A Study in Disney: ‘Dinosaur’ (2000)

| February 1, 2022

Disney has been with us for almost a century now, and so it is safe to say that there might only be a finite number of people left whose childhood wasn’t touched by one of Walt’s confections.  They’re part of our culture, part of our collective imagination.  Over the next several months, I am going to be looking into their animated features.  It’s a journey that is sometimes magical, sometimes baffling, but always, purely Disney.

Dinosaur (2000) Image Gallery

Dinosaur was the first Disney animated feature released in the 21st century, and what a visual achievement to usher in the new millennium.  The first spark of excitement came from a five-minute trailer that accompanied the release of Tarzan a year earlier and what we saw was the promise that Disney was going lead the charge of this new era of computer-animated features, taking risks and trying new things. 

The trailer featured dinosaurs in the natural world – a realistic world in which the dinosaurs could be seen on their own turf in their own time.  The movie had been four years in the making and not only made advances in CGI but also eliminated the human element and placed the dinosaurs in realistic settings so that the audience would feel the environment. 

The designs were the natural progression of Jurassic Park in which we feel that we are in the presence of these creatures; we can see the scales on their backs and feel the weight of their mighty frames and their feet shaking the earth.  The details are astonishing.  When the Iguanodons let out their mighty howl, their jowls vibrate from the sound.  When the enormous Brachiosaur stomps the Earth, you can feel the vibrations.  When the Styracaceous moves past the camera you can practically feel the hard textures of its bone-like skin.

When audiences saw the movie in the summer of 2000, it turned out that the trailer had essentially been the first five minutes of the movie and, alas, the best part.  The opening tells the story of an egg which we first see in a hollowed-out earth-nest being attended by its Iguanodon mother who looks pridefully at her unhatched babies.  Then there is an attack by predators and the egg is taken away by a small chicken-like creature who intends to have it for breakfast.  There’s a battle for possession of the egg with some other creatures and it ends up falling into a river where it is swallowed by a water-dweller and then spat out again.  It surfaces and is snatched up by a pterodactyl leading us on a glorious flying tour through the canyons and valleys of the great prehistoric desert in all its peaks and valleys.  The tour ends when the egg is dropped into a tree where it rests in the company of a family of lemurs where the female approaches it and cradles the hatchling in her arms.

And then . . . she speaks. 

The spell is broken.   The confidence that the visual design had promised, a look into the life and times of dinosaurs in their natural habitat millions of years ago, is spoiled by a story that involves the creatures talking and thinking and having personalities and having adventures.  The realism of the visual design is spoiled by dialogue that is not only unwanted but is dull kid’s movie boilerplate. 

Worse, the story turns out to be a lesser clone of The Land Before Time without any of the magic.  The baby from the egg grows up among the lemurs to be a strong young buck named Aladar (they have names too) who is thoughtful and nice and cares about the welfare of those around him.  Then a meteorite strikes the Earth forcing Aladar and the other dinosaurs to have to move to fresh ground.  But the herd is led by Kron who is not thoughtful and not nice and doesn’t care if anyone else lives or dies.

Here’s the first problem – why did this movie need a villain?  Why did it need a naysayer?  Aren’t meteorites and desert heat and the depletion of the water supply enough of a threat without disagreements over ethics?  Issues like this are just confusing.  Why did Disney take such a massive leap forward in the visual design and then iron it out with a story and dialogue that no one could care about?

Plus some of the characters make little to no sense.  There are some who speak with American accents and one who speaks with an English accent.  There are modern colloquialisms and phrases that make no sense.  Plus, the movie does that weird thing where some of the dinosaurs seem to have human qualities while others have animal qualities.  There is one tiny Ankylosaurus who doesn’t speak but jumps and plays like a dog.   Why?  Yes, it was a mistake to give them speaking voices and personalities but if they were going to go that route, why make them so dull and uninteresting.  Plus, even if the movie had to match and retread the story of The Land Before Time, why not try and recapture that film’s great qualities.  The characters were children who had individual personalities and you always felt the weight of their situation, but also the magic of their discovery of the world around them.  Here it’s just a morality tale about caring and sticking together and – WOW! – who could care?

Why not a little confidence?  Why not take away the dialogue and just let us observe an adventure in the dinosaur’s natural world?  The sound design outside of the dialogue and James Newton Howard’s rousing score have enough power to pull us through the story without the intrusiveness of flat, boiler-plate dialogue.  That opening sequence proved that Disney showed the promise of what was to come in the new millennium and a new era of computer animation.  The rest of the film was indicative of some of the blandness of what we eventually got.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.