Off to See the Lizards
Disney is well known for playing fast and loose with history in its recent animated films, but this is ridiculous. Dinosaur not only throws together dinos separated in time by millions of years, it also gives the big lizards little buddies in the form of lemurs, when everyone except your local creationist knows that higher mammals did not evolve until long after the dinosaurs went bye-bye.
Okay, okay. Dinosaur is only a fantasy — there’s no such thing as mermaids or genies, either, and lions and teapots are not usually seen breaking into song. So Dinosaur makes up for its evolutionary revisionism with a cracking story, archetypal characters, and a stirring score, right?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it: No, and even the stunning animation could not sustain my interest for more than 15 or 20 minutes. By 45 minutes into the movie, I was nudging my friend and asking if he was as bored as I was. He just looked at me with a disappointed sigh and nodded. How could the nearly three-hour Gladiator — which we’d seen earlier in the day for the second time — be over too soon, and Dinosaur, at 82 minutes, feel so damn long?
Dinosaur starts out promising, with the odyssey of an iguanodon egg that survives a T.-rex attack, gets snatched by scavengers, dropped into rivers, snatched again by pterodactyls, and ends up on a distant island. The film soars through pastoral scenes of plunging waterfalls and herds of sauropods lumbering across savannas, sinking underwater to show us the egg’s point of view as a band of triceratops lap up a drink as it floats by. Visually, Dinosaur, which uses a combination of live-action backdrops and CGI dinos, is beautifully effective… at least in the beginning.
It soon becomes obvious, however, that Dinosaur will be an uninspired retread of The Lion King — not surprisingly, the same team wrote both movies — with a depressing touch of On the Beach thrown in. Aladar (the voice of D.B. Sweeney), the iguanodon from the egg now all grown up, lives with a band of lemurs on the island, but he can’t quite fit in. Fortunately — or so it seems — a honking big meteor crashes to Earth nearby, destroying Monkey Island and forcing Aladar and his adopted family to run for their lives.
Is it that honking big meteor, you know, the one that offed the dinosaurs for good? It doesn’t seem as if you could get away with crashing something this big into the planet in a dinosaur movie without expecting your audience to come to this conclusion, so I will. Aladar and friends hook up with a ragtag band of survivor dinosaurs — led by fascist iguanodon Kron (Samuel E. Wright) and his lieutenant, Bruton (Peter Siragusa) — who are headed for a distant nesting grounds. Why they expect these nesting grounds to be safe when the rest of the world seems to be dying is a question never answered. But along the way, Aladar will challenge Kron for leadership of the group, and Kron’s shapely sister, Neera (Julianna Margulies: Traveller), will find herself in the middle of it all.
Little kids will probably be awed by Dinosaur, and as Aladar learns to work with the group instead of commanding it autocratically as Kron does, tykes will gobble up the “Teamwork can be fun!” message so prevalent in the current crop of kids’ entertainment, from Pokemon to Rugrats. And little ones are certainly the only ones who will laugh at the hoary, punny jokes — cracks about putting the “prime in primate” and “wakeup calls for the dawn of time” — simply because they’ve never heard them before.
But Aladar and Neera’s story of love at the K-T Boundary can’t help but be an unintentional downer for adults. Sure, the burning rocks that fall from the sky early on in the film, lighting up the night, and the crash of the meteor are disturbingly magnificent. But they mean that this world is coming to an end, that all the creatures we meet in Dinosaur are headed for extinction, and soon. The entire dramatic impetus of the story — the quest for the nesting grounds — feels sadly futile from this point of view. Dinosaur‘s circle of life is broken. This isn’t the life-affirming movie it wants to be. This is the nuclear-war survivors in On the Beach, huddling together, waiting to die. They just don’t know it yet.
Send in the clones
The animators at Disney obviously took a lot of visual inspiration from Jurassic Park, and no wonder. This is still the definitive dinosaur movie. It’s also one of my favorite flicks, one I never tire of watching. This is comfort food for sci-fi popcorn-movie junkies like me.
