"I believe you left a wakeup call for the dawn of time."
I wasn't crazy about this movie when it was called The Land Before Time. Infinitely prettier pictures this go-around, same old tired story. Wakeup call, indeed.
Facts of the Case
While still but a lowly egg, a baby iguanodon becomes permanently separated from his momma during a vicious carnosaur attack. (Hey, you'd be a mite testy yourself if you had to run around with those useless, flimsy little forepaws.) After a series of serendipitous circumstances—played out with drama and humor (two qualities in meager supply the rest of the way) in the film's opening minutes—the hatchling lands in the care of a tribe of protosimian lemurs. Maternal Plio (voiced by Alfre Woodard, K-PAX, Star Trek: First Contact) wants to take the cute little lizardy thing home. Patriarch Yar (voiced by Ossie Davis, Do the Right Thing) is convinced the beast will turn them into lemur canapés once it's big enough. Since the film couldn't very well end five minutes in, you probably already figured out that Mom wins this argument.
Like Tarzan among the apes, Aladar grows up to be a beloved but not-completely-assimilated citizen of the lemur clan. His goofy pal Zini (voiced by Max Casella, the goofy pal who used to climb in lemur-like through Doogie Howser, M.D.'s window—typecasting at its veritable nadir) fancies himself "the love monkey" but strikes out with the ladies when mating season rolls around. (Aladar strikes out too, but there are some biophysical/geometric/logistical issues complicating his hooking up.) This will be one mating season, however, when not much gets consummated, because no sooner have all the furry folks paired off than a colossal meteorite bursts through the atmosphere and plunges into the ocean with cataclysmic force. The lemurs's island paradise is leveled, with only Aladar and his "family" surviving to tell the tale.
Trapped in a world they never made, Aladar and the lemurs join a migrating herd of dinosaurs seeking their traditional nesting grounds on the other side of a seemingly boundless desert. Crusty iguanodon Kron (voiced by Samuel E. Wright from The Little Mermaid, who left his Jamaican accent and calypso numbers in his other movie) doesn't much cotton to the newcomers, but his sister Neera (voiced by Julianna Margulies from E.R., who left the good script—and her career—in her nurse's uniform) takes a shine to Aladar, and kindly old styracosaurus Eema (voiced by Della Reese from Touched By an Angel, something this screenplay definitely was not) and towering brachiosaurus Baylene (voiced by Joan Plowright, who didn't learn her lesson about picking the wrong Disney projects after the execrable live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians) take the strangers under their…well…whatever it is that styracosauri and brachiosauri have.
It rapidly becomes apparent to everyone except the headstrong, self-important Kron that water's become a scarce commodity around these parts since "the monster cloud" fell from the sky, and that several members of this traveling exhibit from Jurassic Park will likely bite the paleolithic dust before they reach the nesting grounds—if that nirvana still exists at all. Ultimately the herd must decide whether to keep following Kron, who rules by force of will, or pledge their allegiance to Aladar, the advocate of team spirit and fair play. Whom will they choose? Here's a hint: it wasn't Kron who hatched out of that egg and got adopted by cuddly monkeys at the beginning of the picture.
In the keep case insert, Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Feature Animation, writes, "Dinosaur didn't come to us as a story we had to tell. It came to us as a concept we wanted to try." And therein, Mr. Schumacher, lies the problem with your film. It's all hat and no cattle, all buckle and no belt; or, as a noted English playwright once put it, "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Composer James Newton Howard (by the way, has Hollywood released a film lately that this guy didn't score?) makes a telling point on the second audio commentary: "At one point we were considering songs in about three places…but we found that when we put lyrics against the imagery of this movie, it trivialized the characters." If only the directors and screenwriters had figured that out. The film opens with a stunning visual sequence—used in the theatrical trailer many of us saw before the film premiered—involving the fantastic journey of the dinosaur egg that eventually hatches into Aladar, our hero. We see literally hundreds of saurians in this sequence, representing a diverse range of species, and the excitement and beauty of the story unfold dynamically without a single spoken word. The moment the dinos and lemurs start yakking, the feel of the picture plummets like a meteorite. The illusion is shattered, and nothing much seems credible after that. The problem isn't so much that the dinosaurs talk—though I'd contend the film could have been done, and done better, without dialogue—but that none of these garrulous prehistorics have anything remotely interesting to say. I've seen the film now about seven or eight times, half of those in preparation for this verdict, and I can't recollect more than one line of clever dialogue…and I have a pretty solid memory. (That one line, incidentally, appears at the beginning of this review. If you read it and say to yourself, "That's not all that clever," imagine sitting through a movie in which that's the funniest thing said.)
