Sunday, April 14, 2024

Walt Disney, part LVI: I believe you left a wake-up call for the dawn of time?


Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton
Written by John Harrison, Robert Nelson Jacobs, Walon Green, et al

Spoilers: moderate

It might be too easy to despise Dinosaur for what it isn't, and I honestly hope I'm not doing that, yet so many of the things that it isn'tbut could have beenreally do sound like better ideas.  Famously, it was born not at Disney, but in a conversation between director Paul Verhoeven and stop-motion special effects animator Phil Tippett during their collaboration on Robocop.  Tippett had whetted an appetite for dinos on a plotless proof-of-concept short called "Prehistoric Beast," all the way back in 1984, but by the time they'd pitched their stop-motion animated film to Jeffrey Katzenberg in (roughly) 1990, it already bore the same basic structure that Dinosaur would eventually use: a herbivore's life wrenched apart by ecological disaster/who must undertake an arduous journey with new friends/who finally settles in a new land sort-of-thing, and boy, do I wonder where they got that from.  (It prompts the question of whether there even are other stories to be told from a dinosaur's point-of-view, though I might suggest "the carnivorous theropod has her own adventure for a fucking change, because it's not like all you people don't have just as much blood on your lips.")

As you might readily guess from the names "Phil Tippett" and "Paul Verhoeven," their film was going to be violent and horrid and, ultimately, utterly nihilistic: in the end, their ceratopsian hero would defeat its tyrannosaur nemesis, but only just in time to be obliterated by the Chicxulub Object.  It sounds rad, and Katzenberg recognized it as such.  Things got far enough along that, through some legal means (the history doesn't really speak to this, but it could just be that you can't actually claim ownership of the basic plot of The Land Before Time), the project came fully under Disney's aegis.  But Tippett and Verhoeven balked at Katzenberg's lowball budget of $25 million (in fairness, that's about what The Nightmare Before Christmas cost).  They also perceived the increasingly-threatening prospect of their dark, brutal dino flick being transformed, piece by piece, into something Disneyesque.  For instance, Katzenberg preferred that the dinosaurs speak.  If not that, or in addition to that, he preferred that Tippett and Verhoeven include at least some mammals, and better yet, some primatesproto-primates like purgatorius, maybe, though despite the Disney banner, they didn't even wind up looking that rodent-likewho would definitely speak.  And thus was what might have been Dinosaur's most promising avenue for coming into existence closed forever, when they left.

Dinosaur, nonetheless, seems to have trundled along for a while as a stop-motion film, now with live-action elementsthe proto-primates became lemurs, and the lemurs were going to be people in suits, so maybe not every path-not-taken for Dinosaur was better, though I think this would've been nearly as much of a curiosity as the movie that did get madeand then Katzenberg became aware of the dinosaur film of the 90s, maybe of all time, Jurassic Park.  And Jurassic Park, itself originally conceived as stop-motion, was at this very moment choosing a different direction.  It wasn't going to be dogmatic about it, but for its biggest, burliest scenes, it was going to attempt dinosaurs in fully-rendered CGI.  Dinosaur was reoriented to follow suit, sealing off every other possibility: it could've been a gory stop-motion film, and it wasn't; it could've been a Walt Disney Feature Animation CAPS cartoon, The Lion King but now even cooler because it was dinosaurs (and, by the time it came out, even cooler because it's using Deep Canvas!), and it wasn't; and you know what?  It could've been a full-blown CGI cartoon, and it still wasn't that either.

