In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
It took an entire decade and half since the first glimpses of computer generated imagery in The Black Cauldron and five years after the release of Pixar's groundbreaking Toy Story before Disney finally took the plunge with their first completely non-hand-drawn animated feature. Dinosaur's original script was finished long before production began. Initially the film was to be created with stop-motion animation but once Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park in 1993, the style was scrapped for digital wizardry.
Unfortunately to the film's detriment, this attempt to place the most cutting edge, realistic visuals in service of a cartoon makes Dinosaur look almost instantly dated. Toy Story and many of the other computer-generated features released at the dawn of the medium depicted a stylized world with plastic or otherwise smooth protagonists to hide some of the infant technology's shortcomings. Meanwhile, something like Jurassic Park expertly mixed CGI with models and puppets to blur the lines between the analog and the digital. Dinosaur strives for a realism that is never quite there. The visual style is ultimately distancing and all-together uninviting. However, in their pursuit of the real, the filmmakers did stumble upon one fascinating technique that on its own is stunning. Throughout the film the backgrounds that the CGI creatures interact with are real 35mm filmed locales, including shots of Samoa and Hawaii. The lush backgrounds provide some truly remarkable images, particularly in the film's early going. But as a contrast to the animated elements onscreen it ultimately detracts. For example, a shot of a CGI stream looks even worse than it normally would when it is bracketed by real footage of roiling oceans.
There are many roadblocks on the path to distinguish Dinosaur from its thematic and technological forefathers. Some of these similarities were addressed early on in production but were ultimately ignored. For example, the film was originally conceived as a story without dialogue to give the material a different feel than the legion of Land Before Time films popularized in the eighties and nineties. This bold, exciting move would have given Dinosaur more of a thrill and would have resulted in a much more distinctive picture. In fact, the sequences in the film that remain free of dialogue are the strongest. The opening montage that shows a dinosaur egg swept up from its nest and pushed, floated and otherwise carried along to its new home on a lemur-infested island, is wordless and in moments, majestic. The reverie is soon broken by characters voiced like late-twentieth century everymen, stentorian elders, sassy black women, and oddest of all, an upper-class British brachiosaur.
It is when these creatures open their mouths that Dinosaur's most egregious moments transpire. At one point, the lemurs attempt to help our protagonist Aladar woo a female of his species by anachronistically catcalling and making "woof" noises. Dogs weren't even invented yet! Gee Disney, stick to the facts! The woman turns to one of her traveling companions and points out Aladar as an example of a "jerkasaurus". Thankfully however, the film steers clear of any attempts at pop culture jokes a la its fellow in "jerk"-nomenclature, Hercules, or any benign songs, say a ballad sung by a pining stegosaur.
The film's best visual moments occur in the first twenty minutes. After the opening journey of the dinosaur egg we cut to the hatched and orphaned iguanodon and his adopted lemur parents looking on at a strange mushroom cloud billowing on the horizon. A meteor has crashed landed on earth, laying waste to much of the planet. The impact spreads towards the idyllic island shore and a brief moment of silence is punctuated with a gale force of energy that wreaks havoc upon the beach. The resulting film depicts a menagerie of migrating dinosaurs, including Aladar the iguanodon and his lemur family, as they trudge across barren earth to the nesting ground, a promised land of sanctuary from the destruction and death.
The theme of the movie is one pitting the cruelties of a survival-of-the-fittest mentality with that of a caring collectivist ideal. This is hammered home time and again as the gentle Aladar questions the motives of the roaming pack's leader, another iguanodon, the bullheaded Kron. It is all well and good as a moral lesson that steers kids away from the ideals of their Tea-partying parents but it is a bitter irony seeing the film's final shots of newly resurgent dinosaur population, replete with dozens of hatching eggs, thriving in the Pebble Beach vistas of the nesting ground, knowing full well that the entire civilization is doomed for an extinction that is lurking just around the corner. In a way, Dinosaur could push kids past benevolent socialism and into a world of existential despair.
In fact, Dinosaur could bum kids out on a few different levels. There is a surprising amount of death in this Disney picture. While most of it is tastefully treated offscreen, we do get predators and prey alike meeting untimely ends. An iguanodon maimed from a velociraptor attack is crushed by a cave-in of his own devising. At the film's climax, Kron is chewed and smashed against a rock by a bloodthirsty carnotaur, who himself is thrown from a cliff to his death. Of course, none of the heroes fail to reach the nesting ground and share in the celebratory party. Maybe if a lemur got trampled or the brachiosaur died of thirst, we would muster up some feelings, but it is all just wanton destruction.
Dinosaur garners respect for attempting to do something different within the Disney form. If nothing else, the film looks nothing like any of the studio's other work. Of course, the film's look turns out to be one of its biggest flaws. It's a cutthroat world out there. You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Consider Dinosaur a random genetic mutation that popped up somewhere along the evolutionary path and was never seen nor heard from again.