It also doesn't help that the directors employed what can charitably be called Disney's weakest collection of voice talent since the "New Wave" at the Mouse House dawned with The Little Mermaid, and celebrity casts became standard issue. The reason animators use familiar voices is that immediate connection the audience makes with a character whose speech strikes a recollective chord. When you hear Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, David Spade, or Michael J. Fox, you instantly know what to expect from the character whose words are spoken by that actor. I'm sure Disney spent big bucks to get people like Sweeney, Margulies, Woodard, and Wright, but they could have hired you, me, and a dozen of our close personal friends and no one would have been the wiser. (Seriously—could you pick D.B. Sweeney's voice out of a lineup?) These are all fine actors, but fine actors aren't necessarily distinctive voice actors, and when your script is as lifeless as this one, you'd best bring in some folks who can throw a little fire into the proceedings. When your movie conveys more excitement with the isolated sound effects track switched on, it doesn't speak well (snicker) for your dialogue or your cast.
Dinosaur is, without dispute, an incredible-looking film. Every red cent of the reported $130 million (some estimates go as high as $200 million) the minions of Mickey forked out on this monstrosity is right there on dazzling display. The detail accomplished in the character rendering is truly astounding: the dinosaurs have flesh and skin that move naturally and that have photorealistic shading and texture. You'll think you could reach out and feel their scaliness. The fur on the lemurs is similarly perfect; every hair moves and reacts to body motion and the surrounding air currents exactly the way hair should. (Unless you have that moussed-down helmet hair thing happening…but I digress.)
All of the above acknowledged, this is still a Christmas ornament of a movie: a glittering glass shell gorgeously decorated on the outside but with nothing but vacuum on the inside. The plot is pedestrian both literally (we spend an excruciating amount of screen time watching dinosaurs walking…and walking…and walking) and figuratively—you could come up with a better story with one of those write-your-own-screenplay software programs. Maybe even just by sitting two lemurs in front of a keyboard. (The filmmakers may actually have come close to trying that; a total of eight writers get screen credit here, always a precursor of manuscript disaster.) Co-director Ralph Zondag clearly has a jones for dinos—his previous directing effort was the 1993 kiddie cartoon We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story—but he hasn't yet figured out how to tell an interesting story about them. Which is too bad, because they look sensational, except for the too-human facial features necessary for their speech to appear convincing.
Great-looking movie, great-looking DVD. This two-disc Collector's Edition presents Dinosaur in outstanding style (you spent all that money, you may as well show it off). The direct-to-digital anamorphic transfer is a revelation; you'll want to invite your friends over just to show them the first scene. (After that, shut off the set and play Scrabble.) Except for one or two isolated and minor occurrences of pixelation, the picture here is absolute reference quality. Because of the film's setting (a lot of desert) and characters (a lot of big lizards) you won't find much flashy use of color, but when it's called for, as in the meteor sequence, it's like chocolate truffles for the eyes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is every bit the picture's equal; expansive, vibrant, and equipped with wall-rattling bass. Whenever a carnosaur comes on screen, crank that bad boy up and terrify your neighbors. There's a DTS track as well, so if you've got it, flaunt it.
The film can be viewed with either of two excellent commentary tracks: the first features directors Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag and their special effects supervisors; on the second, producer Pam Marsden moderates separately recorded remarks from a host of people who worked on the production team. Neither track is particularly lively or humorous, but both are as packed with information as any animation fanatic could wish for. There's also a sound-effects-only track that I highly recommend—if the film had been produced this way, perhaps with musical score added, it would have made a strikingly different and more mature presentation. An additional audio option called TheaterVision is also available: this track contains descriptive narration designed for the benefit of the visually impaired. I actually enjoyed watching the film with this feature on, and can imagine what a boon it would be to an unsighted person. Hopefully we'll hear more of this type of narration on future discs.
Additional supplements on Disc One include "Dinopedia," a series of short educational clips about dinosaurs geared for the younger set. The clips can be selected individually or experienced in a continuous presentation that runs about seven and one-half minutes. "Film Facts Fossil Dig" enables the viewer to click an icon that pops up at various places during the movie and launches featurettes that are not duplicated in the supplements on Disc Two. These nine clips range from reference footage taken at the lemur exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo to scenes of voice actors Sweeney, Margulies, and Wright at work. A member of the Dinosaur production team introduces each featurette. A couple of set-top games for the small fry and DVD-ROM links to more games online round out the first disc.
On Disc Two, a section on "Development" kicks off the proceedings with a series of preliminary test scenes that were created as the animators got up to speed in using their gaudy new tools. Also here you'll discover a detailed collection of concept sketches.
In the "Creating the Characters" section, the featurette "Designing the Dinosaurs" serves up a seven-minute overview of the way various computer modeling programs—separate processes for the skeleton, musculature, skin texture, coloration, and facial expressions of each character—had to be integrated to produce the lifelike creatures in the film. The next eight-minute documentary, "Building the Dinosaurs," deals with the issues the animators faced in transforming the real contours of dinosaur physiology into characters that could show a range of expressions. Compromises were necessary: the iguanodons's beaks were modified into a liplike structure to permit Aladar and his kind to smile, and all the saurians were given binocular vision—with eyes more or less on the front of the head instead of on either side—to lend a more "human" facial characteristic. "Building the Lemurs" (seven minutes) covers the same ground from the primate perspective, where putting realistic hair on the monkey-like critters posed the main challenge for the artists. Having developed a CGI solution for the fur problem came in handy when grass needed to be added to the nesting grounds scene; the animators simply used the software that created the lemurs's hair to generate blades of grass (different color scheme from the lemurs, of course). Separate sections of "Character Design" provide development art of each of the dinosaur and lemur characters, as well as a thirty-second "turnaround" of each that allows the body of the character to be viewed from all sides. Galleries of some discarded character concepts are also included.
