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DINOSAUR:  COLLECTOR'S EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  D. B. Sweeney, Julianna Marguiles, Samuel E. Wright, Della Reese, Ossie Davis, Joan Plowright
Directors:  Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  82 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film **

Dinosaur, the latest computer animated film from the Disney studios, lives up to its hype.  By combining an ever improving technology with gorgeously filmed live backgrounds, the movie creates a sumptuous visual look unlike anything seen before.  The prehistoric world comes to life, and every frame vibrates with authenticity and wonder…it may be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing what the old earth with her once mighty beasts looked like.

If only there was a story to go with it.

It’s a shame that these artists would go to such tremendous lengths to make Dinosaur such a distinctive and amazing looking film, yet couple it with a lame, rehashed tale about an outsider raised in a world foreign to him, yet manages to find his true self and become something in the end.  Let me see…off the top of my head, I can recall the short “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion”, The Jungle Book, the more recent Tarzan…even to a certain extent, Toy Story, Pinocchio and others followed this same formula.  They may not have looked as good as Dinosaur does, but they told the story in better and fresher ways.

Given the awesomeness of its subject matter, you would think nothing less than an equally awe inspiring tale would go with it, and I’m disappointed to say I was surprisingly underwhelmed by the narrative, which gets underway after a striking opening montage that follows the misadventures of a single egg as it journeys through this beautiful and dangerous world.  This sequence establishes the look and feel of the film in an incredible way.  Most people, myself included, had seen it before as Disney’s “special sneak preview” of the film, but it continues to inspire after multiple viewings.

It ends with the arrival of this dinosaur egg on a small island inhabited by lemurs—little furry primates.  The egg hatches to reveal the baby Aladar (voiced as an adult by Sweeney), who is met with comments such as “things like that eat things like us”, but he soon grows up with them on their isolated island and becomes something of a good companion and family member to them.

One day, however, the first (but not the last, as we know from history) meteor shower rains down upon the earth, causing destruction and atmospheric and geological changes.  The world of these creatures is turned upside down as their once fertile lands were reduced to desert.  Aladar and his lemur friends will have to join up with a troupe of traveling plant eating dinosaurs to survive.  Their objective:  find water and avoid the meat eaters who are just waiting for their chance to strike.  The leader, Kron (Wright), is a creature who abides by the natural selection law:  the herd is more important than the individual, and if a weaker or less able dinosaur can’t keep up the pace, so be it.  Food for the mighty.

Naturally, even in a realistic looking prehistoric adventure, there has to be a love angle in a Disney film, and Aladar meets the first female of his kind in Neera (Marguiles), the sister of Kron.  She begins to see in Aladar the dinosaur he could become, the same one he never knew he could be.  Naturally, there will have to be a challenge with the haughty and single minded Kron if he’s to claim his worthwhile place as a leader.  If it seems like I’m giving too much story away, I should point out that I predicted all of this within the first few moments of Aladar joining the herd, and I’m sure you will, too.

Disney has always been famous for taking animals and other creatures and indulging in anthropomorphism.  In most of their cartoons, it’s charming and works, but for a film that strives for the kind of realism Dinosaur does, it’s a distraction.  They look like real dinosaurs, but they don’t act like them…at least, not to the best of any reasonable person’s imagination.  As usual, the villain animals (in this case, the carnotaurs and raptors) DON’T speak.  Their vocabulary is limited to their grunts and growls.  It’s always been Disney’s way of passing judgment on their characters, and the irony is, in order to be good, you have to be more like a human.  To be sufficiently bad, we the audience don’t get to share in or even imagine what the antagonist creatures think or feel.

The speech itself is a problem, but the constant patterns of gags and modern idioms are an even bigger one.  Phrases like “he put the prime in primate”, or “I’m the love professor and school is in session”, or “you big jerkasaurus”…well, they just removed me from the element that much more.  I’m at least grateful that they didn’t feel the need to let Aladar burst into a bombastic song penned by Elton John and Tim Rice.

And yet, I do appreciate what this film achieved…it looks like nothing that’s come before, and will no doubt be thought of as a technological landmark in the history of cinema.  I would certainly applaud an Oscar nomination for special effects.  But the awesomeness of the presentation can’t make up for a tired and lackluster story that makes even an 82 minute film seem much longer than it is.

Dinosaur obviously took a lot of work and dedication to create.  It deserved much better than what it got.

Video ****

As you might expect with a computer animated film transferred directly from its digital source and an anamorphic transfer (thank you, Disney!), Dinosaur looks spectacular.  The array of colors is almost limitless…vibrant and beautiful, and surprisingly natural looking throughout, with no instances of bleeding.  Images are razor sharp and crisp from beginning to end, no matter what level of lighting is being simulated.  There is no noticeable grain or compression, no distortion or shimmer…the only complaint is a very poorly placed layer switch.  But all in all, you can consider this a reference quality disc.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, especially given the use of the audio to emphasize the size of the dinos.  The subwoofer gets plenty of action, and the combination of effects and music make the track lively and dynamic.  There are several sequences that involve multi-channel capabilities, and the discreet signals make for an involving and well balanced listen.  Dialogue is crystal clear throughout…a real knockout all around.

Features ****

Oh, man, where to start?  Disc one includes two commentary tracks, one by the directors and effects supervisors, and one by the producer and production team…everything you could want to know about the construction of this unique picture.  There’s also a film facts ‘fossil dig’, some behind the scenes extras, a narrated and full motion ‘dinopedia’ with information about all the creatures in the film (except how they learned to talk), animated fun facts, a couple of games, a descriptive audio track for the visually impaired, DVD ROM extras and an isolated sound effects track.

Disc Two, which separated the Collector’s Edition from the standard one, has nearly three hours of additional bonus material.  If you have the time to navigate the detailed menus, you can find plenty of footage about the production, including storyboards, interviews, early tests, the music, the character design, and much, much more, plus the usual trailers, abandoned sequences, special effects demos, trailers and TV spots, plus hidden Easter eggs, which I haven’t had time to hunt for.  This is a VERY brief overview of disc two…suffice to say, this DVD has everything but the kitchen sink.

There have been some reports of disc problems in the early going, which are to be corrected by future pressings.  All I noticed was that the navigation for both discs were extremely slow, but at no time did my player lock up or go to the wrong area.  I found the same difficulties with my Toy Story Ultimate Box set.  Whether or not this is in relation to what is being fixed, I don’t know.  If you pick one up and find problems, Disney is asking that you return it to the store you purchased it from for an improved copy.

Summary:

Dinosaur is everything you could want in a DVD, except a worthwhile story.  Feel free to pick this one up for the visual and audio quality and the generous package of extras that spill out over two discs.  Enjoy the film’s technical achievements, and try to forget the banality of what you’re watching, and you’ll be fine.