Who knew Dinosaurs Could Be This Boring? Disney’s Dinosaur

Until relatively recently—well after its initial release—Dinosaur was not considered part of the official Disney canon of animated films. Oh, certainly, it had been released under the Disney name. It opened with the Walt Disney logo. It contained several typical Disney elements and themes—celebrity name those voices, adorable animals, a young protagonist trying to find a place where he could fit in, and a focus on accepting people who look different. The Disney theme parks sold Dinosaur related merchandise, especially at the Animal Kingdom park, which had an entire dinosaur section. And the film featured then-state of the art animation.

And yet, Disney executives initially claimed, this was not—no matter what it looked or sounded like—part of the official canon. It was something completely different.

Admittedly, the “official” list had always been incomplete, leaving out, as it did, the combined live action/animated films like Victory Through Air Power, The Reluctant Dragon, Mary Poppins and Pete’s Dragon. That precedent was one reason why Dinosaur was initially left out of the official lists—like those films, Dinosaur combined live footage with animation. But the main reason was something else entirely: unlike those films, and every other film in the Disney animated canon, Dinosaur, whatever the logo said, was not entirely or even mostly the product of the Disney Animation Studio. Instead, it was the product of two things: Disney’s hope of cashing in on animated dinosaurs, and a new Disney initiative: the Secret Lab.

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The Secret Lab, launched to great public fanfare in 1999, was not initially intended to be a full animation studio. Rather, it was the result of a Disney executive decision to merge the recently acquired Dream Quest Images, a special effects studio purchased in 1996, with the Disney Animation Studio CGI artists, in the hopes of creating a computer animation and effects studio that could potentially rival Pixar—while still providing special effects sequences for various Disney live action films.

Meanwhile, shortly before buying Dream Quest, Disney CEO Michael Eisner and others had noticed that a little series of films called Jurassic Park, which combined CGI dinosaurs with live action footage and actors, were doing remarkably well at the box office and attracting young, dinosaur-loving audiences. They ordered Disney’s new Animal Kingdom, then in the planning and development stage, to add a dinosaur section and a dinosaur ride—however oddly that section might fit in a park which also offered a safari ride showcasing still living animals. And Eisner ordered Disney’s film division to start looking for a nice, family friendly dinosaur project that could draw in the same business as Jurassic Park.

As it turned out, the special effects guys already had a dinosaur project on hand—if not quite the one that executives had in mind. They planned to use the stop motion effects developed by stop motion animation artist David Allen, used in Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, for a nice, grim little dinosaur film that would include lots of dinosaurs eating each other and end with lots of dinosaurs getting smushed by an incoming asteroid and going extinct. To maintain a certain scientific accuracy—kinda—it would be entirely dialogue free—something that would also help distinguish it from the Land Before Time films.

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Eisner was all for dinosaurs eating each other, but he did not think that audiences would show up for a dialogue-free dinosaur film, even a dialogue-free dinosaur film with a T-Rex. And, perhaps remembering that the sequence of dinosaurs plodding off to their doom in Fantasia is rarely cited as anyone’s favorite moment in that film, he wanted a slightly happier ending than the mass extinction of every character in the film. The extinction event was moved closer to the beginning of the film, voice actors were hired, and Disney got ready to add in the now traditional top 40 pop song—although that ended up getting cut from the final version of the film. He also demanded that instead of stop motion animation, the newly formed Secret Lab use CGI dinosaurs against real, live action backgrounds—just like in Jurassic Park, except with much better scenery.

In a last blow to both the original concept and the final film—when Disney realized that the film that would eventually be The Emperor’s New Groove would not be ready in time to fulfill cross promotional deals with McDonalds and Coke, Eisner also demanded that Dinosaur’s planned release date be moved up several months to fill in the gap. Final production was, in a word, rushed.

The animators did at least get their way in the opening sequence, where, after some bland narration about the importance of little people and big people and whatever, the camera opens up to show a dinosaur mother who, for a reason not exactly explained until later, has chosen to put her nest smack dab in the middle of a popular dinosaur gathering spot. It’s not exactly the planet’s safest spot for a nest of vulnerable dinosaur eggs, but it does let the camera soar over the spectacular sight of large herds of dinosaurs eating, tending their eggs, and mulling around right until a massive predator shows up—sending them scattering in a dinosaur stampede.

