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Disney's Digital 'Dinosaur': A Cretaceous Bambi

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2000

   


    'Dinosaur' The special effects are spectacular in "Dinosaur." (Walt Disney)
See, I like it better when they come out of the sea and attack cities and eat people and stuff.

I don't like it when they're all cuddly and have eyes so moist and gooey with feeling that you could be looking into the young Michael J. Fox's baby blues.

So I didn't really like the Disney spoonful of sugar called "Dinosaur," which appears to have more to do with the human potential movement than with life in the Cretaceous. In fact, it seems to be set in a new geological epoch: the Sensitivaceous.

That was an era when nature was less red in tooth and claw than pretty in pink. Aside from a few nasty predators, it was one big happy family, a big tent, a rainbow coalition, a multi-species hoedown.

The movie also reveals this astonishing fact, heretofore unsuspected in the annals of paleobiology: Dinosaurs were actually American teenagers of the '50s! That conceit--chipper, lovesick, spunky iguanodons with the character complexity of David and Ricky Nelson--all but destroys the film. When, after a few minutes of ravishingly pure visual storytelling, one of the creatures opens his yap and gives out with something like "Aw, Mom, we were just havin' fun!" the movie dies as if a giant meteorite had struck it and suffocated all the life forms in the Burbank digitalization lab.

Really. Who wants to see dinosaurs flirt? Who wants to see them spat? Who wants to see them bicker, whine and fib? Who wants dinosaur high jinks and zaniness? These are the largest and most splendid creatures that ever walked the Earth. With their lumbering grace and pure, shivering aggression, they have stalked our collective unconscious for generations, notably invading many a small child's mind and freeing him to see the pleasures of imagination.

They deserve so much better.

Is "Dinosaur" spectacular? And how. But maybe spectacle is overrated. Disney spent 10 years and millions of dollars on it, and the results are eerie: digitally created creatures so brilliantly engineered that their heavy flesh wobbles on their bones when they move, whose sense of weightiness, of skeletal structure, of power and palpable presence is astonishing. For at least seven, and possibly as many as 11, seconds.

In fact, some of the work may be too brilliant. Untold millions have been spent especially on faces, which have all the expressiveness of renowned actors: eyes that swell with pride or shrink with fear, throats that tighten, lips that dry, tongues that flick, subtle shifts in subcutaneous facial muscle that alter the structure, and therefore the emotional meaning, of the physiognomy.

But do animals really look this expressive? Contemplate one of the dino's closest living relatives, the 300-pound lizard called the Komodo dragon of the South China Sea. With depthless eyes and placid musculature hidden behind droopy swaths of greenish leather, his face is a study in impassivity. It looks like a sack hanging on a fence post until he strikes and devours dog or feral pig or child or photographer, and even then the only emotion is the contortion of energy. Afterward, he returns to passivity, his eyes flat and black as opals. Although quite real, he's not nearly enough of an actor for the Mouse Factory.

Plot? The usual feel-good piffle played against a musical score that sounds like a collaboration among Nietzsche, Wagner and the chorus of the 13th Mechanized Panzer Infantry. Aladar (read by the less than illustrious ex-star D.B. Sweeney) is smarter than your usual dinosaur because he's been raised by lemurs.

Mixed at birth? Yes, it happened even then. In any event, under the impression that he is a 25-ton warmblooded arboreal proto-primate, he lives his life in the trees of some pretty offshore island, happy but slightly miffed that he can't get a date.

One night, fire streaks across the night sky and a meteorite crashes into the sea--probably the movie's most spectacular moment. On the island, life is wiped out; Aladar and his immediate lemur circle escape to the mainland, where all the other dinosaurs have gathered for a trip.

One interesting note: I thought from the previews that this meteorite was the big one that ended the age of the dinosaurs, and so the movie, like Disney's many-generations-previous foray into dino life (the "Rite of Spring" sequence in 1940's "Fantasia") would turn on the resonance of world's end. But no: It's just a plot device to get the dinosaurs from Point A to Point B.

So it's basically the story of a dinosaur wagon train with upstart Aladar, the sensitive, lemur-educated one, fighting the nasty Kron (voiced by Samuel E. Wright), a Marine lieutenant-colonel type, for command of the herd and its philosophy: go-getting militaristic seriousness or a more humane, less disciplined ethos of listening to the heart. If you can't figure out which way this one is going to tip, you haven't been to a movie in years.

Also at stake: the hand of Kron's sister, Neera (read by Julianna Margulies). Can an iguanodon look sexy? Well, depends on your taste, but this much is fact: The animators, with that unbelievable expressiveness of image, have given this big babe of a thunderliz a delicate, almost poetic look and a sense of wisdom and gentleness in her warm eyes. No question about it: I'd date her!

Meanwhile, carnotaurs--evidently the state-of-the-art term for T. Rex--and what look to be Disney's rip-off of Steven Spielberg's far more frightening velociraptors--nasty little speed merchants, with beaks and too many teeth, who travel in packs--stalk the big dinosaur herd as it wanders across the blasted zone in search of the promised land. Holy Moses! Many trivial adventures are encountered.

The occasional big moments are stunning, and kids from the ages of, say, 6 years to 6 years and 3 days will love it. Anyone younger will be scared; anyone older, bored.

DINOSAUR (82 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for intensity and scenes of animal violence.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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