"The Production Process" opens with an eight-minute short entitled "Creating a Prehistoric World." This clip focuses on the background photography that gave the movie's CGI dinosaurs a living, breathing world to inhabit. "The Monster Cloud" (four minutes) lifts the curtain on the special effects techniques employed in the meteor impact sequence. "The Dino Cam" is a brief composite, with audio commentary by Digital Effects Supervisor Neil Eskuri, of the individual visual elements combined in a scene employing a cable-suspended camera to replicate a "dinosaur's eye view" for tracking shots. Eskuri also narrates three other composited scenes. Lastly, a pair of four-minute split-screen clips of the "Aladar Joins the Herd" affords comparisons between the storyboards, the rough computer animation, and the final fully-realized animation.
"Music and Sound" provides two more featurettes, each three minutes long, highlighting (you're way ahead of me, you sneaky reader) the film's music and sound development. The first clip showcases ubiquitous composer James Newton Howard, who, along with Danny Elfman, appears to have pretty well cornered the film score market these days. The second includes interview snippets from voice actors Sweeney, Margulies, Wright, and Reese, as well as the Foley artists responsible for the many sound effects. An "Audio Mix Demonstration" works exactly like identical features found on several other recent Disney DVDs: a scene from the movie (in this instance, it's the meteorite crash sequence) can be played together with any combination of its three main sound elements: dialogue, score, and sound effects. If you've played with one of these things before, you've been there and done that. If not, enjoy.
Next up, a collection of six abandoned scenes. The first of these, "The River Crossing" and "The Grandparents Perish," are presented in storyboard form with music and stand-in dialogue; these sequences are relics of an early concept of the movie in which the character that became Aladar—called "Noah" in these scenes—had grandparents who…umm…perished. "Struggle for a Resting Place" is an extended version, in unfinished animation, of the scene in which Aladar and the lemur family join Kron's herd. "Bruton and Lieutenants Attacked" reframes a similar scene in the final cut; this scene also is roughly animated. "Death on the Trail" is a very brief piece of finished animation excised in a late edit. "Old Gotoma" is another incomplete sequence deleted from Aladar and his friends' first arrival at the nesting grounds.
Finally, the disc's "Publicity" department offers up three trailers for the film (two theatrical, one intended for exhibitors), four TV spots, and a gallery of advertising art.
(By the way, for those who love to amuse themselves scouring their DVDs for hidden features, you'll find a few not-terribly-well-disguised "Easter eggs" on this set. Happy hunting.)
All in all, a worthy set of supplements to a film whose technical merits are deserving of such fine company, but one that's lacking big-time on the entertainment scale.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When I first saw Dinosaur in the theater with my then-eleven-year-old daughter, her first comment after the movie was, "That was exactly like The Land Before Time." Out of the mouths of preadolescents. Disney's certainly been guilty of creatively borrowing from (okay, blatantly ripping off) other people's story ideas before—you may recall the Kimba, the White Lion furor that attended the release of The Lion King—but the Mouse House has rarely been this shameless about it. Yes, they stirred in a dollop of Tarzan to muddy the water a bit—it ain't stealing if you're stealing from yourself, by way of the rights you bought from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate—but the plot of this film and that other dinosaur cartoon are just a iguanodon's eyelash too similar for comfort. I'm not accusing anybody of anything, you understand; "great minds think alike" and all that rot. But it's just a little something to make you say, "Hmmm…"
Am I ever bipolar about this one. Dinosaur is easily one of the most fantastic cinematic visions I've been privileged to witness in a lifetime of film viewing. This Collector's Edition DVD contains a menu of commentary and supplemental material as extensive and informative as you'll find anywhere—truly what the DVD medium was intended to provide. But I can't recall the last movie I saw, animated or not, that was this uninvolving, thinly-plotted, derivative—no, downright duplicative—weakly characterized and acted, and just plain dull. On first viewing, Dinosaur failed the wristwatch test at well under fifteen minutes. It doesn't get any more compelling upon repeated showings. You'll want to own this DVD for the film's nonpareil state-of-the-art computer rendering, and for the Fort Knox of worthwhile extras. But try to get into the story and you'll be marveling at the view of the backs of your eyelids.
Dinosaur is found guilty of contempt of screenplay. Disney is sentenced to three years in solitary, which is how long this Judge felt he aged during each viewing of this tedious plot. Said sentence is suspended, however, on the merits of the film's spectacular technical and visual achievements and Disney's customarily superb DVD package. We're adjourned. Wil-maaaaa!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Directors Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag
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