Monday, March 11, 2013

2000 - Dinosaur

As I mentioned in the review of The Emperor’s New Groove, this movie actually came out earlier that same year, an unusual movie for Disney. What I didn’t go into detail about was the difference in how the two were sold. (Note to people who are reading these in film order: Sorry about that) The Emperor’s New Groove was released in December, prime real estate, but with relatively little publicity for a Disney movie. Dinosaur was released in May, also a great time, but with a HUGE marketing push. This movie was everywhere. It was heralded as an amazing, world-changing movie, technically groundbreaking, emotionally epic, a film that would live through the ages! And it worked! This movie made hundreds of millions and was the number 5 movie of the entire year, while Groove had the worst box office for a Disney film since The Black Cauldron. But when I discuss my blog with people, Groove is remembered with near-univeral fondness, and Dinosaur is… Well, it’s not remembered. This film has made almost no cultural impact, contrary to the expectations of it, and it’s excellent box office showing. So why hasn’t this lasted in the memory the way its contemporaries have? Was it as good as Disney thought, or was it all hype? Why do we describe someone as having a meteoric rise when meteors are known for falling? Feeling the burden of undue anticipation? So am I. So steal some eggs from an unprotected nest, and let’s talk about Dinosaur.

The first thing I’d like to address is the animation, a major selling point of the movie. At the time this came out, computer animation was still very much the new hotness. Moreover, the Disney animators made a commitment to realism in the portrayals of the various dinosaurs. Sure, they let themselves cheat a little, and sure, some of the dinosaurs have been rendered inaccurate by new research, e.g. the Velociraptors didn’t have feathers, but it still works. The other big selling point was the backgrounds, which rather than being posed on a computer, were filmed on location. This works really well - for about seven minutes.

That wasn’t an arbitrary number. The first seven minutes or so of this movie are fantastic. It consists of a montage of an egg being carried all over the place by other dinosaurs, pterosaurs, rivers, etc. And it’s beautiful. The sight of the Pteranodon flying through a gorge, or a mass of herbivores grazing (even though at the time the film was made, grass as we know it wasn’t thought to have evolved until after dinosaurs, but whatever), or a pair of Oviraptors running through a forest, it looks wonderful. It really feels like you’re looking into a prehistoric world, and the live backgrounds look great with the animated characters. Then the egg is found… by lemurs.

"Are you aware of the title of this film?"
Yes, the Disney folks thought we needed mammals to relate to, because after all, it’s not like dinosaurs were ever popular with kids before, right? So yeah, lemurs. Modern ones, too, but I’ll overlook that, because at least they aren’t chimps or something. Anyway, the egg hatches, and the result is an Iguanadon, which the lemurs decide to raise. Somehow, the 16-inch arboreal primates successfully raise a 20-foot-long ground-dwelling reptile, and live in peace with him on their little island, until a meteor storm forces them to flee. The meteor storm brings two more problems. One, the animation doesn’t work in it. The CGI and live elements start clashing like crazy. More importantly, after the meteorites have pounded the earth, the lush, beautiful backgrounds go away, and are replaced with boring brown rocks all over the place. And in order to escape from the desolation, they wind up joining a herd of various dinosaurs being lead by a jerkhole of an Iguanodon who says he can lead them all to the Great Valley. I mean the Nesting Grounds. Sorry. Don’t know where that came from.

Of course, I only know what it’s called because they all talk. I can’t tell you how fast this movie lost its goodwill when the talking started. That great opening sequence was also speechless. The dinosaurs communicated in hoots and clicks and roars and I was fine with it. I understood it. And I remember when I was a kid, there was no indication that they talked in the trailers or anything. If I hadn’t seen a cast list when I was doing my preliminary research, I would have been really taken aback. And oh, what a cast list.

I go on about the voices a lot as I review these, and that’s because voice acting is an art separate from live acting. And this movie demonstrates that very well, featuring flat, lifeless performances from actors who I know are at least decent, like Joan Plowright, Hayden Pannetiere, and Juliana Margulies, or even very good, like Alfre Woodard and Ossie Davis. Our lead, Aladar, is played by D.B. Sweeney, who I swear is the result of some sort of scientific experiment to create the blandest, most forgettable actor in history. At the time he recoded this, given the production time, I guess he’d just done Fire in the Sky? Or Spawn? Maybe they thought he’d be a star by now. Because I can’t imagine anyone listened to his voice and went “Yeah, that’s acceptable”. The only actors who really bring something are Della Reese as an aging Styracosaurus and Samuel E. Wright as Kron, the brutish lead Iguanadon. Wright is actually fantastic, and since the only thing I know him for is playing Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, I’d never have recognized him.

"Wait! Take me with you! I don't want to be in this!" 