But it did become the focus for one of Disney's great 1990s ambitions, after WDFA's computer graphics team took a poke at Dinosaur, impressing Michael Eisner sufficiently for him to greenlight this approach (around the same time, somebody even came up with a plot that wasn't just The Land Before Time, a wild-sounding concoction involving an iguanodon Noah and his difficulties in convincing his fellow dinosaurs, especially his brother, of his visions of an impending extinction; sadly, we didn't get that, either).  Meanwhile, in a not entirely unrelated development, in 1996 Disney bought Dream Quest Images, Hoyt Yeatman et al's groundbreaking CGI firm, which had done, for instance, the water probe in The Abyss and the slight punching-up of Jim Carrey's natural plasticity required for The Mask.  (It's unclear to me in what capacity Yeatman remained part of the organization after its acquisition: he's not credited on Dinosaur, but we did just have a not-entirely-complimentary discussion of his work on what he was credited for in the year 2000, Mission To Mars.)  DQI, under Disney's auspices, became "The Secret Lab," and the big secret was Dinosaur, Disney's first CGI feature.... except, as noted, it wasn't.  But I want to keep kicking that can down the road till we're ready to discuss what kind of animation it actually is.  The plans for The Secret Lab were huge.  They replaced Buena Vista Visual Effects, Disney's in-house CGI branch, which was liquidated and incorporated into the new group, while WDFA's own CGI folks were integrated into the project as well; there were already plans to follow up Dinosaur with a movie called Wildfire, with CGI people; and the hope was that The Secret Lab would not only work on Disney movies, but become a profitable CGI vendor, a peer competitor of Industrial Light & Magic.

Obviously, that didn't happen.  Though The Secret Lab managed to contribute effects work to a couple of subsequent features, it wasn't long at all before everything fell apart, with WDFA re-absorbing some fraction, but not all, of The Secret Lab's personnel, and Dinosaur was the principal reason why.  A film that was promoted as something all-new, all-different, and highly distinct from WDFA's output, which cost an order of magnitude beyond Katzenberg's initial figureofficially, it came to $128 millionwas downplayed as simply another Disney cartoon, one that did decent business, probably even making its (Secret) budget back, but also one that nobody especially liked.  Eventually, it was discreetly folded into the Disney animated "canon" as its entirely-unspecial 39th film, though WDFA had little to do with it (it's by far the biggest "cheat" on that list), and despite the fact that its profound stylistic and technological divergence probably makes it the easiest "canonical" film to forget exists.  (The likeliest explanation is that counting it gave 2010's Tangled a nice, round "canonical" number, overlooking various other options for obvious and less obvious reasons.)

So, as for this wet noodle, what happened was all-but inevitable.  Like all feature-length cartoons about the prehistoric past, or at least this and The Land Before Time (but I'd bet if we looked into it, we'd find out it applies to the first Ice Age), it starts with an austere, naturalist vision of predator, prey, and elemental survival, and as it takes on the shape of a major investment, it agglomerates enough changes until it becomes a children's talking animal cartoon patterned upon, well, The Land Before Time.  Tellingly, after cycling through numerous overseers, the final directorial team consisted of Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton.  Leighton must've been a holdover from its stop-motion originshe was one of Henry Selick's guysbut Zondag was a traditional animator, who'd worked, very specifically, on The Land Before Time, as had his brother Dick, who also filled a slot as a supervising animator here.  (In fairness, Dinosaur worked out better than the Zondags' actual directorial debut, but then, We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story is one of the very worst, most vigorously-insane major animated features of the 90s.  For better and worse, Dinosaur isn't that.)

Anyway, there's even a tale, perhaps an apocryphal one, that as Dinosaur's release loomed, a Disney representative went around showing two demos of the new film, the first just being Dinosaur's opening sequence, which has been described as the animators' last-ditch effort to salvage some vestige of that original, austere, naturalist vision; it's a long, dialogue-free sweep across and through a whole series of (what we're invited to understand are supposed to be) Mesozoic landscapes.  The second, however, was a normal Disney trailer.  He showed the teasers in that order, and accordingly (like, I said, this is possibly apocryphal) his audience initially got really excited at the prospect of what was, in late 1999, considered visual splendor; then they became extremely deflated, at the reality of yammering, quipping lemurs and bland, quipping iguanodons ("that, children, is what's known as a jerkosaurus*"), who, together with a mixed group of likewise-plant-eating ornithischians and saurischians, come to constitute what amounts to Disney's first all-sidekick cast.

Whether this story is true or not, it gets at one of the key tensions in Dinosaur's manufacture: pretty much everyone involved kind of thought it sucked, or at least had their passions drained from them as it became what it became, and I'm afraid that is borne out in their product.  I want to be clear, by the way, that The Land Before Time is an excellent movie, possibly my favorite thing Don Bluth ever did, and even being made under somewhat similar circumstances, you surely don't feel it the way you do with Dinosaur.  But I don't want to make it sound like Dinosaur is an unwatchable slog, either, just that it is the less-interesting version of The Land Before Time's less-interesting half, which is to say that, after its silent opening, it doesn't appear to conceive that the Fantasia-and-Bambi-inspired majesty and heartbreak of The Land Before Time's extraordinary first half was even a mode that it had available to it, only the children's Saturday morning cartoon that The Land Before Time turned into in its second (though, even then, Dinosaur has the significantly less valid moral lesson).

