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'Dinosaur' is a breathtaking achievement -- even if it is more Disney than Darwin

Friday, May 19, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

A Dino-Star is Born -- Aladar, the iguanodon -- with the gentle voice of D. B. Sweeney and the sensitive persona of Alan Alda in Disney's computer-animated extravaganza, "Dinosaur. "

(Walt Disney Pictures) 

He is introduced to us in the film's first -- and most breathtakingly beautiful -- sequence, before he's even born: an egg, stolen during a stampede, then passed and dropped from one predator to another in a process of aerodynamic thievery by which he ends up on Lemur Island.

Gotta love those lemurs who adopt him. In fact, they weren't anywhere near dinosaurs or the Cretaceous Age 65 million years ago when this story is set, but they sure are cute -- cuter than Ewoks -- and they're real, extant critters, and there's a whole bunch of them at the Pittsburgh Zoo. I once spent a fabulous day there communing with 'em until an idiotic handyman banged a bucket on their cage, whereupon they all freaked out in loud, unison hysterics. They do everything together, these lemurs. "Dinosaur" storywriters' choice of them as a solid foster-family clan for Aladar is a good one. The stylized rendering of their mating rites, swinging back and forth choreographically to each other on vines, comprises another of the film's wonderful scenes.


RATING: PG for intense images

VOICES: D.B. Sweeney, Ossie Davis, Della Reese, Joan Plowright

DIRECTOR: Ralph Zondag, Eric Leighton


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars

The dino guy: West View native gives life to 'Dinosaur's' most ferocious creatures

Hollywood dinosaurs: a selective timeline of the movies about dinosaurs


There are many such. Most impressive is the deadly meteor shower and cataclysmic explosion which destroys the habitat and turns Aladar and all other inhabitants of that former Shangri-La into refugees. The resulting dino-Exodus is (and must truly have been) of biblical proportions. As food and water disappear and attacks by equally desperate predators increase, the size of the giants works against them -- especially nice, non-carnivorous ones like Aladar: When the vegetation goes, so do the herbivores.

Things get grim fairly early in the picture as the sad caravan of survivors plods toward a nesting-ground oasis under dino-taskmaster Kron (voice of Samuel E. Wright), while Aladar flirts with Kron's sister Neera (Julianna Margulies), the first girl-iguanodon he's ever met. (How do you sex a three-ton iguanodon? Very carefully. In real life, it's a job you wouldn't want. In film-animation life, you do it by the eyeliner.)

Anyway, as romantic dino-drama goes, it's pretty downbeat from this point forward, with a series of violent run-ins and escapes from evil carnotaurs and heavyweight title bouts for herd leadership that not even Bruce Keidan could handicap. After each frightening scene, I waited for the wails of small children in the audience -- but was surprised not to hear many. If I were their age, I'd be wailing. But I'm from a family that scares and cries easily. I still haven't recovered from Ray Harryhausen's rhedosaurus in "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953).

Kids are tougher nowadays. They paid raptor attention to the stunning quantity and quality of species depicted for them with a degree of accuracy that puts "Jurassic Park" to shame. "Dinosaur" is a more serious effort that eschews cheap thrills. It's not "Godzilla Meets Mutant Jumbo Shrimp." The pleasing equestrian qualities of the iguanodons -- long necks, gentle movements -- are nicely emphasized to humanize, or rather horse-ize, an otherwise uncuddly reptile.

James Newton Howard's music is too John Williamsy for my taste, but at least there are no songs. Praise the Lord! No dino-crooning at next year's Oscar ceremony.

Directors Ralph Zondag's and Eric Leighton's combination of state-of-the-art computer character animation with eye-popping special effects and live-action backgrounds, we are told, required 45 million megabytes, 70,000 CD-ROMs worth of information and 100 million individual files (me, I still don't even have e-mail). Not to detract from that amazing technical achievement, their theory and practice -- both the concept and execution of "Dinosaur" -- owe a major debt to the original "Fantasia" and its landmark original "Rite of Spring" dinosaur sequence.

Which brings us to the gnawing philosophical problems I'm wrestling with and have put off 'til last: Dinos sacrificing themselves for one another? A more post-historic than prehistoric notion -- but who knows, maybe they did. More problematic is their verbal declaration and moral: " die here? Only if you give up. It's a choice, not fate."

This is, of course, untrue -- a noble lie, but still a lie. A kind of a dino-creationist myth and anti-Darwinian wishful thinking, in view of paleontological reality. We may assume that dinos in general, like saber-toothed tigers and dodo birds, chose pretty unanimously to survive until clobbered to extinction by Nature (or, in the case of the dodo, by British sailors).

"Dinosaur's" happily-ever-after ending? Happily for about 10 minutes of geological time, maybe. I know you have to leave the kiddies with a positive message about overcoming obstacles. But it should be more substantial and last longer than the walk from the theater to the parking lot when they ask, "So where are all the iguanodons now?" -- leaving the ugly truth-telling to Daddy instead of Disney.

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