In addition to being the best actor, he’s also the only interesting character. The plot is dull and derivative, owing more than a tiny bit to The Land Before Time. Kron is a welcome source of legitimate conflict. He’s motivated entirely be the survival of his adopted herd, and he’s willing to embrace the notion that their survival might mean some of the old or slow ones die. At one point, the herd is being tracked by a pair of Carnotaurs and Aladar tries to convince them to help the slower ones survive, and without preamble or warning, Kron throws him to the ground and says “If you interfere again, I will kill you.” There’s no veiled threat, no metaphor. It’s a directness you don’t expect to see in a Disney film.

Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to that one moment of brutal honesty. For the most part, it’s an endless sea of clichéd moments and hacky lines. Including my new least favorite cliché, the Arbitrarily Silent Animal, which I first really noticed in Tarzan. Again, the carnivores are completely speechless, only growling and roaring despite clearly being as intelligent as the herbivores. And it’s really too bad. They are carnivores after all, they need meat to survive. It would be interesting to see their morality in this context as thinking, speaking characters. But alas. There’s also an Ankylosaurus that acts like a dog, which is more than a little weird. Is he just mentally challenged or something?

"Where's my feathers, Disney!"
So we’ve established why no one remembers this - because it’s completely unmemorable. It received middling reviews as well, so why was it such a big hit? Well computer animation it was still a novelty at the time. There had only been computer animated movies at this point in time; two were about toys and two were about ants. A large-scale movie, with a big ensemble cast of living (well, formerly living) animals was something new, and the hype was considerable. It put butts in seats, but it didn’t put the movie in their brains. The Emperor’s New Groove might not have busted any blocks at the theaters, but it’s the one people remember and the one they want to see again. Next, Disney will try to make a dramatic sci-fi epic based on the work of an independent comic artist, a fake exo-linguist, and Napoleonic-era French interpretations of Egypt. Who wants to take bets on how that goes?


* For evidence that D.B. Sweeney is the most generic white guy ever, here’s a depressing story: Apparently, Terry in the comic book Spawn looks a lot like Eriq LaSalle. But some studio executives decided the movie had too many black people in it and told the director to make Terry white. So with a casting goal of “white guy to balance the cast out”, they landed on D.B. Sweeney.

* He also hasn’t gotten any better as a voice actor. I mean, how the hell did they land on him for the adult version of Aang in Avatar? Hella disappointing. I know they have Phil LaMarr’s number, they could have got him. I would say Daniel Dae Kim, but he was already on that season.

* No, the entire additional thoughts section isn‘t going to be about how much I hate D.B. Sweeney.

"I'm making this same dumb face in so many pictures! I look like a bunch of other actors glued together!"

* One nice thing I can say is that Iguanodon was a good choice for the lead, paleontologically speaking. Medium sized, capable of bipedal or quadrupedal motion, prehensile digits, easy face to anthropomorphise, and extremely common and widespread.

* When Iguanodons were first discovered, their thumb spikes were mistaken for horns and placed on the nose. Oddly enough, the two villainous Iguanodons in the film have nose horns. It’s not terribly accurate, but it helps differentiate all the beige lumpy guys, so I’ll just count it as a history reference and accept it.

* The competition probably also had something to do with the box office. Dinosaur was up against Road Trip and a Woody Allen movie that I know I've seen, but somehow don't remember Hugh Grant being in. Groove was up against What Women Want and Dude, Where's My Car. Which might not sound like a big deal, but that's back when kids wanted to see movies starring Mel Gibson and Ashton Kutcher.

* Okay, I'm just kidding, it's actual competition was partly from Disney itself. 102 Dalmatians came out the week before, and hogged a big chunk of the family film market, and two weeks after the terrible Jim Carrey/Ron Howard version of The Grinch, which rather depressingly was the number one movie of the year.

* I bet the D.B. stands for Dumb Boring.


  1. Wow. I saw every Disney animated from Aladdin through Fantasia 2000 first run in the theater (next three after this as well), and when you mentioned Dinosaur in the Emperor's New Groove post I thought you had to be talking about a film from some other studio. Now that I've seen those pictures, I kind of vaguely remember this existing.

  2. I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid and made my parents buy this movie when it came out. I dont remember hating it as a kid but looking back on it now its pretty freaking bad. I kept thinking the lead was played by some benign combination of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Mark Wahlberg,except without anything that distinguished them. but I can understand the choice the cast someone like that in a movie. think about Neo in the Matrix, what was a character trait of Keanu? the audience likes seeing someone like that because its like a first person shooter, a blank face for the majority of the movies target audience to experience the movie through. That may not really account for the success of the movie, but it might explain the studio's choices.

  3. As a side note, I always found it odd that the film made Carnotaurus the villains, since in real life, they were actually smaller than Iguanodon.