Turns out I remembered much more than I thought about Disney’s Dinosaur, although these memories only came to me once I started watching the movie, and they weren’t many. The one vivid memory I had of Dinosaur is what I think most people remember when they think of the movie (if they remember anything, let alone the movie itself), and that is the first ten or so minutes of the film. I must have been around eight years old when this movie came out, and I was already an avid movie-watcher. I tried to go see any kids movie that was playing in theaters (especially if the name “Disney” was attached to them). That’s how I ended up watching the teaser trailer for Dinosaur at least five times in theaters.
The trailer, which had a title card in which it rather appropriately referred to itself as a “preview”, consisted of basically those first ten minutes of the movie. It played as a sort of silent film, in which a group of dinosaurs that were chillin’ on a beautifully valley were suddenly attacked by a Carnotaurus. One lone egg survives the attack, and thanks to a series of different dinosaurs that come in contact with it, embarks in a sort of journey that leads him to a far away island. Sort of like what happens to the “one ring” at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, only that movie hadn’t come out yet. Disney had done a similar thing a couple years back, when it had used the opening “Circle of Life” as the trailer for The Lion King. Back then, the strategy payed big time, as The Lion King grossed more than 300 million dollars at the U.S. box office. In the case of Dinosaur, however, setting itself up as a successor to the most successful Disney movie of all time would be only the first of its many, many problems.
Eight-year-old me was impressed with the trailer. Eight-year-old me also loved dinosaurs, so a movie that introduced what seemed like the most complex and thoroughly thought out recreation of what it must have looked like at the time dinosaurs were alive was something to be excited about. The trailer promised a huge, visually-dazzling adventure, and in fact, Disney was very eager on promoting Dinosaur as the big movie event of 2000. As we’ll see later on, that plan didn’t quite work out. Not least of all was this very trailer. It might have been an awesome teaser to get people excited about the movie, but it also promised a much more interesting and daring movie than we actually got. We were promised the most artistic and epic version of Walking with Dinosaurs, but what we got was a mediocre ripoff of The Land Before Time.
Before we get into more detail about the movie, it is worth talking about the production history of Dinosaur, which is actually a much more interesting topic than the movie itself. I talked in previous weeks about how, starting with the mid-nineties success of Toy Story, Disney was ready to go after whatever was turning Pixar into the most successful and interesting animation studio of the time. At that time, Disney didn’t own Pixar, only had a deal to distribute its movies, so their relationship wasn’t exactly the friendliest one. Dinosaur was actually the ultimate gamble on Disney’s part to have a studio of its own that could actually compete with Pixar Animation Studios. This is the story of “The Secret Lab”. This was the name Disney gave to Deam Quest Images after it purchased the visual effects production company with the initial purpose of producing its visual effects in-house, and later decided the division could make the kind of computer-animated movies that had made Pixar so successful.
I have to say I did not know anything about “The Secret Lab” or its history until I started doing research for this post (if you want to learn more about it I recommend this article by Jim Hill). However, what I found out about the production of the movie makes complete sense. Whenever I list the official Disney Animated Features Canon in my head (I’m nerdy, I know), I always forget about Dinosaur, and that’s no coincidence, since at the time of its release, it wasn’t meant to be part of the Canon. It was designed as something completely different, and only when the gamble proved a failure, did Disney quietly try to mask its intent by making it just another movie in the Canon. Like I said before, Dinosaur was supposed to be a huge deal, and while it did reasonably well at the box-office, it would’ve had to be the best thing since sliced bread to have lived up to the sky-high expectations set up for it.
There are a series of reasons why Dinosaur didn’t become the gigantic hit Disney executives were so certain it was going to be. One of them is the premiere of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, which I already mentioned, and might have reduced the excitement to go to the theater to see prehistoric creatures when you could just sit and watch them in your living room (also, as I mentioned before, the trailer kinda looks like an episode of the show with higher production values). I don’t know how much responsibility the BBC holds as far as Dinosaur’s box office history goes, but if not for Walking with Dinosaurs, then the movie’s poor quality would surely have been enough to make it a failure.
For starters, most of the movie looks nothing at all like the exciting trailer. The protagonist egg of the teaser turns out to be a baby Iguanodon. He is adopted by a group of Lemurs, who name him Aladar. Quick tangent: When I saw the movie, I thought Lemurs were some kind of prehistoric mammal. Then I, of course, learned there are thousands of them in Madagascar. This brings up a lot of questions, starting by the fact that lemurs were surely not around at the time the movie is set. In any case, what follows is the fall of the big meteor that turns earth into a large wasteland and brings Aladar and the lemurs in contact with other dinosaurs that are looking for the “Great Valley”, sorry, I mean the “Nesting Grounds” (I told you it was a Land Before Time ripoff).
The very premise of the movie already raises two big problems with the way it was marketed (and the movie as a whole). The first is that the trailer showed us an awesome world full of vegetation, rivers, waterfalls and cliffs with all kinds of cool dinosaurs, when in fact, the movie takes place mostly in a visually dull brown wasteland. The second is that the trailer didn’t show any sign that the dinosaurs were able to speak, let alone that they were going to be speaking out some of the most terrible dialogue ever. That they couldn’t come up with any other story about Dinosaurs to tell but a ripoff of The Land Before Time is maybe the biggest sign that there was something deeply lazy and misguided in the development of Dinosaur. The focus of the production was certainly not in crafting a good story, and sure, there is no reason why a visual effects studio would have much experience in writing good screenplays. So surely the visuals make up for the lackluster story, right?
Well, you would be wrong. It’s not only that the computer generated images are dated (this was 2000, after all), but they look very bad. It might have something to do with the fact that Dinosaur’s production was rushed once it was clear that Disney’s other project, The Emperor’s New Groove, would not be ready for summer 2000, but you should only look at Jurassic Park or The Lost World to look at dinosaurs effects that still look pretty good until this day (in the case of Jurassic Park, they hold up better than most of what we see today). When it comes to computer technology, you’re always going to suffer when future innovations make what was once cutting-edge technology look old, so you could appreciate Dinosaur as something novel and well done for its time, if it weren’t for what I think it’s the movie’s final nail on the coffin.
Like I said, the people working on Dinosaur were mostly visual effects artist. Now, creating visual effects creatures is an art in and of itself, which requires large amounts of talent and hard work, but it is not the same as being an animator. Especially, when you’re dealing with talking dinosaurs. The lack of experience of the crew, simply results in all the characters moving and looking very weirdly, especially when they’re talking. Case in point, the best part of the movie is the opening ten minutes where not a single dinosaur is talking. It’s not as bad as their mouths not matching the words they’re saying, but they all look so lifeless and joyless in a prehistoric uncanny valley sort of way (it doesn’t help that the script does a terrible job of characterization). A promising idea or concept becoming a disappointing movie would become a recurring motive for Disney in the following years. There is a reason why I had forgotten most things about Dinosaur, and I plan to forget them again.
I want to end this review by admitting that I lied. I started out saying my only vivid Dinosaur memory was its trailer, when in actuality I had another one: a talking McDonald’s happy meal toy, which I assume was Kron, and said something like “beware the Carnotaurus!”. That’s neither here nor there in terms of the quality of the movie, but I’m trying to run an honest blog here.
Next Week: Perhaps the Disney movie I have the most complicated history with: The Emperor’s New Groove.