It's not completely redundant with Bluth's 1989 dino cartoon, I suppose, because, hey, its Littlefoot gets orphaned differently: so then, sometime in the late Cretaceous, there lives an iguanodon who's recently laid a whole clutch of eggs (we begin, in fact, with the gesture of an embryo's-eye-view, and it is very confusing until we zoom out of his egg), but a theropod attack sends our hero, still in his shell, on an incredible journey across land, sea, and sky, mediated by a series of various would-be ovivorous predators, till he winds up on an isolated island, whereupon the moment of his hatching is witnessed by Plio (Alfre Woodard), a more-or-less modern lemur.  I will pause here to note that this grinds my gears something fierce: you can play with evolutionary history a lot in dino fictionwatch me not even begin to care about "iguanodons still existing"but crossing the K-Pg boundary is just fucked up.

Plio's father Yar (Ossie Davis) would prefer getting rid of the reptile, but doesn't have the heart to kill him, and so the baby iguanodon is raised as one of their own alongside Yar's other children, Zini (Max Casella) and Suri (Hayden Panettiere), and he is christened Aladar, a really good protagonist's name that just rolls right off the tongue (D.B. Sweeney).  Let me pause again to say it takes some brass ones to put out a lousy, pointless Tarzan immediately after WDFA's great, actual Tarzan.  I honestly do feel like the movie could've gotten a lot more mileage out of the tension inherent to, say, a deinonychus acculturated into primate ways; anyway, it turns out that iguanodons and lemurs don't actually live in diametric opposition to one another, philosophically.  What a surprise there.

Whatever the case, our time in this primate idyll is short-lived, only long enough to extremely vaguely establish Aladar's dilemma of being the only iguanodon on his island, by way of juxtaposing... almost nothing, really, just a couple of lonely shots against a sunset, but specifically his brother Zini's failure to obtain a partner during the lemurs' mating ceremony.  The joke's on them, for the incel lemur lives: this night an enormous celestial object is hurled down out of the sky, plunging into the planet and its blast striking their island with otherwordly force, so that only Aladar, big enough to serve as a raft, along with his family, make it to the mainland.  I really don't care for this, either, because Dinosaur 100% wants you to read this as the Cretaceous-concluding Chicxulub Object, without actually committing, and even leaving aside how ridiculous this is as a visualization of itAladar and company bear witness to it, its impact unobscured by the curvature of the Earth, and yet they surviveit becomes very clear it exists solely to prompt all the soggy storytelling that's going to go into this tale of forced migration through an endless desert, without anybody needing to try very hard to justify it, so that by 24 hours later, there are clear blue skies but, importantly, no plant life.

So, for some reason, there's a giant, cliched K-Pg Extinction desert to be found across the strait from Aladar's island tropical paradise, even though we saw it five or ten years earlier, and it was lush grassland (ahem).  Well, this sudden climate change is a real drag for Aladar's family, especially once they start getting attacked by some ludicrously over-ambitious velociraptors (actual-sized ones, not JP's utahraptors).  But they aren't alone, at least, because they fall in with a mixed herd of herbivores on a trek to a still-verdant promised land; the column is led with an iron, uh, pad by another iguanodon, Kron (Samuel E. Wright), whose reluctance to slow down his herd to the pace of its weakest, most laggard members as they face, principally, starvation (but also the danger of a pair of stalking carnotaurs), is nonetheless pitched with the zealous cruelty of an early 20th century eugenicist.  Aladar finds him offensive, and at first only simmers, finding time to blandly flirt with Kron's sister Neera (Julianna Marguiles); but soon he's compelled to break away, forming his own band with the brittle old brachiosaur, Baylene (Joan Plowright), the sassy old ceratopsian, Eema (Della Reese), and the incongruously stupid and pet-like ankylosaur, Creto (Michael T. Weiss, who just makes dog noises).  But Aladar's new ideas of cooperation and compassion will, in the end, be key to everyone's survival.  Or he just lucks into finding a better route, in ways that don't have that much to do with his ideological conflict with Kron.  Either/or.

