Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (9/50) -- Dinoasaur (2000)

It’s been 10 years and three separate viewings, and I still don’t know what to make of Dinosaur. An unusual movie with an unusual history, Dinosaur was an Event Movie for Disney back in 2000, combining live action backgrounds and bleeding-edge (for the time) CG imagery. It was supposed to kick open the door for forward-thinking artistry and new technology for the Walt Disney Company. Instead, the public met it with a resounding “meh,” and rightly so, in my opinion.

Dinosaur starts off in the nesting grounds of a group (flock?) of Iguanodon, where a mother tends to her newly-laid eggs. A large, meat-eating Carnotaurus then appears and, deciding that this herd of lumbering T-bone steaks has gone uneaten for far too long, kick starts a chain of events that leads to the egg being swept away and eventually deposited waaayyyy away from its original nest (this sequence was also featured as a “preview” of the movie on certain Disney VHS around the time of its release).

I think this preview was in theaters too. It looked way more epic than the final product, kinda like 300.

The egg winds up in a family of lemurs, hatching almost as soon as it’s discovered. The lemurs decide it’s too cute to dispose of, and instead raise it as their own. Given the name Aladar, the young dino soon blooms into a fully-grown young adult (voiced by D.B. Sweeny). After a prolonged, uninteresting, and largely non-plot-related interlude where the tribe of lemurs mate (all except our hero, and his anachronistic, annoying compadre named Zini), the lemur home island is destroyed by a series of meteor showers, leaving Aladar and his surrogate family to wander in search of a home.

The movie then turns into a CG version of The Land Before Time (which it was doing a pretty good job non-explicitly aping up until now): a young herbivore, aided by an unlikely team of ragtag outsiders, goes in search of a Zion-esque promise land of green food and cushy living, interrupted occasionally by predators and internal strife. Outside of the superficial comparisons, the film even packs in several small LBT touches, like the carnivores not speaking, or the main villain being dispatched by rocks and a long fall (though, since the movie has two main carnivores, the means of disposal is split between them both).

Here's the Sharptoo-- er, Carnotaurs.

I gotta tell you, even though I am a big dinosaur fan, I was profoundly uninterested in this movie. Even without the Land Before Time parallels, I felt the story was tedious and dull, and, even at 82 minutes, the film kinda crawled along. It wasn’t bad or unpleasant, just the exact right shade of boredom that makes time seem to go by slower than usual.

On a surface level, the movie looks pretty good. The backgrounds at 100% real, with the CG dinosaurs superimposed over the top. It makes for an eerie effect sometimes, but CG animation is some of the fastest-dating artwork in cinema, and there are many instances where the dinosaurs seem to float "on top" of the backgrounds instead of inhabit them. Also, the visuals and details take a nose dive during long shots with many dinos onscreen. Lastly, I’m not sure if paleontologists have proposed that dinosaurs were colored like speckled Easter eggs, but someone was clearly in Don Bluth’s paint kit for this movie, because the characters are all colored with some of the nastiest pastels this side of those effing puppies in All Dogs Go to Heaven.

Sound-wise, Dinosaur isn’t bad. James Newton Howard (James Cameron’s go-to composer) was smack in the middle of his three-film deal for Disney with this movie (Atlantis and Treasure Planet were the others), and Dinosaur’s score is… serviceable. Not memorable, but not nearly as pedestrian as Robin Hood, the soundtrack just kinda is, with its biggest sin being Howard’s tendency to PUNCTUATE. EVERYTHING. IN SOME SORT OF. STACCATO, making the movie occasionally very same-sounding. The voice cast gets the job done, with Sweeny being as reasonably charming as you could hope for a thirty-ton lizard, and the supporting cast providing adequate emotion (though the effect of a Triceratops being voiced by Della Reese from ”Touched by an Angel” is just plain weird). The main offender for the cast is undoubtedly Zini, whose “lady’s man” persona gets old approximately 13.2 seconds before it’s introduced.

He even looks obnoxious.

