For my first two reviews, I revisited movies that I loved in one way or another, and weighed my older and hopefully more mature opinion against that of my youth. But this week, I decided to take on something that I wasn’t that keen on. And what movie have I taken on this week? Clearly, you clicked on this story and you saw the headline as well as the image above. It’s Disney’s Dinosaur, ya dummy.

Ten years ago, I didn’t think it was much of a movie, but I remembered enjoying it to a certain degree. But now, as is the point of this project, I must ask the question:

[drumroll]

Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?

Worse.

Much much worse.

When I added the movie to my queue, I thought back to the film, and realized I had trouble remembering much about it. In fact, I only remembered three things:

1. Max Casella (Doogie Howser, M.D., Newsies) voices a very obnoxious lemur.

2. The film began with a sprawling, dialogue-free entry into the dinosaur world of yore, following the journey of an egg.

3. It ends in a major battle between the hero dinosaur and an evil Carnotaur, culminating in the villain falling off of a cliff.

I thought I was being unfair to the movie in this fashion, but it’s actually dead on. Do you know why?

BECAUSE THOSE ARE THE ONLY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THIS MOVIE!

I was, to put it lightly, ridiculously shocked at how barren the story was. Some of Disney’s lesser entries suffer from this same problem, but Dinosaur might be the worst I can think of. Literally nothing happens for the majority of its 80-minute running time. After the dialogue-free prologue (which was also the film’s trailer, so it wasn’t any big surprise), this is what happens:

Meteors destroy some homes. Dinosaurs set out to find a lake. They argue about water. They fight a pair of carnotaurs. They find the lake.

The. Fucking. End.

I guess we were all distracted by the technology that was used to create the images — it’s a pretty movie, don’t get me wrong — but this is a textbook example of style over substance. Disney spent so much money on the effects (reportedly $200 million) that they forgot to put together a good script. According to the film’s trivia, it was originally intended to be dialogue-free, only changing at the behest of Michael Eisner, but that’s all I know. But man, it’s hard to bore me with dinosaurs, but Disney figured out a way. I’ve enjoyed the crappy Land Before Time sequels more than this one. I even prefer that one Land Before Time sequel I watched entirely in Spanish during middle school, because I still remember how hard I laughed when a Gallimimus broke into a song about “huevos.”

(Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that the movie in question is Part 2: The Great Valley Adventure, and that…holy shit…there are 13 LBT movies, not including the TV show. Now that’s impressive.)

But how many odd choices had to be made to end up with such a drab, dour film? It baffles me. Even the casting makes some odd choices. Some are okay (Samuel E. Wright and Joan Plowright do good character work), while others are just embarrassing (Ossie Davis, Della Reese at her sassiest.)

I also think that, while the technology behind the movie is awe-inspiring, I also don’t agree with what they chose to do. I asked my colleague Michael, the closest thing I have in my life to a Disney expert, what he thought of the film, and after declaring he thought it was just okay, he said the following:

“I think it’s got a firm place in the history of the company because of the techniques used to create it (I didn’t even realize until last year that it was CG dinosaurs against filmed, real-life backgrounds).”

So yes, it’s borderline-photorealistic dinosaurs (with a few artistic licenses taken) over actual backgrounds. It looks remarkably real, and I respect what the animators and technicians did. However, I think it was the absolute wrong choice. I don’t need my cartoon animals to be cute, but I also want them to be characters. Just like Disney’s later flop The Wild, it falls into the issue of the Uncanny Valley, where things look so real that it begins to feel eerie. From a storytelling perspective, it seems to me that Disney wasted an awful amount of money to accomplish something that didn’t need to happen. This technology is wonderful for a documentary like Walking With Dinosaurs, but it’s a failure here. Yes, it shows off what they’re capable of, but why bother?

What’s Better About The Film?

  • It may seem contradictory to say so, but I think the digital work used to animate this movie is just as impressive as it was ten years ago. It doesn’t look fake at all to me, and I must say again, I respect the artistry like crazy. Most times when I go back and examine CGI effects they always feel outdated, but I was happy that I thought quite the opposite this time. And it looks damn good on Blu-ray, although Michael claims the DVD is mastered better, and I trust him on that kind of thing more than myself.
  • James Newton Howard’s score is a small wonder. Almost all of the emotional beats found in the film, few they may be, can be chalked up to his work. Because while I like D.B. Sweeney, hearing his voice come out of a noble dinosaur just feels strange to me.
  • Roger Ebert’s three-star review is funnier than it has ever been. Like most of the critics who reviewed the film, they were impressed enough by the film’s visuals and advancements in digital technology that they gave the film a pass, much as I did ten years ago. But his analysis, which mostly picks on the movie, is great reading.

My two favorite passages:

1.
“I guess I had forgotten that this movie wasn’t going to be a reckless leap into the distant past, but a fairy tale in which the dinosaurs are human in all but outer form. They not only talk, they have personalities, and argue, plan, scheme and philosophize, just like humans. They even have human values; when one of the leaders says it’s going to be “survival of the fittest” on a long desert trek, he comes across as cold and heartless. If there is one thing I think I know about dinosaurs, it’s that sentimentality for the underdog played no part in their decision-making.”

And 2.
“I don’t know if Disney has a house rule about which animals can speak and which cannot, but guidelines seem to be emerging. The rule is, if you are a predatory carnivore, you don’t talk, but if you are a pacifist, a vegetarian or cute, you do. In “Tarzan,” the apes spoke, but the leopards didn’t. In “Dinosaur,” all of the creatures speak, except for the vicious carnotaurs. A Faustian bargain seems to be at work: If you are an animal in a Disney picture, you can speak, but only if you are willing to sacrifice your essential nature.”

What’s Worse About The Film?

  • It just simply didn’t entertain me, didn’t excite me, didn’t move me. And I’d say that’s a massive failure. Basically, it made me realize how much of an apologist I was 10 years ago. But I saw it in the same day as Road Trip (my second viewing) and Gladiator (my fourth viewing), so I guess my mind was kind of addled.
  • Even with only 75 minutes of actual plot, it felt like a three-hour film.
  • It reinforced my decision that Disney should stick to traditional two-dimensional animation, and leave the three-dimensional stuff to Pixar. So far, the only CG-based Disney in-house film I really enjoy is Bolt. (I did kind of like Meet the Robinsons, only because it was out-of-its-goddamned-mind strange.)

What Did I Learn From This Experience?

I love animated films, but it’s probably not a good idea to let me watch them with children. I’ll just swear at the screen, bitching about how much of a mistake it is to cast Julianna Margulies as an Iguanodon.

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