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What Would He Say?

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Dinosaur” astonishes and disheartens as only the most elaborate, most ambitious Hollywood products can. A technical amazement that points computer-generated animation toward the brightest of futures, it’s also cartoonish in the worst way, the prisoner of pedestrian plot points and childish, too-cute dialogue.

A look at our planet during the late Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, “Dinosaur” also cost the earth and involved an almost incalculable amount of work supervised by co-directors Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton: 1,300 individual effects shots created during 3.2 million processing hours and encompassing 100 million individual computer files on 70,000 CD-ROMs. The aim was to blend computer-generated characters with live-action backgrounds, and, on the visual level at least, it works beautifully.

A good example, and in many ways the film’s most effective sequence, is its bravura opening, which follows a dinosaur egg on a quite incredible journey. Fought over or eyeballed by so many different dino species that only a brainy 10-year-old could name them all, the egg ends up in the mouth of a flying pteranodon as the camera dives in and out of grand scenery shot in Florida, Venezuela, Hawaii and the coast of Australia before depositing the egg with a family of Lemur monkeys on a remote island.

This kind of privileged, dazzling glimpse into a time that is no more is part of what we go to the movies for. Dinosaurs have always attracted animators (Winsor McCay’s 1914 Gertie remains charming to this day) and though these beasts have apparently been slightly modified for dramatic purposes, to see the great panoply of extinct creatures lumber across the screen in their computer-generated physicality is to watch the best circus parade of all time.

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But then, in a moment paralleling the unnerving one in “Singin’ in the Rain” when Jean Hagen’s silent star Lena Lamont opens her mouth and everyone cringes, these dinosaurs start to talk and we would give anything to put that particular genie back into the bottle.

It’s not that the idea of speech per se is verboten for dinosaurs, though it should be noted that the vicious, villainous carnotaurs (“a mouthful of teeth with a bad attitude” is how they’re described) are the film’s most effective creations partly because they do not talk. And it’s not that speech makes the film’s Lemurs resemble puppets more than they need to, though it does. The problem is what the dinosaurs are given to say.

Initially the monkeys talk just to get the film’s plot moving. Despite the fears of grandfather Yar (Ossie Davis, muttering, “We’ll turn our backs and it’ll be picking us out of its teeth”), mother Plio (Alfre Woodard), who must have seen “Tarzan,” decides to raise the baby iguanodon to be the interspecies brother of her own children Zini (Max Casella) and Suri (Hayden Panettiere).

The baby grows into the full-sized Aladar (D.B. Sweeney), who feels kind of awkward when monkey mating season takes place. He’ll have a lot of company in that, because the cloying adolescent dialogue around monkey love is one of the first indications of how lacking in anything worth hearing the “Dinosaur” dialogue (credited to John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jones, based on a screenplay by Walon Green) turns out to be.

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It’s not that lines like “I’ve got blisters on my blisters” are wearying in and of themselves, it’s that “Dinosaur” has to be compared to its predecessors in computer-generated features, the Pixar-produced “Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2" and “A Bug’s Life.” Nothing demonstrates the value of Pixar guru’s John Lasseter’s sharp story sense and ear for dialogue more than the difficulty of sitting through a CGI film that lacks them.

One of the odder things about “Dinosaur” is that while its talk is childish, it has a dark and somber core. Monkey mating season is barely over when, in a terrifying visualization of one theory of dinosaur extinction, a fiery asteroid collides with Earth, sending up an ominous mushroom cloud that blocks out the sun and blights the landscape.

Aladar and his monkey pals join up with a mixed herd of all kinds of surviving dinosaurs as they head for the traditional nesting grounds. On the way, Aladar makes friends with the 70-ton, 70-foot-high Baylene (Joan Plowright), an aging brachiosaur, and Eema (Della Reese), a cranky old styrachosaur.

Aladar also meets up with the fetching fellow iguanodon Neera (Julianna Margulies). “You know how to catch a girl’s eye, Stud,” the regrettably irrepressible Zini tells him, but Neera has the last word: “That,” she says in his direction, “is what’s known as a jerkasaurus.”

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Neera’s brother Kron (Samuel E. Wright) runs this herd, but he is guilty of thinking, well, like a dinosaur. Aladar, by contrast, has learned the virtues of teamwork and cooperation, perhaps from his monkey peers, perhaps from watching other Disney movies, and he clearly is the most modern guy on four legs, a trait even dinosaurs come to value.

*

Because of its theme of potential extinction and the scariness of the carnotaur, “Dinosaur” is the first Disney cartoon in awhile to be rated PG, but even with that the film’s emotional level in no way matches its visual one or, for that matter, the emotional level of those Pixar films.

President Abraham Lincoln, or so the story goes, wanted to find out what the victorious Gen. U.S. Grant was drinking and send it to the rest of his commanders. In the same way, it’s too bad they can’t bottle what John Lasseter is drinking and send it to the gang at Disney. Despite their peerless visual magic, they need it, they really do.

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* MPAA rating: PG for intense images. Times guidelines: Vicious dinosaur and atomic bomb-type asteroid attack may be too strong for younger viewers.

‘Dinosaur’

D.B. Sweeney: Aladar

Alfre Woodard: Plio

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Julianna Margulies: Neera

Joan Plowright: Baylene

Ossie Davis: Yar

Walt Disney Pictures release. Directors Ralph Zondag, Eric Leighton. Producer Pam Marsden. Screenplay by John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs based on an original screenplay by Walon Green. Music by James Newton Howard. Editor H. Lee Peterson. Production designer Walter P. Martishius. Visual effects supervisor Neil Krepela. Art director Cristy Maltese. Digital effects supervisor Neil Eskuri. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

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In general release.


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