Unlike the ones in “Jurassic Park,” the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s animated feature, “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story” (citywide) aren’t scary at all: The mighty beasts have been softened and Barney-ized until they resemble giant plush toys.
Based on a children’s book by Hudson Talbot, the film follows the misadventures of four prehistoric monsters who have their IQs raised by Captain NewEyes (voice by Walter Cronkite), a time-traveling scientist from the future. The Captain’s Wish Radio enables him to hear children’s wishes; modern kids want to see live dinosaurs, so he arranges it. He dumps Rex (John Goodman), a tyrannosaurus; Woog (Rene LeVant), a triceratops; Elsa (Felicity Kendal), a pterodactyl; and Dweeb (Charles Fleischer), a hadrosaurus, in New York City and tells them to find Dr. Bleeb (Julia Child) at the Museum of Natural History. En route, they blunder into Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade: Pandemonium erupts when the spectators realize the dinosaurs aren’t mechanical.
John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay complicates the straightforward story by having the dinosaurs take up with Louie, a hip runaway boy, and Cecilia, a poor little rich girl. Louie provokes a crisis by joining the circus of Professor ScrewEyes, Captain NewEyes’ evil brother (Kenneth Mars), which exhibits people’s worst fears, but things end happily with Louie and Cecilia becoming friends and making up with their parents.
“We’re Back!” contains some polished animation, but it’s weakest in the areas where the recent Disney features have been strongest: story and character. The directors are so busy trying to tie up the plot, they don’t tell the audience who these characters are. The dinosaurs don’t interact or express any delight in their new mental abilities, nor is there a sense of a bond developing between them and the children. When Beast offered to sacrifice himself for Belle, audiences were moved because they knew he was motivated by love. When the dinosaurs sacrifice their IQs to save Louie and Cecilia from the Professor, the audience doesn’t know what they’re giving up or why.
The film offers lots of splashy effects, including a computer-assisted flight through Manhattan and an elaborate motorcycle chase, although the stolid pacing keeps these sequences from being as much fun as they should be. Rex’s hip-hop production number stops the story in its tracks for several minutes.
Spielberg’s Amblimation Studio obviously boasts some talented artists, but they’re not ready to compete with the crew that made “Beauty and Beast” and “Aladdin.” The needlessly convoluted story and even pacing reduce a film that should thunder like a tyrannosaurus to one that whimpers like a kitten.
‘We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story’
Captain NewEyes: Walter Cronkite Rex: John Goodman Dr. Bleeb: Julia Child
Steven Spielberg presents “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story,” released by Universal Pictures. Directors Dick Zontag, Ralph Zontag, Phil Nibbelink, Simon Wells. Producer Stephen Hickner. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy. Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley. Music James Horner. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.