Jar Jar here actually bring to mind my strangest beef with this movie: the copious amounts of anachronistic dialogue. To be clear, I’m not of the mindset that pop culture references or modern vernacular is the Great Evil of contemporary animation (Aladdin is one of my favorite movies, period), but there’s something about a hyper-real CG lemur climbing onto a hyper-real CG dinosaur on a photo-realistic background and saying “I believe you requested a wake-up call for the dawn of time” that raises a few flags. Piddley things like:

a) What does this joke have to do with the plot?

b) How does he know about the term “dawn of time,” considering that they are well past it, but still many hundreds of millions of years away from the term being coined?

c) Exactly how does a prehistoric lemur know about the practices of the modern hotel chain? Certainly one of the characters from Road to Perdition couldn’t have told you what a wake-up call is.

It’s a bit self-defeating to look for elements of realism in an animated film meant for children, but this train of thought is derailed by the movie’s insistence on how real it looks. There’s a marked difference between a Starbucks sight gag in Shrek 2 (medieval fairy tale) and the term “Jerkasaurus” used by a character in Dinosaur (“Walking With Dinosaurs”-esque pseudo-documentary). The technology behind the movie is undermined so badly by the writing, it’s as though Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone for the express purpose of making crank calls.

And while we’re picking nits, let’s chat about the tacked-on, under-developed romance between Aladar and Neera (Julianna Margulies). Neera (who is colored pink for our convenience) belongs to the school of female love interests who have a rather limited amount of screen time, and who contributes to the story even less. They meet by bumping into each other when Aladar first finds the herd, and they share all of two Significant Moments together; the rest of the time, she simply stands around. I’m not normally frustrated by half-baked movie romances, but the setup and payoff for Aladar and Neera’s relationship is seriously only one step ahead of that female crow who shows up at the very end of The Secret of NIMH.

Neera also had a scent out at the time of this movie's release. It was called "Obligatory."

But I digress. The movie has its share of exciting parts (especially a scene in a cave where Aladar attempts to fend-off two predators), and there are several moments where the beautiful backgrounds and the character models click, making for one pretty picture. Unfortunately, the movie is both uneven and kinda dull, an unhealthy combination for those who watch movies in order to unwind.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. N/A
  2. N/A
  3. N/A

Favorite scene:

  • Aladar negotiating the Carnotaurs in the cave

Favorite character:

  • Aladar (Kron, the Samuel E. Wright-voiced leader of the herd, almost made it, if only for the novelty of Sebastian playing a villain, but the writers went overboard in making him a toolbox)

The Jar Jar:

  • Zini

How I Watched It

This may be the only time you’ll hear me say it, but I think Dinosaur would play out better in SD. As I mentioned earlier, the film hasn’t aged particularly well, and the hi-def treatment makes it all the easier to spot imperfections (my previous viewing was eight months ago on VHS, and I didn’t notice many of the visual gaffes I picked up on this time around). The image quality is merely pretty good, which is not something you want from a movie case that touts the experience as “Beyond High Definition.” The colors pop reasonably well, but it is painfully apparent that Dinosaur was one of the first Blu-rays put out by the company.

Not only is the picture merely so-so, but the extras are absolutely anemic. Included are an audio commentary (not too bad; it includes the two co-directors and two VFX supervisors), a four-minute look at the meteor shower scene, and a short film called “Blu-Scape,” an unrelated, six-minute feature which consists entirely of pretty-looking scenery. In short, it’s something that you’re supposed to put on to impress your friends who don’t have an HDTV (which was fine in 2006, but now you have better options for that, like Star Trek). It also includes a short index of scenes that are supposed to “showcase the ultimate in high definition picture and sound.” Glorified scene-selector? Why yes it is.

Heck, it doesn’t even have a main menu. A main menu! The movie just kinda starts, VHS-style, and then loops back to the beginning once you’re done with the credits! If you must own this film, do yourself a less-expensive favor and opt for the DVD version.

Next up: The Princess and the Frog

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