Rated PG - Running Time: 1:22 - Released 5/19/00

For its major summer release of 2000, Walt Disney Pictures has released Dinosaur, the second film of the last month to be set in prehistoric times. Unlike The Flintsones In Viva Rock Vegas, however, this one is a straight dinosaur story, sans hard-hatted working stiffs, created through a fortuitous marriage of what paleontology geeks know and what computer geeks can do. As one would expect, it is visually superlative, using computer animation to graft realistic-looking prehistoric creatures onto previously shot real-life backgrounds for an astoundingly natural look. In keeping with the usual Disney format, and in slight conflict with its ultra-real appearance, the principal characters of Dinosaur speak and interact with each other, learning the inevitable life lessons from their adventures together. It is an awsome experience, visually; on the story side it's a tad thin.

The most surprising thing to me about the story of Dinosaur, which was written by Thom Enriquez, Walon Green, Ralph Zondag, and several other co-writers, and directed by Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag, are the number of striking similarities it bears to the 1988 Don Bluth cartoon The Land Before Time. I guess, to be fair, that our knowledge of the daily lives of dinosaurs and their problems would limit the number of possible storylines (after you've covered droughts, predators, and natural disasters, there isn't much else to talk about), but I would think the creators of Land would be slightly miffed at the surprising similarity of this story, especially since Bluth and Disney are competitors. But plagiarism issues aside, there are also a number of logical errors which, I think, even children might find hard to swallow. Technique triumphs over content once again.

During a breathtaking opening sequence in which we follow a stolen egg in its journey far from the nest, we are introduced to the animation-against-filmed-background technique mentioned above. The egg is deposited into the midst of a family of lemurs, who, after the tiny creature hatches, must decide what to do with it. "Things like that grow up to eat things like us," says Yar, the father (voice of Ossie Davis). But cuteness wins out, and the lemurs adopt the little shaver and rear him as one of their own. By the time he reaches young adulthood, Aladar (D. B. Sweeney), who, judging from his teeth, turns out to be a plant-eater, is as much a family member to Yar and Plio (Alfre Woodard) as their own lemur-children, Zini (Max Casella) and Suri (Hayden Panettiere). Their idyllic lifestyle is brought to an abrupt end, however, when a meteor strike reduces their tropical paradise to a barren wasteland (this sequence, incidentally, is another incredible feat of animation). Soon they must begin the long, hot trek across the desert, in search of the more hospitable "mating grounds."

Anyone who has seen 1988's Land will not fail to notice the similarity of the storyline: Meek, friendly dino leads inter-species group across desert against overwhelming odds, dodging carnivorous attacks and other hardships, in search of fertile, green pastures and water. But there are also some things that don't make much sense. The creatures are dying of thirst and begging for water, but when it finally rains, they don't cheer and raise their open mouths to the heavens, they seek shelter in a cave where they can stay warm and dry. Then, after this torrential rainstorm passes, they are suddenly trekking through the dry, hot desert again, crying for water. Also, inexplicably, the issue of food is never mentioned. They thirst, and eventually they drink, but no creature in the film ever mentions hunger or is seen eating (except the carnivores, who do not speak).

Added to these and other lapses in logic, there are the traditional Disney plot elements: the inter-species fraternization, the protagonist's seemingly unattainable love interest (Julianna Margulies), the theme that hope triumphs over adversity, etc. It's all pretty standard. Without the incredible animation (and the majestic musical score by James Newton Howard, which also deserves credit), Dinosaur would be a pretty undistinguished effort; still, resting solely on those factors it doesn't do too badly. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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