[Screen It]

(2000) (voices of D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: After a meteorite storm devastates their home, a dinosaur and his adoptive lemur family join a herd of herbivorous dinosaurs trying to make their way to the safety of their nesting grounds.
Aladar (voice of D.B. SWEENEY) is a three-ton iguanodon who, through a series of mishaps, came to be adopted and raised by a family of lemurs headed by patriarch Yar (voice of OSSIE DAVIS) and matriarch Plio (voice of ALFRE WOODARD). Although he's obviously much different than his primate siblings, including Zini (voice of MAX CASELLA) and Suri (voice of HAYDEN PANETTIERE), and hasn't grown up with any of his own kind, Aladar is a happy and carefree dinosaur.

That is, until a horrific meteorite storm arrives and destroys their home island. Forced to flee and swim to safety, Aladar and his family find nothing but desolate and ravaged lands filled with hungry carnivores such as raptors and the terrifying and much larger carnotaurs.

Luck prevails for the small family as they encounter a large herd of disparate herbivorous dinosaurs migrating toward the safety of a reportedly paradisiacal nesting ground. Unfortunately, the tribe is led by Kron (voice of SAMUEL E. WRIGHT), a dictator-like iguanodon who, with the aid of his right-hand dinosaur, Bruton (voice of PETER SIRAGUSA), pushes the herd to its limits as they try to reach those grounds as quickly as possible.

The much smaller Aladar immediately clashes with Kron, especially when the leader seems not to care about the old or tired stragglers including Baylene (voice of JOAN PLOWRIGHT), a "dainty" brachiosaur, and Eema (voice of DELLA REESE), a slow moving styrachosaur. As Aladar tries to keep them caught up with the rest of the herd, he meets and eventually befriends Kron's gentler sister, Neera (voice of JULIANNA MARGULIES). With many miles and long days ahead of them, and despite repeated encounters with the various carnivores, the herd tries to complete their journey.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Like most any kid of most any generation that's come along since light first shone through a moving strip of celluloid, I was mesmerized by movies as a youngster. In particular, the "monster" films of my youth had the most impression on me, and collectively, they and the rest of the films I could see in theaters and hopefully catch on TV (before the introduction of home videotape), certainly led me to want to have something to do with the world of movies when I grew up.

Of course, before the advent of computer-generated effects, such monsters could be accomplished pretty much in only three ways. One was putting an actor in a rubber suit and having them walk through a miniature town or city (as was the case in the "Godzilla" flicks). The second - and cheesiest - involved dressing up real-life lizards with fake fins and horns, filming them, and then inserting that footage - naturally blown up to monster-sized proportions - into that already containing live action people.

The third and most laborious way was to use stop motion animation - where an animator would painstakingly move a scale model of the monster for each frame of film - and the master of that technique was none other than the legendary Ray Harryhausen. From the various monsters and other effects he created (in films such as "Twenty Million Miles to Earth") to the cool-looking dinosaurs found in "One Million Years B.C." and "The Valley of Gwangi," Harryhausen's work was nothing short of absolutely enthralling to me.

Then along came the creation of computers dedicated to movie special effects and 1993's "Jurassic Park," a thrilling film where the brilliantly rendered dinosaurs clearly outshone even the efforts of director Steven Spielberg. Of course, that PG-13 rated film was (and still is) a bit intense for the little ones.

Thus, obviously sensing a void that could be filled as well as some fabulous marketing opportunities and the obvious tie-ins with their latest Orlando-based theme park, "Animal Kingdom," the folks at Disney have decided to deliver a more kid-friendly dinosaur flick. Obviously more akin to the films Disney-owned Pixar studios has produced ("A Bug's Life," the "Toy Story" pictures) than their more traditionally hand drawn efforts (such as "Tarzan" and "Beauty and the Beast"), the appropriately titled "Dinosaur" is nothing short of dazzling to behold.

In fact, if one needed a new definition for the term, "eye candy," this film would be a perfect example. Somewhat akin to the recently aired TV documentary, "Walking With Dinosaurs," the film takes place in their prehistoric world instead of having them appear as monsters in ours. That's where most of the similarities end, however, as the massive amounts of money Disney pumped into the creation of their digital effects facility, The Secret Lab, clearly shows on the big screen.

