly place their exquisitely-designed computer-generated dinosaurs into lush tropical settings. The level of detail, both in sights and sounds as we follow Aladar's egg in its rumble-tumble journey, even excels the excellent work that was done in "Walking with Dinosaurs". The film even tries to show the savage 'eat or be eaten' reality of life during the age of dinosaurs, with some actual death scenes that earn the film its PG-rating.
However, the illusion of authenticity quickly dissipates when the creatures begin speaking, especially in the 'cutesy' manner that you would typically see in a Disney production-- at least Disney wisely decided to forgo the obligatory song-and-dance routines. The characters fall into the typical archetypes, including the infallible yet naive hero, the wise yet caring mother figure, the affable clutz to supply comic relief, the cute moppet who always gets in trouble, and the perfect love interest with divided loyalties. Unfortunately, the drama never gets further than skin deep, as the one-dimensional dinosaur characters hash out their differences with predictable results. Mind you, there were moments in "Dinosaur" where it seemed that the script was ready to fully flesh-out some of its characters, such as adding some dimension and internal conflict to Kron's hard-driving style, but alas, it never materialized.
The script also doesn't take advantage of the pathos arising from the threat of extinction looming over the horizon, and the fact that perhaps these dinosaurs may be the very last of their kind. However, this probably would have made the material a little too heady and grim for the kiddies, so I'm willing to overlook it.
"Dinosaur" is certainly nice to look at, as it is a terrific showcase to how far computer animation has come in the past few years. It may not be as realistic as the science-based "Walking with Dinosaurs", but its vibrant portrayal of the Cretaceous period is certainly impressive. And while the kids will certainly be easily placated by the eye-popping visual effects, parents will probably find the story lacking, especially with the Mickey Mouse characterizations and Goofy dialogue.