One of my favourite movies from my childhood was The Land Before Time. Directed by Don Bluth after he left Disney Studios, it starred a group of 5 young dinosaurs separated from their families. Throughout the movie, Littlefoot, a “longneck” dinosaur led the others to The Great Valley, a tropical paradise in a world full of deserts and rocky plains. I enjoyed it enough that I’ve seen all 13 of its straight to video sequels, as punishing as most of them are.
So at first when I heard about Disney’s Dinosaur, released in 2000, I was kind of interested. That’s despite how I was trying to grow up too fast like I mentioned in the last few Disney Animated Feature posts. The trailer showed the first 5 minutes of the movie, and it looked absolutely beautiful. Even today a lot of its visuals hold up fairly well. And yet I never got around to seeing it in theaters. I didn’t see it until it appeared on TV a few years after its release, and I’ve barely thought about it since.
Dinosaur was decently successful, earning $349 million on a $127 million budget. It opened at number one, beating both Gladiator and Battlefield Earth mere weeks after their releases. Of course beating Battlefield Earth isn’t a huge accomplishment. Critics praised the visuals, saying they alone made the movie worth a look. Despite that, the overall reception was mixed. Roger Ebert gave it three stars out of four for its “amazing visuals” that gave the movie a realistic feel, but complained that the second the dinosaurs talked, it ruined the illusion.
After seeing the movie again after all these years, I completely agree with the critical reception. In fact, the movie is so unmemorable that I don’t even remember any of the characters’ names after just having watched it.
First off, the visuals. They’re a hybrid of CGI and film. All of the backgrounds are live action footage, mostly of Venezuelan National Parks, mountains and other natural environments. The scenery is beautiful throughout the movie and the dinosaurs are entirely done in CGI. They were very detailed for the time and even now they’re at least decent, although some of their movements feel stiff by today’s standards. It’s also hard not to notice that the grass doesn’t sway when characters run through it. That’s a minor complaint though, and that’s probably not something they could have changed back then.
The opening scene in particular is absolutely stunning. Instead of describing it, I’ll just show you the teaser trailer that is basically the opening scene.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t feel the least bit original. It’s kind of a mix of The Land Before Time and the story of Moses from the bible. A baby dinosaur is separated from his family and ends up on an island inhabited by lemurs. The lemurs adopt him as one of their own. When a meteor pretty much destroys the island and all but the dinosaurs and four of the lemurs, they start searching for a new home, eventually running into a large herd. The young dinosaur eventually becomes the herd leader as they search for “The Breeding Grounds”, a hidden oasis that’s this movie’s equivalent of The Great Valley.
The story may not be all that original, but that would be fine if the dinosaurs didn’t talk. It goes for a more realistic visual style than The Land Before Time, and the story matches that visual style for the most part. There are several character deaths along the way. There’s a brilliant moment where all the dinosaurs start shouting at a predator, scaring it away. There are a few tense sequences where a small band of dinosaurs are trying to hide from the same predator. All of this would be fascinating if instead of the characters talking, we’d just have a narrator. It would give the movie a feel somewhere between a story and a documentary about dinosaurs, and that could have been fascinating.
In fact, that was the original plan. The movie was initially pitched as a portrayal of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, where most, if not all of the characters would eventually die off. None of the characters would talk in order to help separate it from The Land Before Time. I fully understand giving the movie a much lighter tone where most characters survive, but the idea of a dialogue-free dinosaur movie sounds fascinating to me. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I know I’m not the only one disappointed they didn’t go this route.
Instead of a movie that would feel partly like a documentary, what we get is a bunch of character archetypes. The young dinosaur is your typical optimistic man who cares about everyone and turns out to be a good leader. The heard leader is your stereotypical tough guy who believes in the survival of the fittest. If you’re not fast enough to keep up or strong enough to survive, you’ll only weaken the heard. There are a lot of other characters, like the two old women dinosaurs who are slowing down the pack. They’re both wise but easily discouraged until the young dinosaur starts helping them. The voice acting is generally good, but not good enough to make any of these archetypes interesting. Some of them even sound kind of bored.
When all the characters are stereotypical like this, it’s hard to care about any of them. When the heard leader dies, you feel nothing. When most of the lemurs die, you don’t really care because you barely even know the ones who survived. The survivors barely mourn their lost kin since less than a minute later, they’re already wandering. The death of Littlefoot’s mother in The Land Before Time on the other hand is brilliantly done. Their relationship is very well developed before that, and the death is drawn out enough that it’s hard not to tear up. It affects Littlefoot for the rest of the movie, both in terms of his emotional state and his determination to find The Great Valley in memory of his mother. In Dinosaur, a bunch of lemurs die and you hardly ever hear about them again.
All of this wouldn’t be a problem if the dinosaurs didn’t talk. The time spent showing them talking could have easily been dedicated to showing the main characters mourning their lost loved ones. It could have allowed the narrator to explain things in a documentary-like style. Dinosaur could have been something unique. Instead, it’s just another dinosaur movie inferior to The Land Before Time. And Disney would not be the last company to make the same mistake. Just look at 21st Century Fox’s Walking with Dinosaurs from 2013 – that one fared even worse.
That about sums up my thoughts on Disney’s Dinosaur. The visuals and music is fantastic, but everything else feels cliché. The Land Before Time was originally not going to give any of the dinosaurs’ dialogue, but in that case it worked just fine with talking. At the time Don Bluth was on a role and he created 5 a lot of creative words to describe leaves, carnivores and different kinds of dinosaurs. The 5 children were all actual characters that grew as the movie went on, with complex conflicts between them. Dinosaur is just forgettable. Just enjoy the teaser trailer I posted above and leave it at that.
Next up is The Emperor’s New Groove, followed by Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch. After that, there’s a stretch of 7 movies I’ve never seen before, and from what I’ve heard, there’s a very good reason why I’ve never seen most of them.