It’s the story of Aladar, an orphaned Iguanadon, who’s discovered by a family of lemurs when he’s a baby and they raise him as part of their clan. After a meteor destroys their home, Aladar and his lemur family join a herd of other dinosaurs as they journey to the nesting grounds. (If that sounds a lot like The Land Before Time to you, you’re not alone.) Despite the similarities to that other beloved animated dinosaur flick, this film has nice moral lessons about acceptance and perseverance through struggle that’s bound to resonate nicely with kids.
Visually, though, it was an enormous achievement (although the computer-generated imagery hasn’t stood the test of time all that well). It’s a technological achievement as well. At first, the film was to be made using stop-motion animation, which would have been impressive enough on its own. But once word of Jurassic Park’s production circulated, complete with computer-generated dinos, Disney quickly switched gears and went the CG route, too. The characters were all computer-generated and then dropped on top of real-life shots of locations in Hawaii and Australia. The New York Times praised the technological effort behind the film: “The reason to see this movie is not to listen to the dinosaurs but to watch them move, to marvel at their graceful necks and clumsy limbs and notice how convincingly they emerge into sunlight or get wet.”
Immersing the CG characters into natural environments is almost the opposite of the “deep canvas” technology that let hand-drawn Tarzan leap through his CG environment. The technological achievements in animation are comparable.
But, unfortunately for the studio, where they went above and beyond on animation and technology, they severely dropped the ball on storytelling. That the film’s credits are filled with more software developers and technicians than writers and story developers says a lot. It’s a formulaic, linear story with characters I had a hard time getting to know. Aladar comes off like a childish dummy most of the time and doesn’t come close to the mature romantic male lead we’re supposed to believe he’s become by the end of the film. The humour always seemed to miss a beat and the similarities to The Land Before Time were too hard to ignore, especially when my head was stacking up Aladar against Little Foot, with the former falling drastically short in terms of likeability. By the time Aladar and co. break through a stone wall to discover the hidden nesting grounds, you can’t help but whisper “the great vaaaaalley” to yourself in Little Foot’s adorable voice.
Disney was also keen during this time to show its different divisions were in sync, but those attempts misfired here. While Dinosaur was in production, a new ride was under development at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida — also called Dinosaur, featuring a journey back in time to capture an Iguanadon. Production of the film dragged on, missing deadlines; the same was not true for the ride. It opened on time, under a different name, while the film wouldn’t be released for another 18 months. When the film eventually came out, the Disney World ride was renamed.
There was a simplicity in Disney’s previous hit films that just doesn’t exist here. It’s ambition ended up being its downfall. In an interview about the film with the LA Times, animation chief Tom Schumacher said Dinosaur “doesn’t fit any defined filmmaking form,” explaining that it was hard to describe exactly what the film is because of its combination of animation and live action.
Once upon a time, former film studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg said Disney was all about great stories and unforgettable characters. When the company strays from that goal, it really falls on its face — and Dinosaur is one of those times.