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Disney 53: Dinosaur

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Directed by Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag
2000/81 minutes

Having sat on the shelf at Disney for almost a decade, DINOSAUR ushered in a new era of Disney Animated movies. Combining state of the art computer animation with real-world photography, it almost plays like a prequel to JURASSIC PARK…at least until the animals start talking.

Calling it a wholly animated movie may not be entirely accurate; a lot of the film is actual filmed footage from across the world, with physical effects blended with then-cutting edge computer animation to create an entirely “real” world.

DINOSAUR was originally intended to be a “nature documentary” styled film with no dialogue save a possible narration, rather like a cinematic version of WALKING WITH DINOSAURS, but chief exec Michael Eisner feared it would damage its commercial viability, and as a result the most generic and clichéd voice cast were assembled, somewhat undermining all the trouble the animators went to give the assorted animals a hyperealistic look. Coupled with a rather standard plot and characterisation, the film was nonetheless a commercial and critical success. There was some critical detraction for its plot and casting, and some compared it to 1988’s THE LAND BEFORE TIME…which just so happened to be directed and co-produced by Don Bluth, a former Disney employee who had walked out in 1979 in protest of the direction the company was going and went on to found his own studio.

 

SYNOPSIS: In the movie’s best scene, an Iguanodon egg is dislodged from its nest when a Carnotaurus attacks its mother’s herd. After being handled, fought over and dropped by numerous creatures, it comes to rest on an island populated by Adapiformess (lemurs), who suddenly start talking. Yar, the elder male, warns his kin to keep away from it, but they come to adopt the infant as their own, naming him Aladar. Years pass, and Aladar is happy on the island, but wishes there was another like him.

Their island paradise is destroyed by the shockwave of a meteor impact. Whether it’s that meteor impact is debatable, but unlikely in the long run. Only a handful of lemurs survive, riding Aladar’s back to the mainland.

As they venture into their new surroundings, they’re attacked by Raptors, and find themselves a colossal herd of dinosaurs, led by Kron, a fellow Iguanodon with a very aggressive, “survival of the fittest” attitude. With his lieutenant, Bruton (they really thought about these character names), Kron drives the herd hard, pushing them towards their Nesting Grounds, with sympathy for the weak or the aged. So, naturally, Aladar makes new friends amongst the weak and aged, as well as making an impression on Kron’s sister Neera. The following Raptors are scared off by the much larger, deadlier Carnotaurs.

The Herd arrives at a lake they’ve relied upon for years, only to find it has dried up. Kron sends Brutus ahead to find water, Aladar is able to find it trapped beneath the surface with the aid of Baylene, an ancient and solitary Brachiosaur, but is dismayed when the Herd crowd the water hole, with the strongest and the largest pushing everyone aside for their fill, despite there being enough water for everyone. Observing Aladar’s compassion for all dinosaurs, but most especially the elders, Neera finds herself drawn closer to him.

Brutus is attacked by the Carnotaurs and barely makes it back to the Herd to warn them. Kron orders the Herd to move out as fast as possible, leaving Aladar, his friends and family, and the wounded Bruton behind. Kron also threatens to kill Aladar if he meddles with leadership matters again.

When the skies open, thereby negating the whole “no water” issue, the abandoned find refuge in a cave; Bruton is confused by the compassion of his new travelling partners, and shows his quality when the Carnotaurs catch up with them; Bruton causes a cave-in that kills ones Carnotaur, at the cost of his own life, and leaves the other unable to follow. The group reach a dead end, and Aladar begins to lose hope in himself, the classic crisis of confidence, which is countered by his friends’ faith in him. Together they’re able to press though the wall of fallen stones, finding themselves in the Nesting Grounds. But the old entrance to the Grounds, the one the rest of the Herd is headed for, has been blocked by a massive, impassable rockslide. Aladar rushes back to find the Herd, inadvertently alerting the remaining Carnotaur.

By this point, the Herd has reached the rockslide. Unwilling to listen to reason, Kron orders the Herd to climb the rocks, rather than seek an alternate route. When Aladar arrives and informs the herd of the path through the caves, Kron attacks him, enraged at his authority being challenged. Unaccustomed to combat, Aladar is easily overwhelmed by Kron, but is saved by Neera, who shows her new loyalty by walking alongside him and taking control of the Herd. Kron, refusing to submit, tries to climb the rocks himself.

When the Carnotaur confronts them in the mouth of the valley, Aladar realises its divide and conquer tactic and rallies the Herd to stand together. Put off by this show of solidarity, the Carnotaur leaves them be as they make for the caves, but spots the lone and defenceless Kron, still attempting to climb the mountain.

Aladar and Neera rush to Kron’s aid, and the resultant battle leaves both the Carnotaur and Kron dead. Aladar leads the others to the Nesting Grounds, eventually siring children with Neera. The lemurs are joined by other survivors, and life continues…

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LESSONS LEARNED:

1. Cooperation and compassion are powerful weapons.

2. Don’t give up hope, even in the face of devastation.

3. There’s always another path, another solution.

 

THE HERO
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D.B. Sweeney voices Aladar, a rather bland and standard hero; a young outcast, raised apart from his fellow Iguanodons, he finds himself at odds with his fellows elitist attitude and enforced Darwinist politics. By challenging the established order, he makes an enemy of the current leader he’s destined to succeed while inspiring a close lieutenant to his cause. There’s very little to set him apart; he’s not shown to be particularly smart, witty or powerful, it’s his different perspective and willingness to consider all options that make him a hero and saviour of the Herd.