This story does, at least, have solid enough bonesfossilized ones, but they're therebut it is absolutely stuck at the most unenthusiastic level of kid's movie boilerplate.  Comparisons to The Land Before Time are super-easy, but also revealing: it's noticeable that throughout not one but two catastrophes, no really terrible emotional harm comes to Aladar; he loses a mother he never even saw, and some friends who don't get names and whom he does not grieve, while the lemurs of his family practically only get safer as his movie goes on.  (Would a carnotaur even bother?)  It's more of a cosmetic problem, but it's cosmetic in such a way that it leaves unconcealed the absence of any particular substance underneath: in The Land Before Time, its protagonist was a pathetically cute baby apatosaur, whereas Dinosaur's emphasis on alternatively heroic and villainous iguanodons means that dozens or hundreds of people somehow managed to focus ten years of story development on just about the most uncharismatic dinosaur genus they could have picked.  So there's not a lot of visual flair to Aladar, and, unfortunately, in a case of form following function, neither is there a lot to get excited about in Sweeney's performance or the dialogue he speaks, the latter not even really rising to "yearning teen" levels of specificity as it's conveyed by the former.  That gives us a bit of a void in the center, and while an adventure movie could survive a vanilla protagonist, there's not much appeal on the margins, either.  Woodard and Davis are, subject to the low ceiling pertaining to this script, not half-bad as archetypal "older sister" and "crotchety old patriarch" figures, respectively, making them far and away the best in show (at least in terms of performance, though they're operating against some pretty stiff headwinds in their visuals, too).  Everyone else is a one-note personality of no distinction until we reach Casella and Zini, and while I've said Dinosaur is Disney sidekicks all the way down, Zini is this the one who's been avowed as such, this Disney movie's answer to the abominations they were now regularly trotting out as comic relief.  He's not as atrocious as the worst examples (Dinosaur would need to be a lot more energetic before it could even be in danger of such a thing), but he is the vector for the most jarringly modern humor.  He's the one who asserts his apparent realization that his movie is set at "the dawn of time," which, after reflecting on it for a couple of days, unveils itself to me as the very platonic ideal of a flagrantly obnoxious anachronism.

Then there's the actual story, which kind of feels like it knew it had to have "a moral" but it couldn't have the same moral as The Land Before Time (a perfectly likeable message about racism being bad), so it settled for this intellectually stunted thing, which refuses to conceive of anything but the most irrational arguments for Kron's severity in the face of his whole group's potential demise, casting him as pretty much a through-and-through villain and, additionally, always wrong, even though he's just kind of out walking, and there are other dinosaurs who have elected to walk with him, apparently free to slow down or choose a different direction if they so desire, given that this is exactly what Aladar and company do.  And, flat and boring and annoyingly "metaphor first, concrete situation never" as that is, it would be fine except that it's also moronic in execution.  Every crisis that crops up can, it turns out, can be solved with nothing but a more positive attitude.  An exemplary moment is when a juvenile iguanodon falls out of the column, and Neera, moved by Aladar's new way of thinking, halts to help; and it starts to get a little laughable, because now you're gaming out the question, "how exactly shall Neera, a creature without hands or technology, render her assistance?", and about all I can come up with is walking backwards while dragging him with her teeth.  Obviously, the actual answer is "she doesn't render any meaningful assistance": the solution to thirst, starvation, exhaustion, injury, or impending death turns out to be a small push and encouraging words.  The second act climax is basically just the setpiece version of this same idea, just believing, but harder, at a wall, until the wall ceases to exist, except the wall's in a cave, so it's in barely-parsable blue murk instead of in the visually-stultifying but at least brightly-lit desert that constitutes so much of Dinosaur's runtime.