I was so enthralled by the novel Jurassic Park that I skivved off work for a day — back when I was gainfully employed — to read the damn thing, and if I had to move around, I carried the book in front of my face. It was just the thought of dinosaurs — dinosaurs! — alive and walking around that was so thrilling. And not the cuddly, anthropomorphized critters of Dinosaur, but real-live monsters with fangs and killer claws. We’re so used to being at the top of the food chain that the idea of being sent down a couple rungs is enough to be atavistically terrifying… and fun.
And that’s why the movie version works so well. The Michael Crichton (The 13th Warrior, Sphere)/Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Amistad) adaptation may be as Luddite as a science-fiction flick can get — it boils down to the old warning against man tampering with things he should just leave alone — but, man, dinosaurs are alive onscreen in Jurassic Park like they never were before, and never have been since (except, of course, in the sequel, The Lost World).
Paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill: The Horse Whisperer, Event Horizon) is so “not machine compatible” that he can’t get a seatbelt to work. His girlfriend, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern: October Sky), seems more interested in talking about having kids than in her own work. And mathematician and “chaotician” Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum: The Prince Of Egypt) mostly just wants to hit on Ellie. They’ve all come to Isla Nublar, an island off the coast of Costa Rica, to sign off on a new biological preserve started by billionaire weirdo John Hammond (Richard Attenborough: Elizabeth), and they — all rational, scientifically minded people — end up railing against Hammond’s hubris: Clone dinosaurs, set ’em loose on the island, throw up some fences, and charge admission. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, Alan, Ellie, and Ian agree. As Hammond notes, the only one who’s on his side is the “bloodsucking lawyer,” Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero: Gods and Monsters, Plains, Trains and Automobiles). Poetic justice is, of course, in the offing.
So, disaster does eventually ensue. We all know that science can be a menace — witness Hiroshima, Fen/Phen, and Michael Jackson — and it’ll take a movie made with high-tech, then-state-of-the-art computers to drive the point home. Sure, things start out pleasant enough — even crotchety Ian can’t help but grin like a kid on Christmas morning at his first sight of a majestic brachiosaur grazing on treetops. The spectacularly real-looking imagery of a herd of sauropods wading out of a lake was enough to drag me back into the theater to see Jurassic Park who knows how many times, and I can totally sympathize with Alan’s initial reaction on hearing that Hammond has cloned a Tyrannosaurus rex: He’s so astounded his legs give out, and he collapses to the ground. You can’t help but share in the characters’ slack-jawed awe at the realistic dinos onscreen.
And then it gets even better, when all hell breaks loose and people start getting eaten. That’s what we want to see in dinosaur movies, frankly, and part of why Dinosaur is less than electrifying — no humans were harmed during the making of that one. (That’s why I had the urge, during an attack on the “nice” lizards in Dinosaur by a T. rex, to yell at the screen, “Feed him your lawyer!”) The sequence in Jurassic Park in which the T. rex chomps on a Jeep containing Hammond’s wee precious grandkids (Ariana Richards, and Joseph Mazzello: Simon Birch) is one of the most exciting things ever committed to film — it’s impossible to tell what’s special effects and what’s real, and it’s just as suspenseful the twentieth time around as it was the first.
Like a lot of other ultimately silly movies that are nevertheless thrilling — Independence Day springs to mind — it’s attitude and a sense of fun that makes Jurassic Park much better than it probably deserves to be. Spielberg pokes fun at himself and his movies with the pan around the Jurassic Park gift shop — the park’s logo, which is also the movie’s logo, is slapped over everything from lunch boxes to pajamas. And you can’t go wrong with actors like Goldblum and Samuel L. Jackson (The Phantom Menace, The Negotiator) — as Jurassic Park’s computer expert — who exude ‘tude.
As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare about dinosaurs roaming the streets of my little ‘burb. Jurassic Park is the embodiment of that kind of childhood fear/fantasy. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? And who wouldn’t want to come face to face with the real thing?
viewed at home on a small screen