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1 item from 2000

Film review: 'Dinosaur'

8 May 2000 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

This eagerly anticipated, mega-expensive, live-action/computer-animated Disney project directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton is a fabulous success, transporting the moviegoer to a prehistoric realm where dinosaurs are the stars of a fantastic adventure of friendship and survival in the aftermath of a major natural catastrophe.

Worth the wait of several years and poised to sell a tremendous amount of tickets worldwide, "Dinosaur" is a nearly perfect mainstream fable rivaling "The Lion King" in its broad appeal to younger and older viewers. But without songs and featuring far less dialogue than the usual comedy-heavy Disney animated works, the film takes risks, including enough tension and moments of dino violence to earn a PG rating. Those risks pay off magnificently in an exhilarating viewing experience that at worst has a few fleeting lame gags, but "Dinosaur" is otherwise bound to be one of the year's most praised, honored and top-grossing films.

Along with some of the most incredible visuals that audiences have yet encountered (and that only lots of money can buy), "Dinosaur" features a winning human cast including D.B. Sweeney, Ossie Davis and Joan Plowright, who provide the voices for a fairly unique tale that's obviously not completely accurate according to the latest achievements in paleontology (though it was revealed recently that some dinos appear to have been warm-blooded).

Born more than 10 years ago as a screenplay by Walon Green ("The Wild Bunch", "Sorcerer"), the long-gestating "Dinosaur" at its height employed some 350 computer animators and technicians housed in a costly new building. Called the Secret Lab, the awesome assemblage of technology and 1990s artisans set out to re-create with photorealist intensity the late Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago.

With the final screenplay credited to John Harrison (USA Network's upcoming miniseries "Dune") and Robert Nelson Jacobs (Miramax's "Chocolat"), "Dinosaur" pays homage to great adventure films -- including a magnificent shot, with live-action background filmed in Jordan's Wadi Rumm, that rivals a memorable moment in "Lawrence of Arabia" -- but boldly makes a claim as the ultimate dinosaur flick by handily surpassing "Jurassic Park" and its sequel "The Lost World".

Following a brief introduction by a narrator promising gently that big things have small beginnings, "Dinosaur" starts spectacularly with the pre-hatching adventures of lead iguanodon Aladar (Sweeney). The filmmakers' imagination, combined with technology, results in swiftly unfolding, almost-overwhelming action as Aladar is separated from his herd, nearly crushed by a rampaging predator, nabbed by a scary, chicken-like oviraptor, then snatched by a swooping pteranodon that flies to its island home.

The audience has a little time to catch its breath as Aladar finally emerges from his shell and is adopted by a group of lemurs, including cautious and wise patriarch Yar (Davis). In a flash, Aladar has grown up -- the herbivorous iguanodons measured 30 feet long and weighed as much as 5 tons -- and he's bounding around like a kid with tiny lemur friends Suri (Hayden Panettiere) and Zini (Max Casella), while mother lemur Plio (Alfre Woodard) and Yar rate as about the kindest foster parents since Ma and Pa Kent.

Aladar's happy life on Lemur Island comes to an abrupt end when a fiery meteor shower heralds a cataclysmic impact that the characters watch and then scramble to survive. The four principal lemurs hop on Aladar and, as the shock wave and wall of destruction scorch the island, our hero dives into the ocean and they all swim to safety. Mourning their fallen comrades on the island, Aladar and the lemurs head inland across the burnt, mangled landscape.

With predators and scavengers lurking, Aladar is grateful to find a large group of herding dinosaurs, though its determined leader -- older male iguanodon Kron (Samuel E. Wright) -- gives him an unfriendly welcome by almost trampling him. Aladar also initially fears gigantic brachiosaur Baylene (Plowright), but this 80-ton old gal and her styrachosaur soulmate Eema (Della Reese) become the estranged iguanodon's best friends.

The misfit dino group also includes the delightful Url, an ankylosaur with a strong resemblance to a pug dog. Aladar's introduction to girls, so to speak, happens when he meets Kron's sister Neera (Julianna Margulies). Jokester Zini needles him to be more aggressive and lighten up, but Kron and his lieutenant Bruton (Peter Siragusa) are blunt about the dire situation they all face. Heading for fertile mating grounds, the herd crosses a desert, but the lake they relied upon to relieve them of thirst has dried up.

In one of several stirring scenes illustrating the themes of cooperation and tolerance for individuals of all species and sizes, Baylene saves the day by proving the lake isn't completely dry. For his part in at least temporarily saving the herd, Aladar earns Neera's respect. But the journey isn't over, and Bruton, on a reconnaissance mission around the lake, encounters a pair of disagreeable carnotaurs -- horned, tyranosaur-like monsters with bottomless pits for stomachs and no names, personalities or lines of dialogue.

Kron drives the herd on, and Aladar and friends are separated. Seeking shelter in a massive cave, they are stalked by carnotaurs and barely avoid catastrophe while being forced deeper into the caverns. Meanwhile, the ailing herd -- with Neera still loyal to Kron but starting to question his judgment and survival-of-the-fittest attitude -- discovers that the pass to the mating grounds has been blocked by a giant landslide. With a carnotaur or two still on the loose, the story builds to a boffo climax that may be a well-worn western plot with big lizards but works beautifully.

Utilizing VistaVision equipment to film "background plates" -- live-action locations "peopled" with computer-generated dinosaurs -- the film travels from the Australian coastline to the swamps of Florida to the plains of Venezuela to the Los Angeles County Arboretum. But while the melding of real footage and created elements is seamless and 3-D to a miraculous extent, the character animation is a monumental achievement.

From the lemurs' hairy faces to the horse/camel-like Aladar and Neera, "Dinosaur" can carry the audience through such a wild story by getting the details perfect. There are often so many astounding, subtle things going on that repeat viewings for many moviegoers are guaranteed. A major contribution also comes from composer James Newton Howard's ambitious orchestral score.

Needless to say, debut filmmakers Zondag (a story artist on "Pocahontas" and co-director of "We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story") and Leighton (animation supervisor on "The Nightmare Before Christmas") are wonderfully talented fellows from which one expects a lot in the future.


Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Walt Disney Pictures

Directors: Ralph Zondag, Eric Leighton

Screenwriters: John Harrison, Robert Nelson Jacobs

Based on an original screenplay by: Walon Green

Producer: Pam Marsden

Co-producer: Baker Bloodworth

Production designer: Walter P. Martishius

Editor: H. Lee Peterson

Music: James Newton Howard

Visual effects supervisor: Neil Krepela

Art director: Cristy Maltese

Digital effects supervisor: Neil Eskuri

Casting: Ruth Lambert, Mary Hidalgo



Aladar: D.B. Sweeney

Yar: Ossie Davis

Baylene: Joan Plowright

Eema: Della Reese

Plio: Alfre Woodard

Kron: Samuel E. Wright

Neera: Julianna Margulies

Bruton: Peter Siragusa

Zini: Max Casella

Suri: Hayden Panettiere

Running time -- 82 minutes

MPAA rating: PG


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