And so now we can talk about how this movie looks, and why, although the cave sequence is at least probably the worst sustained thing in Dinosaur, as far as "how it looks" goes, and doesn't really treat with the "why."  The lede I've buried with Dinosaur is that it is mind-bendingly unique; or, rather it feels unique.  In truth, it's about the least unique thing in the world: Who Framed Roger Rabbit was made in much the same way, and just about every major movie of the past twenty years of American cinema has been, too.  But the totality of the approach is pretty singular, anyhow: I cannot personally name another movie where every character is not human, and therefore (almost) every frame of every character's existence is CGI (it mostly depends on whether you define "Aladar's egg" as "a character"), but the backgrounds, about 95% of the time, are live-action location cinematography, or, more usually, mixed-up collages of several different sources of live-action cinematography (forget the paleontologists, this movie has got to be a botanist's nightmare) along with, not-infrequently, digital matte paintings.

In every objective respect, this should feel completely normal in 2024, and yet it feels positively aberrant for what is, however "photorealistically," still being presented as "a talking animal cartoon."  What you wind up with is a sort of hyper-intensified version of the phenomenon endemic to cartoons, going back to the earliest cel animation, of incredibly-detailed backdrops paired with much-less-detailed character animation, but now boasting a few new dizzying features, firstly the theoretical ability to do basically anything your heart desires, layout-wise, with these backdrops, because they're real and all you have to do is move a camera through them, and secondly character animation that is in fact trying to match the level of detail and realism of the trees, rocks, sand, etc., and just not.

There are some aspects of this that are legitimately praiseworthy: the compositing is better than I think you'd expect from 2000 vintage CGI, frequently off in infinitesimal ways that add up, but only occasionally so that the characters feel like they're floating out of the frame, which is the danger with this sort of thing; likewise, the actual joins of live-action effects work and what the animation says the characters are doing to their environment are impeccably well-designed.  But, at the same time, these joins are uncanny as hell: the very first big practical effect involves a carnotaur popping out of the treeline to eat Aladar's mom, and the mismatch between what the real-life blown-up tree limbs look like, and what the conjured-in-a-computer carnotaur looks likeand the carnotaurs, under no requirement to be either sympathetic or human-like, are far and away the best-looking CGI in the whole movieis like a chasm opening up before us.  A considerable number of the subsequent "interaction" shots are technically faultless; but a considerable number are very much not.  When the backdrops melt into digital paintings, it can feel like you took mescaline; and not even all the composited live-action backdrops look like all their elements belong together, either.  I don't think I could, in conscience, say "I like how Dinosaur looks.  But I do like how I don't like it, for that last inch between this and "good CGI" is an abyss that gazes also, and I never stopped gawking at its cluttered act of collage.

Or at least that's the imagery that'll stay with me, though it's really at its most electrifyingly weird in the scenes where "foliage" is still a concern, so the question you may have, "was it really less work and money to do it this way?  Pixar's done fully-CGI cartoons three times by now" gets obliquely answered in the affirmative once you realize the reason most of this movie takes place in a boring desert or an even-more-boring cave is because it was a lot easier to film itand, more importantly, manage the planned interactionsin some sand pit somewhere, so some kind of budget discipline was clearly at play here.  One supposes it's why the movie didn't cost twice as much as it already did.  But ultimately it locks Dinosaur into some pretty narrow aesthetic channels, with goals it arguably couldn't succeed with even if it were able to achieve them.  The dinosaurs are not really bad, but also not outstanding and not necessarily justifying of their expense.  They don't look any better than what we got in Jurassic Park (any of them, including the seven year old one), and often look worse; the demand that they talk, with lips and the, ah, dental appliances that I guess we're calling "teeth," can be off-putting; the demand that they attempt to emote works more often than not, to the animators' credit, but there is definitely a sense that Dinosaur has CGI'd its way into a corner and, at the dawn of its medium's era, already found the limits of realism, at least as applied to such a fundamentally non-realist subject matter as "talking animals," even when these animals are not, themselves, persuasively real.  (This would not stop Disney in the future.)

