We’re back with the final films remaining in the Journeys in the Disney Vault series. The 2000s were a time of great upheaval, more so than the passing of Walt Disney or the hostile takeovers of the 1980s-1990s. The 2000s saw Disney floundering in an animation field that was rapidly changing. With PIXAR leading the way with CGI, and other studios following suit, hand-drawn animation was seen as passe despite die-hard purists rallying to protect it. The Disney output in the 2000s is wildly diverse ranging from hopelessly terrible to mediocre to really great. Eventually, Disney would abandon their hand-drawn animation, and while they briefly brought it back for a feature film the studio hasn’t been shy about declaring 2D animation dead and buried.
That’s all in the future, of course; where was the studio at the start of the new millennium? Dinosaur was Disney’s first attempt at entering the CGI ring and it is a dismal, $130 million failure (unofficial numbers put it closer to $200 million). Fearing comparisons to other movies out at the time, the budget for this became as gigantic as the dinos depicted, and in the end it’s a blatant cobbling of countless better movies. The background art (pictures superimposed with the animation) is the best part, and even then the technique is lazy. Dinosaur is for Disney completists and hearkens back to the crappy films of the 1970s-1980s.
Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeny) is an orphaned dinosaur raised by a family of lemurs. When a meteor shower destroys the lemurs home they end up following a heard of similarly displaced dinos heading to the nesting grounds where it’s believed that water and protection awaits. The journey is long, and predators are constantly hoping to attack stragglers. As Aladar struggles to keep his family safe, he butts heads with Kron (voiced by Samuel E. Wright), the head of the herd who takes survival of the fittest to heart.
Dinosaur is a patchwork of various elements that end up creating a goulash of mediocrity. Is it a film about dinosaurs? Yes. Does it have blatant religious connections/thoughts on American history? Sort of. Is it pretty much Tarzan meets The Land Before Time? Hell yes! Dinosaur feels like the bastard child of Tarzan and Land, which is bizarre considering the lengths Disney went to in order to avoid comparisons to the latter. Land Before Time seems to be connected because of the dinosaur element, but there’s just far too much I saw in Tarzan that’s recycled here; the baby raised by a different species, a father figure slightly hesitant to love, a villain with weird designs on the female love interest (creepily enough the love interest is the sister to Kron). You also have sequences that are copies of past Disney movies; when Aladar almost loses his father, Yar (voiced by Ossie Davis) in a stampede it looks to be the same situation as the death of Mufasa in Lion King (only Yar doesn’t die surprisingly).
Michael Eisner vetoed the idea of having the animals remain mute – he would have had zero faith in Wall-E – which was the original intent of the filmmakers. That’s a wasted opportunity because the animals voices are terrible. D.B. Sweeney and Julianna Marguiles are blah, possessing no conviction or emotion to their performances. If anything, they made me think of the days before A-list stars voiced cartoon characters because I didn’t recognize their voices at all. Also, it was fun to hear the return of Samuel E. Wright who voiced Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. I have to give the man a hand because there’s nothing that would indicate Sebastian and Kron are voiced by the same man. Wright provides sufficient menace to the role, and his voice is gravelly and fierce. You also have British actress Joan Plowright voicing Baylene; Alfre Woodard, the previously mentioned Ossie Davis, and Della Reese are also in the cast. The worst voice work, though, has to go to Max Casella as Aladar’s lemur friend, Zini. Zini is essentially if Gurgi from The Black Cauldron and Terk from Tarzan had a lemur baby; he’s annoying and unnecessary. The voice performance comes off as if Casella is auditioning for Goodfellas and it takes you completely out of the already ridiculous premise. Disney really needs to realize that New York accents aren’t effective comic relief.
At only an hour and twenty minutes, there isn’t much plot to go off of. The movie is a journey from one place to another, and Darwinism is attacked all the way. Here’s where the movie takes on a bizarre blend of being a religious allegory as well as a history of American migration and social Darwinism. At one point a character actually says it’s “survival of the fittest.” Because the villain is saying this the audience is told that Darwinism is bad. I won’t debate the various pros and cons of the theory, but to condense something as heavy as that into a kids movies requires the removal of all context on what Darwinism actually is. These are dinosaurs; we’re aware that in a few hundred million years they’re all dead anyway, so why comment on Darwinism at all? Speaking of, the final voice-over where the movie is summed up is hilarious: “None of us knows what changes, big or small, lie ahead. One thing is certain – our journey’s not over.” Hate to break it to you, but eventually you’ll all be dead. It comes off as vain hope that the audience won’t realize that the dinosaurs are extinct! As for religious connections, Aladar’s original name was meant to be Noah and the story of the dinosaurs trek conjures up images of the Jews walking for forty years in the desert – in this case barren, meteor ruined terrain – until they reach the promised land, or valley in this case. There was also a weird, nixed decision to have the velociraptor have feathers to connect them to Native Americans attacking of settlers (I’m not kidding, this is on IMDB!) and there’s definitely the idea that America was founded by banding together against evil oppressors.
The animation and character design is just weird; plain, old weird. The backgrounds are beautiful before they’re photos with the animation superimposed. It’s lazy as all hell, but it’s beautiful compared to the terrible 2000-era CGI we were employing. Despite the lack of rubber used to create the characters, they all have a rubbery appearance to them that looks mannequin-like. It’s similar to the characters in The Polar Express. What irked me was how stupid the animators assumed the audience is because every dinosaur has a connection to an animal in the real-world, apparently contradicting that “Darwinism is evil” theme since everything survived in a slightly different guise. You have a spiky dinosaur that is a dog (complete with love of fetch and slobbering tongue); the raptors look like crocodiles, there’s egg-eating chicken dinos, and the T-rex is a supersized Carnotaurus (for fear that The Lost World would be too prevalent in people’s minds). I also couldn’t ignore the design choices for the female love interest of Aladar’s. In case the male and female voices confuse you as to gender, the two dinosaurs are animated differently so as to have their gender explicitly depicted. Female Neera is given slender hips, a higher backside, and her feet have an extra spiky toe-thing that gives off the impression she’s wearing high heels! Yes, apparently women were able to wear high heels all the way back to when they were dinosaurs.
Dinosaur is pretty, although you could argue that the backgrounds are great screensavers negating you actually needing to watch the movie. The overly anthropomorphic dinosaurs are shoddily animated with weird anachronistic elements that have you asking if this is a dinosaur movie, or humans dressed up as dinosaurs. The plot is non-existent, the vocal cast is bland, and the various story elements are confusing and underdeveloped. Everything about Dinosaur feels uninspired and cold. It’s a flat-out skip for me.
NEXT WEEK: Another movie with a convoluted creation history is featured in The Emperor’s New Groove
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.