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The dinosaur nest ends up mostly smushed, with only one egg surviving. That egg is immediately snatched up by little dinosaurs, who soon lose it themselves, sending the egg off into a soaring adventure through water (showing off water effects animation) and air (showing off the technical wizardry of having an animated cartoon pterosaur follow sped up helicopter footage), zipping over more dinosaurs and through spectacular scenery (showing off some awesome aerial shots) before dumping the egg (showing off plot contrivance) near a group of little lemurs (showing off individual strands of animated fur, then still a relatively new technique in computer animation).

This entire dialogue-free sequence is magnificent, giving a good sense of what this film could and should have been. Alas, it’s all downhill from here. To be fair, with its mix of swooping, rushing camera movements and animated dinosaurs, it also triggered my severe vertigo, forcing me to watch this film over a several day period, something which undoubtedly contributed to my overall response to the film. But I don’t think it’s my vertigo that makes most of the rest of the film seem to go so remarkably awry.

No, that would be the voicing—something animators didn’t want, but Eisner did. The problem is not the vocal work itself—most of the voice actors here are fine as far as that goes. But rather that, after spending several minutes setting up a beautiful, hostile, dinosaur world, with the real very backgrounds almost convincing me that yes, the camera really had traveled back in time and recorded very real dinosaurs (even if the dinosaurs on screen actually come from different periods, but let us not quibble too much about that in a film that has dinosaurs and lemurs playing together) the film manages to lose this illusion mere seconds after the lemurs start to talk. By the time the lemurs start to fixate on getting laid, that illusion is completely lost.

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It does not help much to have Joan Plowright show up later as an elderly dinosaur sporting a British accent, making me wonder just how she had picked up a different accent than all of the other dinosaurs, while the dinosaurs and lemurs, shown growing up in separate locations and never interacting until the middle of the film, all sport American accents. It’s admittedly a minor point, but it strikes a discordant note in a film that is otherwise trying to feel “realistic” and “accurate.”

Back in the plot, the lemurs decide to adopt the hatching little baby dinosaur even though he could grow up into a huge monster. Cue cut to little lemurs fleeing from a huge monster dinosaur—who of course turns out to be just playing. Jurassic Park this isn’t. The film then wastes some time getting lemurs to hook up for some sexy times in the trees while casually pointing out the first of many huge plot holes—they’ve never seen another dinosaur on the island. Which begs the question: then HOW DID THEY KNOW THAT THE LITTLE BABY DINOSAUR WOULD GROW UP INTO A BIG MONSTER DINOSAUR? The lemurs also throw around some cringeworthy gendered dialogue.

Luckily at this point a huge asteroid crashes nearby destroying pretty much everything they know.

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This is another magnificent sequence—in part because it has very little dialogue, in part because of the special effects for the asteroid and the resulting tsunami, which really are good—although I’m fairly sure, given the size of the explosion and the effect of the impact, that the tsunami should actually be higher. I’m also not sure how they ended up that close to the explosion, given that they are apparently in Madagascar, or close to it, and the crater for this event is in the kinda far away Yucatan. I know the continents have shifted quite a lot since then but this still seems like a stretch. But I was trying not to quibble and only focus on the major issues. Moving on. During all this, the dinosaur—Aladar—manages to save the lemurs of his adoptive family, and only them, either because of plot contrivance or because Aladar isn’t the sort to try to save little lemurs who didn’t adopt him. You decide. Then again, given how close they seemed to be to the explosion, I’m also kinda shocked that any of them survived at all.

The group lands in a now desolate, burned land, and starts looking—mostly silently—for water. Instead, they find the last remnants of a herd of dinosaurs trying to head back to the Nesting Grounds—oh, that’s why Aladar’s mother put her nest right in the middle of a dinosaur stampede area, got it, going on. Their search is another beautifully animated sequence. But after this, the film devolves into a bland, clichéd, plot hole ridden tussle between the herd leader, Kron, and Aladar.

Kron—quite sensibly for a dinosaur leader facing a barren landscape and no water after an apocalyptic asteroid strike—wants to push the herd as fast and as hard as possible to the Nesting Grounds, which has water and food. Aladar—less sensibly—wants to work together to save everyone, even the weak and the helpless and the old, something that would sound just a bit more convincing if you hadn’t just let all of those little lemurs who WEREN’T members of your adoptive family drown, Aladar, but again, moving on. Not complicating things as much as the movie would like, Aladar falls in love with Kron’s sister, Neera, who—despite being a DINOSAUR—may well be the single blandest love interest in Disney history, difficult as this may be to believe.

