The opening scenes of Dinosaur are an astounding technical achievement, seamlessly blending computer-generated images of hundreds of prehistoric creatures with breathtaking footage from real-life locations around the world. It’s a sequence that would be right at home as an amusement-park ride – the camera follows a pterodactyl as it snatches an egg from an iguanodon’s nest, then swoops and soars across incredible mountain and ocean vistas, finally depositing the egg on a remote island. These first 15 minutes are breathtaking, but only serve to make the hour that follows seem that much more pedestrian. Dinosaur is a film that often dazzles the eye but less often provokes a thought or touches the heart.
The imagery in Dinosaur may be 21st-Century CGI, but the plot is strictly Disney Standard 101 – young orphan thrust into an unfamiliar environment and required to embark on an epic quest. Other stock elements: he’s guided by an elder sage, there’s a love interest (that the hero doesn’t recognize as such at first) and a cynical sidekick. In this incarnation, the hero is Aladar (voiced by D. B. Sweeney), the iguanodon whose egg took the incredible joyride at the beginning of the film. We see his Mom get munched; of course, that’s another Disney tradition. His adopted family is a group of lemurs headed by wise old Yar (Ossie Davis) and his daughter Plio (Alfre Woodard). When a meteor shower destroys the foliage in their area, they’re forced to join a group of migrating dinosaurs searching for the lush and fabled Nesting Ground with several ravenous Carnotaurs in pursuit.
Aladar meets other iguanodons, including love interest Neera (Julianna Margulies) and her brother Kron (Samuel E. Wright) the leader of the herd. Kron, way ahead of his time, is very much a Darwinist (or at least a Reagan Republican) – his hard-driving "survival of the fittest" philosophy leaves Aladar (more of a Bradley Democrat) cold. This results in some Red River-like confrontations between Aladar and Kron over what to do when the older and weaker begin to falter.
This long desert trek to the Nesting Ground consumes the bulk of the film and turns into just as much of a death march for the audience as it does for the stragglers in the herd. For this Wagon Train type of plot to work, the audience has to be drawn into the lives of the individuals and families that make up the group. But this herd is largely a faceless horde. Joan Plowright as Baylene (a very proper Brachiosaurus) and Della Reese as Eema (a crusty Styrachosaur) add a little personality but are there mostly to crack one-liners, like "Just what I need – a monkey on my back." Eema’s role seems especially archaic, even by Cretaceous standards – she mostly shuffles along like a scaly Butterfly McQueen.
The film is rated PG for some violent fight scenes, but there’s certainly nothing here worse than what’s seen in a typical National Geographic nature special. This is not a film for anthropologists, as it contains numerous historical and technical inconsistencies. Yes – the dinosaurs talk (after all, this is a Disney film), but thankfully there are no musical numbers and we’re spared the spectacle of singing and dancing dinos. Lemurs walk alongside dinosaurs, even though they didn’t show up until millions of years after the dinosaurs’ demise. The meteor storm that led to the dinos’ extinction is shown as having taken its toll in just a matter of minutes. Iguanodons like Aladar were actually three times larger than Carnotaurs, but here they’re shown as smaller and weaker. And the ending of the film is vague and oddly optimistic, as dinosaurs are shown playfully cavorting in the lush paradise of their Nesting Ground with little hint of their eventual demise.
Dinosaur is a rich visual feast, but its simplistic story outweighs its technical brilliance. The audience is left with a beautiful setting populated by predictable and largely uninteresting characters. Next time, Disney should divert some of the special effects budget and produce a script that technology can properly illuminate but not totally overshadow.
– Bob Aulert