As for the lemurs, they're just awfulthey're also how you discover that this movie's technique favors "way too-close close-ups," presumably to minimize the area of background that needs to be fiddled with, but perhaps also because semi-realistic cartoon dinosaurs' eyes are proportionally small, and the need to get up close with them simply got mirrored with the lemurs, whose eyes are human-like and large.  It's a facet of the production that's present with the dinosaurs, but it's downright belligerent with the lemurs and their ugly, crinkly faces that don't hide the seams of their constituent CGI parts.  The texturing is bad: their skin is clearly a function of pixels and comparatively-uncomplicated mathematics, and the fur bounces back and forth distractingly in how actually fully-rendered it is, so that in some ways (albeit very uneven ways) Dinosaur looks forward to the painterly relaxation in the 2020s of CG animation's every-last-follicle imperative.  But the rigging underneath is outright monstrous, especially on Yar and Zini, whose faces regularly look like they're about to peel off while they're talking; one of the other key tensions on Dinosaur was character animators who didn't know CGI and VFX artists who didn't know character animation, hence "acting" that whipsaws between "grotesque mugging" and "nothing."  (Though their "nostril animation" is always distractingly diligent.)  Zini, in particular, is truly abject, intentionally so to some degreehe is, after all, a textually unattractive lemurbut he's often pushed fully into freakish horror, so that he looks actually malformed, sometimes merely in a biological sort of way, but just as often in a supernatural sense.  He's not unlike how I imagine H.P. Lovecraft's Brown Jenkin.

Well that's...


And, building upon my stray observation, "this eye-popping dinosaur spectacle sure does have more dialogue-driven scenes built out of close-ups than you'd think," that's essentially where Dinosaur lands as an action moviethat is, it barely is one.  It does, eventually and laboriously, offer such a thing as a dramatic dinosaur fight on a cliff, because it knows it damned well has to, and this last, triangulated struggle between Aladar, Kron, and a carnotaur finally begins to resemble what you'd have wanted out of this movie called Dinosaur (moreso than iguanodons digging holes in the sand, for instance), though you'd have wanted about three or four times as much of it.  There's a real dearth of dino-destruction, and what we do get is extremely demure (even grading on a PG-rated curve, and how the hell this actually earned its PG, the first Disney cartoon since The Black Cauldron to get one, is a serious mystery, probably best-explained by assuming that Disney actively cultivated it as a form of distinction).  There's not, really, even a particularly present sense of danger; there isn't even that much majestic spectacle, but once you've decided the foundation of your tale would be "1990s teen iguanodon," maybe that made "majestic spectacle" seem silly side-by-side with it.  Still, given the extreme flexibility of the "layouts," you'd think you'd get more excitement, just by default.  Dinosaur probably isn't as boring or as broken or as bad as I've perhaps implied, but there's something deadened in its heart; that's the only conclusion to draw from Leighton and Zondag's commentary track, which I turned off halfway through, because it was almost entirely just naming the locations of its source cinematography.  That's the kind of emotional investment this prompts from its directors.  It's a movie about dinosaurs, where the raddest thing about it is just that the cheats it's using to get around the limits of its technology don't actually work.

Score: 5/10

*You know, "Jerkules" isn't good, but at least it rhymes.  "Whinosaur" was right there.


  1. Terrific review as always! On a related note, do you think this film is better or worse than The Good Dinosaur? (Both films have the same rating, but your review for the Pixar sounded distinctly more hostile.)

    1. Bearing in mind that I haven't seen The Good Dinosaur in all the years since, my kneejerk reaction would be to say "Dinosaur is *substantially* better," in that I wrestled with a 5/10-6/10 distinction here, and somewhat expect to keep wrestling even though I've already committed to the bad number, while The Good Dinosaur has only kept decaying in my memory. Surprisingly, my recollection is that it has the even bigger aesthetic problem with cartoon characters/realist backgrounds, even if its tools for dealing with those problems are technologically far superior. And its violence against primatology is less blatant but easily more profound.

  2. ETA for the following morning: In what feels like an unforgivably major oversight, I forgot to include any screenshots of Zini. This has now been corrected. See you in the Witch House!

  3. This should be Disney's next live action remake! ;)

    1. Ha! Well, maybe. I am always complaining that despite all our modern whiz-bang, there aren't enough dinosaur movies.

  4. I am deeply, deeply glad that my turn-of-the-millennium experience with CGI dinosaurs on a live background was WALKING WITH DINOSAURS: since it was made in the Year of Our Lord 1999 (and on a BBC budget) it’s aged a bit, but having recently rewatched it one can safely say it still packs a punch.

    Just listen to the soundtrack if you don’t believe me! (-;

    1. I forgot about Walking With Dinosaurs, I've heard it (always favorably) compared to this a lot. I cannot recall if I ever saw any of it but it certainly feels like I would've wanted to.