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Also, a couple of velociraptors and carnotauruses show up. They never speak, making them automatically more awesome than all of the other characters in the film, but they also don’t get to eat that many dinosaurs, which distinctly subtracts quite a bit from that awesomeness. The carnotauruses, incidentally, were originally supposed to be T-Rexes, until Disney decided that really, Dinosaur didn’t have to borrow from Jurassic Park all that much, and could make at least that change. Velociraptors, however, had been such big hits in the earlier film that Disney did decide to keep them.

Anyway, this leads to scene after scene of dinosaurs tired and weary and sad that they are getting set such a punishing pace, although GIVEN THAT THEY ARE GETTING CHASED BY VELOCIRAPTORS MAYBE THERE’S A REASON TO TRY TO SPEED THINGS UP, COMPLAINERS. Naturally—it is a Disney movie—Aladar is pretty much always right about everything, and Kron is pretty much always wrong, and we learn Important Lessons About Friendship and Never Giving Up and Why You Should Listen To People Who Tell You That Really You Should Not Try To Climb The Huge Pile of Rocks When Dinosaurs Are Chasing You. (Spoiler: because the dinosaurs will eat you.)

It’s all meant to be very moving, and emotional, but it never quite works—partly because the plot, despite the velociraptors, is pretty predictable and dull, partly because everyone’s priorities seem a bit off, and partly because of the many plot holes. The glaring one is the one that ostensibly drives the film: the hunt for water. I can buy that the dinosaurs, here depicted less as proto-birds and more as cold blooded reptiles, can survive for several days without water. Well, kinda buy, given that when we first saw them, they lived in an area with abundant fresh drinking water, and two dinosaurs later explain that they always were able to find lakes and water on their way to the Magical Hatching Grounds, suggesting that they never had the chance to evolve into creatures who could survive without water for a few days. But it’s not completely improbable. I can’t believe that the lemurs, who start off the film in a rainforest surrounded by abundant water, could survive, much less continue talking for this long, without keeling over from dehydration.

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Plus, the film’s happy ending feels off. It’s not just that it’s hard to believe that the Magical Hatching Grounds magically survived the otherwise complete destruction of the asteroid—which drained lakes, broke mountains, sunk at least one island, and immediately killed off the vegetation everywhere else—and moreover, survived this impact completely untouched, but the film initially presented this as the extinction of the dinosaurs, not as the next step in their evolution into birds. The final moments feel all wrong.

To be fair, Dinosaur does have some astonishing moments—the opening sequence, the flight with the pterosaur carrying the dinosaur egg, the asteroid smashing into the earth, the slow search for water. And a few dinosaurs do get eaten, so this is a plus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these sequences contain either no or very little dialogue, and I can’t help but wish the entire film had stayed with the non dialogue button, but it might be worth checking out these sequences, as long as your fingers remain very close to the fast forward button.

Dinosaur did decently at the box office, bringing in $349.8 million. Dinoland USA in Disney’s Animal Kingdom was a decided hit (it helped that, for the first few years after its opening, it was one of the few parts of the Florida park that offered air conditioning), and dinosaur toys flew off the shelves. On paper, it was a success. But the box office total was not only well under the $1 billion or so brought in by Jurassic Park, it was nowhere near the huge, blowout numbers Disney had not so secretly been hoping from their first computer animated/live backdrops film, not to mention from a film that ended up being the most expensive release of 2000.

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It may have been the listless plot, or the bland characters, few of whom stood out. Or the unfortunate timing of getting rushed out to meet contractual marketing deadlines meant for another film, only to be released just a couple of months after the BBC/Discovery Channel Walking With Dinosaurs—a miniseries that combined live backdrops, computer animation and puppets, and which, despite its “documentary” label, had much better dinosaur fights. Or simply that although a case can be made for making the “scientific” documentary Walking With Dinosaurs, it’s much harder to see why, after Jurassic Park, the world really needed another animated/live action dinosaur movie. Or at least, an animated/live action dinosaur movie featuring dinosaurs chasing dinosaurs instead of adorable kiddies and lawyers and Chris Pratt.

Whatever the reason, it was a disappointment. One year later, Disney quietly closed the Secret Lab, and began contemplating other ways to compete with Pixar and Dreamworks—a thought process that eventually and unfortunately brought us Chicken Little. Most of the effects artists found themselves out of work; the CGI animators from the Disney Animation Studio found themselves right back with their old colleagues, helping to deal with the technical challenges of yet another ambitious film. One we’ll get to in a couple of weeks—right after we discuss the film that sent poor Dinosaur out into the wild months earlier than planned.

The Emperor’s New Groove, coming up next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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