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Disney's 'Dinosaur' - is it worth watching?

Image from Wikipedia

Good morrow readers, I am the Lady in the Hat, and today I'm going to talk about dinosaurs.

Now, I don't know anything about you lovely people, but I absolutely love dinosaurs. I'm forever looking up new discoveries on the news, searching articles on Google Scholar, or poring over the beautiful fossils from China which preserve details such as feathers and skin colour. I look at the birds outside my window and marvel at how strange and wonderful it is, that these creatures are cousins to Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.

So yes, I might be a tiny bit obsessed, and I'm afraid this obsession started young.

As a child, I can remember seeing the trailer for Dinosaur just before Toy Story 2, and you'd better believe that it blew my seven-year-old mind. However, after watching it, I can remember being quite disappointed. For one thing, I found the whole storyline rather dark and depressing, and even as a kid I found it uninteresting and clichéd.

A far cry from the epicness promised in the trailer and the opening scene.

However, as an adult researching how these ancient animals feature in storytelling, I decided I would give it another shot. Will this animated epic be a valuable piece of DNA in amber, or will it make you wonder what's taking that asteroid so damn long?

The story starts out when a mother Iguanodon is chased from her nest by a rampaging Carnotaur, whose foot crushes all the eggs except one. After a series of mishaps involving an egg-thief, a Pteranodon and a sweeping vista across a world filled with dinosaurs, the egg lands and hatches on an island inhabited by a clan of lemurs.

Sadly none of which like to 'move it, move it.'

The chief's daughter, Plio, takes pity on the hatchling, naming him Aladar. He grows up living peacefully alongside the lemurs, learning their ways and taking part in their courtship ceremony, even though there is no mate suitable for him. However, this idyllic existence is shattered when the island is destroyed in a meteorite shower, and only Aladar and a few members of the clan manage to escape. On the mainland, they end up following a herd of various dinosaurs, who are migrating across the desert to a place of greenery known as the Great Valley....sorry, I mean the Nesting Grounds.

Yes, you can see the problem here. The whole 'dinosaurs struggling across a bleak landscape in search of a promised land' trope has been done before.

And much, much better.

Unlike the brave but vulnerable Littlefoot, Dinosaur's Aladar is not particularly interesting, just being your stereotypical nice guy that is nice and everyone likes him apart from the characters who aren't very nice. There was potential for him to be more interesting, especially in how his altruism clashes with that of the herd's leader - a ruthless Iguanodon named Kron. Not to mention that he also has a crush on Kron's sister.

Whose character is so bland that I can't even be bothered to give her a name.

The problem is, none of it is really explored in depth, and when your main protagonist has no relatable flaws, it is more difficult to get invested in his journey. Not mention that the story is so clichéd - we know that they will reach their promised land, we know Aladar will emerge a hero and get the girl. As I mentioned in my previous review, tropes are not a bad thing in themselves, but when the writer(s) do nothing with them, the audience is just left with an uninteresting story with no real surprises. It doesn't help that some of the dialogue is very cringe-worthy and out of place, with some characters making references to being the 'love monkey' or 'the professor of love,' which really kills the prehistoric mood.

So, bland story, bland main characters - even a bland setting, as most of it takes place in a featureless desert. Is Dinosaur just a complete waste of time?

Well, no. As boring as the main characters are, the secondary characters are actually fairly interesting, and in my view, it is their story arcs that actually make Dinosaur worth watching. You have Plio, who is the female lemur who adopts Aladar, and she is the voice of compassion throughout the movie, representing the lemurs' (implied proto-human) values of altruism and protecting those who are weaker. There is a great scene where, trapped in a cave, she ends up debating with Bruton - Kron's subordinate - about the value of life and whether those who are old, sick or wounded still deserve the chance to live.

My answer is yes, because they're much more interesting as characters.

Other notable characters are the old dinosaurs at the back of the herd - a Brachiosaurus named Baylene, a Styracosaurus named Eema, and Erl, an ankylosaur who doesn't talk but acts suspiciously like an animal that won't exist for millions of years. Despite being old and knowing that the herd could easily leave them behind, they still struggle onward and remain hopeful even at their journey's lowest points. This is especially poignant with Baylene, who is said to be the last of her kind, and it is her strength that ultimately prevails when Aladar's fails.

The animation is also breathtaking, even nearly twenty years later. While the dinosaurs are CGI, the backgrounds are all live-action, and the two mediums actually blend fairly well, finding the perfect balance between photo-realism and animated fantasy. The opening scene is a thrilling and awe-inspiring sequence that fully shows off the scope of the dinosaurs' world, and the African-inspired soundtrack by Newton Howard adds an air of wonder and wildness. I also appreciate the filmmaker's attempts to actually go with lesser-known species of dinosaurs, rather than those which are better known (and marketable). A special shout-out goes to the main villains of the story - a pair of Carnotaurs,which belonged a group known as abelisaurids. This particular family of predators lived as the same time as Tyrannosaurus, but were more widespread in Europe, Africa and South America.

And yes, they did have those cool looking horns.

Obviously, there are various anachronisms, with the species featured coming from different time periods and continents, not to mention the lemurs. I can understand the inclusion of lemurs, however, as they are primitive looking animals that wouldn't look out of place in the movie's world, even if primates did not appear until the Palaeocene.

So overall, Dinosaur is pretty average in terms of story and characters, but its impressive animation and themes of compassion versus survival of the fittest still make it an interesting watch. I can also give it credit for its creative use of different dinosaur species, and its unwillingness to sugar-coat the reality of their struggle. It's not as epic as it could have been, but as one of Disney's first attempts at CGI, it's decent enough. If you're interested in how dinosaurs are depicted on film, it's worth viewing at least once.

My rating: 6/10

Dinosaur is (c) Walt Disney Picturres, and all images are from IMDB.
The Land Before Time is (c) Universal Pictures, and the poster featured is from Wikipedia. Seriously, if you want an exciting, emotionally driven story about dinosaurs, I highly recommend it.

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