While one can obviously can only guess about how real dinosaurs looked, moved or behaved, and notwithstanding some artistic license taken by the animators in giving the long extinct creatures expressive faces and dialogue enabled mouths, this is easily the most impressive and one would imagine realistic-looking rendering of dinosaurs to ever play on the silver screen.

Layered upon and interwoven with digitally enhanced live action footage from all around the world, the resulting visual imagery is amazing. Not only do the animals kick up dust when they walk and rain realistically runs across their bodies, but they interact with other physical properties (such as bodies of water), in sort of a more advanced "Roger Rabbit" type way, as if they really were there on the "set."

With the film's impressive visuals being a foregone conclusion, many may be wondering if the guts of the film - the story - can match the technical efforts and overall prowess. In short, the answer is yes and no. While thankfully not a musical - one can accept talking dinosaurs, but having them drop everything and suddenly break into song would necessitate more suspension of disbelief than even old Walt could have mustered - Disney's fingerprints are all over the film.

Somewhat following the longstanding tradition of having a main character that's orphaned (or missing a parent) and/or is "different" from everyone else (ranging from the likes of Bambi to Belle to Tarzan), this film features the same setup. There are also some comic relief characters (although not to the point of many of their other films), including a non-speaking ankylosaur that acts like a dog (much like the elephant in "George of the Jungle").

Since this is a film "mostly" aimed at kids, one can accept such material, and some of those characters and related moments do provide for some laughs. I say "mostly" since the film does contain somewhat of a harrowing plot filled with some suspenseful and/or scary scenes and images that could give the little ones some intense nightmares for some time to come. Yet, at the same time, it includes lessons about compassion and perseverance, not to mention the fact that the "good guys" obviously win at the end, to counteract such material.

As far as the story itself --- as written by John Harrison (a TV writer, director and composer) and Robert Nelson Jacobs ("Out to Sea") who work from an original screenplay by Walon Green ("The Hi-Lo Country," "The Wild Bunch") - it's nothing particularly complex or spectacular, and most adult viewers will probably figure out where things are headed long before they occur.

Even so, the basic plot thrust of characters occasionally coming into conflict with each other and facing external dangers while trying to find their version of sanctuary works rather well. Despite some of its predictable nature, co-directors Eric Leighton (the supervising animator of "The Nightmare Before Christmas") and Ralph Zondag (an animation veteran) stage certain scenes rather effectively, and will likely have adults just as mesmerized and thrilled as their younger counterparts with what transpires.

As is the case with most of Disney's animated efforts, the vocal work is topnotch, with the actors and actresses doing a great job of instilling extra "human" qualities into their characters (and nicely complimenting the technical efforts that do the same).

Voicing the lead character, D.B. Sweeney ("Memphis Belle," "Eight Men Out") is very convincing playing the compassionate and carrying iguanodon (if one can imagine such a thing), while Alfre Woodard ("Love and Basketball," "Mumford") and Ossie Davis ("I'm Not Rappaport," "Get on the Bus") seem perfect as the parental lemurs and Samuel E. Wright ("The Little Mermaid," Broadway's stage version of "The Lion King") and Peter Siragusa ("The Big Lebowski," "The Babe") sound appropriately menacing as the herd's domineering leaders.

Meanwhile, Julianna Margulies ("The Newton Boys," TV's "ER), Joan Plowright ("Tea With Mussolini," "101 Dalmatians") and Della Reese ("A Thin Line Between Love and Hate," TV's "Touched by an Angel") lend the appropriate aural distinctions to their characters and deliver fine vocal performances. Interestingly enough, the carnivores portrayed in the film - the many raptors and carnotaurs - don't speak. Not only does that give them more of a menacing and monstrous feel, but it also imparts the idea that they must have been too dimwitted or "uncivilized" to possess the gift of speech.

Due to the impressive visual presentation and short running time of only around eighty minutes, the film is certainly easy to sit through and few, if any, viewers will probably be bored with what transpires. Although it's obvious that more attention was paid to the visuals than in creating a complex story, what's present clearly works and, after all, it is a kids film for goodness' sake. Clearly raising the bar for all future computer-generated films, it's not likely that this "Dinosaur" will become extinct - at either the box office or once on video - any time soon. We give the film a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 16, 2000 / Posted May 19, 2000

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