 

THE HEROINE
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Neera, voiced by Julianna Margulies. Again, rather bland and standardised; an independent woman allied to the antagonist; disillusioned by their methods, they ally themselves with the hero, thereby bringing the attention and loyalty of those unswayed by the hero himself. She has a couple of moments, but for the most part she’s little more than a love interest.

 

THE VILLAINS
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Kron, voiced by Samuel E. Wright, isn’t much of a villain. By which I mean he is not a villain in the classic sense, rather an authority figure at odds with the hero. From his perspective, he probably sees himself as the hero; it’s his decisive actions that keep the Herd alive. At least, the “half that deserve to live”.

One can understand his attitude; as he drives the Herd, those that can’t keep up are left behind to starve, leaving more precious resources for those that do survive. It’s a bleak and unfair outlook, but it works, on some level.

The Carnotaurs and the Raptors (vocal effects by Frank Welker) are the nearest thing DINOSAUR has to an outright villain, but much like the Firebird or the Bear in THE FOX AND THE HOUND, they’re not particularly evil in the classic Disney sense. Rather, they’re hunters and predators with as much right to live as anyone or anything else. It’s just the small fact the Hero and his allies are on the menu that makes them “villains”.

INTERESTING INTERLUDE: Originally, the Carnotaurs were going to be the classic bad-guy dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. However, after THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK painted that particular species in a better, more compassionate light, the Carnotaurus was used. However, in reality the Carnotaurus were considerably smaller, smaller than Iguanodons in fact, so the beasties were given some embellishment to match their Tyrannic cousins.

 

SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
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Aladar’s immediate adoptive family are along for the ride the whole film, but his “step-uncle” Zini, voiced by Max Casella, fills the Sidekick role; socially awkward and unlucky in love, he nonetheless proclaims himself to be God’s gift (pre religion-era setting not withstanding) whilst filling the comedy relief quota.

Bruton, Kron’s second-in-command, is the classic lieutenant character; loyal to his commander but brushed aside when he’s no longer required, Bruton finds himself allying with the Hero for one last act of heroism, making up for his being a douche beforehand.

It’s all so generic, but it is at least well portrayed.

 

PLOT
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Taking a few plot threads from THE LION KING and TARZAN and weaving them into a solid if rather bland narrative, DINOSAUR has a good plot that ticks all the boxes; life and death struggle, the hero finding his destiny, the romance, the aged king deposed, the setup for another story.

It does very little to set itself apart, but seems quite comfortable in its familiarity.

 

MUSIC AND SONGS
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No songs, but some very effective “tribal” music with a lot of vocalisation and harmonising, provided by James Newton Howard. It’s very reminiscent of John Williams without being quite as sentimental and does just what you want, with stirring strings and pounding drums and an effective use of brass to invoke the mass and the majesty of the Dinosaurs.

Howard would go on to score ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE and TREASURE PLANET.

 

LAUGHS
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DINOSAUR is for the most part a very straight, serious film, but there are plenty of lighter moments, mostly courtesy of the supporting cast, but never enough to detract from the main narrative. The Lemurs get a little culture-clash humour, while the elderly members of each species find a common ground and a common sense of humour.

 

SCARES
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Likewise, there are very few moments of actual fear; the Carnotaurs aren’t given enough presence or menace, and the final climatic fight has little weight.

The most thrilling sequence is the opening, where we follow the defenceless egg containing the newborn Aladar down rivers and waterfalls as it’s fought over by rival predators before falling into the jungle canopy.

 

MORAL/EDUCATIONAL VALUE
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For its faults, DINOSAUR does provide a solid discussion on survival; the rationing of resources, the needs of the many outweighing those of the few, whether it’s right or wrong to leave the weak, the ill or the old to die while the young and the strong survive. Kron believes in the survival of those most willing and able to fight for survival, while Aladar’s compassion extends to all life; it’s his naivety and his sense of fairness, his desire to see all members of the Herd treated fairly that ultimately triumphs. Socialist commentary? Perhaps. Aladar rallies the Herd to work as one to achieve their goals, while Kron’s “one rule: mine” policy risks the lives of the entire Herd.

In any case, Aladar’s perseverance and optimism is to be commended, as is his willingness to fight against the established order for the good of all. DINOSAUR also makes a point to say that everyone, from the smallest to the greatest, has a part to play, and that no one should be left behind. Am I thinking too deep into it? Probably.

 

LEGACY
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A tie-in computer game across various consoles was released the same year, but the film’s main legacy is a dark ride at Walt Disney World.

Originally designed to tie in with the film, when production overran, the ride was opened on schedule, bearing the name COUNTDOWN TO EXTINCTION. Guests board “Time Rovers” and are taken on a tour through the time of the film, travelling through various scenes with animatronic dinosaurs. When DINOSAUR was finally released two years later, it was rebranded to directly link to the film, replacing a Styracosaurus statue with one of Aladar and toning everything down a little for the influx of children now taking the ride.

 

FINAL SCORE: 34/53

NEXT TIME: THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE.  Oh, boy.