Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2000)

Welcome to Catch-Up Week! Over the next six days, I will fill in missing gaps in my various report card projects by reviewing things I should have reviewed already! Some of films I'll be talking about are recent and from this year. Others are several years old, like the one mentioned below. Either way, this project will be making Film Thoughts a more rounded, detailed place. Hopefully.

39.5. Dinosaur

For about a decade, “Dinosaur” was not considered a part of the Disney Animated Cannon. Why would it? At the time of the film’s release, there was no precedence for a CGI-animated film coming from the Mouse House. Pixar itself was only three entries into its eleven film winning streak. Secondly, “Dinosaur” is not a fully animated film. Rather, it’s CGI characters move around inside footage of live action location. This is probably the primary reason the film was disqualified for so many years. However, for some reason, at some point, “Dinosaur” was retroactively declared a part of the Official Canon. I’m fairly certain this decision was made so “Tangled,” a big budget affair Disney had a lot of money riding on, could have the special distinction of being the 50th Feature. Whatever the reason, the move has forced me to acknowledge this rarely mentioned film.

And why is the film rarely mentioned? “Dinosaur” is widely regarded as a flop yet it doubled its considerable 127 million dollar budget at the box office. The movie came in the middle of the lulling period of Disney’s Renaissance, pocketed between genuine flops like “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” It’s critical reputation is the obvious reason “Dinosaur” is rarely mentioned during retrospectives. The movie was lauded for its visual beauty but criticized for its cliched and overly simplistic story. The tale, about a group of dinosaurs on a long journey towards a prosperous promised land, recalls “The Land Before Time.” The critics wishing the dinosaurs would remain speechless is a problem also facing the upcoming “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D.”

No doubt, the dialogue-free opening of “Dinosaur” is probably its most impressive sequence. We follow an egg bounce around the prehistoric landscape, rolling away from the nest, through a river, down a waterfall, into a pterodactyl’s mouth. It finally comes to rest in an isolated stretch of colorful jungle. The dinosaurs are lightly anthropomorphized, gaining expressive faces, but maintain their realistic appearances. The scene suggests the film could have been a visually impressive prehistoric travelogue, a feature length version of “Fantasia’s” “Rite of Spring” sequence.

This is only the opening though. The egg, an adorable iguanodon baby hatching from it, is quickly adopted by a family of anachronistic lemurs. The lemurs crack jokes and talk in broad, celebrity-provided voices. Flash-forward a few years and the dinosaur is all-grown-up, still living among the lemurs. This is when the film’s intent becomes obvious. The lemurs’ dialogue continues to be overly precious, delivering corny one-liners about mating rituals. The other dinosaurs on the journey include a triceratops voiced like a sassy black woman or an elderly brontosaurus speaking with a high-pitched, proper British accent. A little ankylosaurus looking guy acts like a dog, right down to playing fetch. Would “Dinosaur” been improved if the creatures never spoke? It certainly would have been a more interesting film, anyway.

How do you think “Avatar” is going to look in ten years? The CGI animation of “Dinosaurs” was cutting edge in 2000. Painstaking detail was taken to make the creatures appear as realistic as possible. The commitment to realism was furthered by the decision to place the characters on real landscapes. However, thirteen years down the line, the effects of “Dinosaur” look less then convincing. The lack of detail in the dinosaurs is apparent. Their movement is sometimes overly light, lacking life-like weight. The interaction with the real locations are especially awkward. Whenever trees or water are pushed aside by the CGI dinosaurs, the disconnect becomes very noticeable. Furthermore, the attempts to anthropomorphize are sometimes more off-putting then cute. Aladar has forward-facing eyes and expressive facial features. The rest of him looking so real when the face is that of a cartoon feels a little strange at times. The movie still has moments of pure beauty though, such as the lemurs swinging through the trees or a pan over the rich valley.

Animation showing its age is one thing. But what about the story? After a meteor strike, which is obviously not The Meteor Strike, Aladar and his furry family wander into a herd of migrating dinos. Conflict arises when Aladar befriends the elderly stranglers, much to the consternation of pig-headed leader Kron. Because this is a kid’s flick, Kron is immediately established as a jerk in his first scene. Similarly, Aladar has a meet-cute with his love interest. You know this iguanodon is a girl because she’s pink. Ultimately, Aladar’s in-born friendliness and need to care for the weak ultimately teaches the asshole villain a lesson. The carnotaur predators, truthfully just T-Rexs with horns, are little more then plot devices, Overly Persistent Predators that exist to chase the herd and eliminate loose plot threads.

Among the broad characters, predictable story, and shaky animation are occasional bright spots. Most of the voice cast is far too on the nose, D. B. Sweeney and Max Casella especially. However, occasionally Alfre Woodward and Ossie Davis get a moment or two as the elders of the lemur clan. James Newton Howard’s score is epic and sweeping. The African drums and chanting blatantly recall “The Lion King.” Still, it’s a good piece of music, listenable and exciting. The script for “Dinosaur” ultimately fell short of the project’s ambitious sights. That’s the real reason the film is mostly forgotten. It’s mediocre. [5/10]

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