Animated Movies, Disney, Reviews

Disney Canon Countdown 39: ‘Dinosaur’

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Sometimes, a creator, or creators, can turn out something that’s more than just below par…

Often times, we question: why? Sometimes the response is a simple “What went wrong?” Another can be more fiery, another could be frustrated and genuinely puzzled. Everyone has a differing opinion of when Disney’s animation studio checked in and made a very subpar feature. Some may say we saw the valleys after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, others say the clunkers came about in the early-to-mid 1980s, and others say they came in the middle of Disney’s much-heralded Renaissance.

For this writer, Dinosaur was a real low for a studio that was already going through several problems at time.

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By the mid-1990s, Walt Disney Feature Animation was not the studio it was in the early 1980s. The post-Walt unit struggled because they had to keep budgets in check, and no real experimentation was taking place. Only pleasant fare like Aristocats and Robin Hood were the name of the game. By the 1980s, there were many clashing voices and visions, and we ultimately got compromised films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, the latter of which I took a look at on here a month ago. All of that changed when CEO Ron Miller resigned in 1984, and Michael Eisner – from Paramount – took over. With him came Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Through hardships and difficulties, Walt Disney Feature Animation was transformed and was no longer tired, behind the times, or making uneventful films. The Disney Renaissance had kicked off with the success of The Little Mermaid, though The Little Mermaid’s rocket-launch to its then super-high gross ($84 million in 1989/90, impressive!) was spurred by the successes of not only the reconfigured Disney’s output (Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, Touchstone’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit), but a then-budding Don Bluth and two big hits he had in 1986 and 1988 respectively. Suits saw that animation could indeed make big money again…

By the time The Lion King was released in the summer of 1994, it seemed like Disney was riding the wave and nothing could stop them. Their films were of high quality, and audiences were flocking to them, the films brought in blockbuster grosses that early-to-mid 80s Disney animated releases would’ve never dreamed of getting. The problem was Michael Eisner began to fill the animation building up with executives who would then micromanage each new movie. This was after Frank Wells had died in a helicopter crash, and months later Katzenberg ended his tenure at the studio. Throughout the 90s, the studio had to stick to a formula, and often listen to focus groups… to keep repeating the successes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. This, of course wore thin, and was used for stories that arguably didn’t fit that mold.

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Dinosaur would begin a new era for the studio, where they could finally break away from the Broadway-like musical that had to have a big love story, wisecracking sidekicks, and big thrilling climaxes. Evolving out of a darker live-action project that Paul Verhoeven (!) was initially attached to direct, Dinosaur doesn’t quite break away, because a lot of it feels like it belongs to the 90s Disney Renaissance, even without big toe-tapping, chart-topping songs.

Before we go on, Dinosaur was actually made by The Secret Lab, a CG studio set up to make pictures like these. It was a combination of the then-recently acquired FX house Dream Quest and WDFA’s CG unit. Dinosaur combined life-like CG dinosaurs with live-action sets, and the effects for their time were quite convincing and neat. The character animation isn’t too bad on the dinosaurs themselves, either. The Secret Lab was shut down shortly after Dinosaur’s release (We’ll get there!). The feature, in the United States, is counted as part of Disney Animation’s official “canon.”

Dinosaur’s biggest problem is essentially an extension of the problems that plagued the beloved 90s Disney animated films. (What follows is, I admit, an unpopular opinion.) The new executives’ outlook on animation was not like Walt’s; they felt that Disney’s animation needed to play to kids, to get the kids interested, and to get Happy Meal toys sold. This, most likely, would’ve horrified Walt. Even in the days when Walt made his output more family-friendly, he still didn’t want to talk down to his audiences. We would start seeing elements that felt overtly kid-friendly in the Renaissance films, some of which were very jarring, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s gargoyle trio. Then you have films like Pocahontas, which attempts to retell a chapter of American history without being too heavy for any given 3-year-old in the audience, all the while trying to be a more serious picture.

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Earlier in development, this film was set to have no dialogue at all, not dissimilar to how Bluth’s The Land Before Time started out as a talk-free movie. Michael Eisner required that the dinosaurs in the film talk. That’s fine and all, but why in the world did the writers, producers or whoever choose to give us bland dialogue that had one too many awkward sitcom-like one-liners? That kind of talking really takes you out of the setting, and it also clashes heavily with the epic tone the film was trying to go for. People say Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is tonally uneven? This film is all over the map.

Many of the attempts at humor really fall flat (the worst of which comes from a Max Cassella-voiced lemur, Zini), but it’s hardly forgivable because the characters themselves are quite dull. The script is unexciting, and doesn’t complement the story’s many action set-pieces, which are pulled off quite well. Again, I wouldn’t mind dialogue (Land Before Time and Good Dinosaur have dialogue, and fare better) but the writing is so dull and often times too juvenile.

It’s basically the forced humor and the sporadic sitcom-like elements of the Renaissance films, but amplified. There’s toilet humor, there’s innuendos, awkwardly-delivered one-liners – it’s a chore to sit through. I don’t feel like I’m in the prehistoric era when the creatures open their mouths. With most 90s Disney films, those little annoyances were overpowered by truly majestic moments, compelling characters, and emotionally rich storytelling. I can partially forgive Lion King‘s flatulence jokes and attempts at lightening the mood during the final battle, because everything else is top-notch. I can forgive the gargoyles and mixed-bag climax of Hunchback, because the high points are something else! Pocahontas bizarrely manages to get a few awe-inspiring moments out when it’s not tripping over itself. Dinosaur has very little of that, and the bad stuff outweighs any element that’s good. The characters are stock, and don’t suit what is actually a pretty decent survival-adventure tale. The love story, if you can call it that, is halfhearted. Perhaps the only character that gets something of an interesting arc is the villainous Kron’s sub-boss, Bruton. I actually didn’t mind Aladar wanting to be fair in a herd lead by a Darwinist iguanadon, but the script and line delivery? Can’t root for him, really.

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Dinosaur shows that if you try too hard to aim at everyone, you end up pleasing very little. The film is perhaps too intense for the youngest of kids, as it would be the studio’s first PG-rated film since The Black Cauldron. This was in a day and age where (shocker) if you got a PG rating, chances are you *earned* it. Yet the writing and storytelling make it rough for anyone over the age of 12 to get into. This problem would persist into Disney Animation’s next frontier, as cool concepts like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Brother Bear, and more would be undercut by these tonal issues. Executives wanted these things made for schoolchildren and the filmmakers wanted genuinely good works of family entertainment that work on everyone, naturally. Nope, to these heads, Disney Animation *had* to be for little kids first and foremost.

You’re left with a film that doesn’t know whether it’s a, sometimes harsh, epic atmospheric adventure, or a kiddie romp that functions like an elongated sitcom episode. Tonal issues aside, Dinosaur just doesn’t thrill. The initial meteor shower set-piece is quite something, even to this day thanks to ace staging and directing, but very little of the action gets you going. Character development is pretty much nonexistent here, too. It’s a brisk 82 minutes that doesn’t slog too much.

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The real magic, as said many times before over the years, is all in the film’s dialogue-free opening sequence. We can get the story out of the body language of the dinosaurs, the various noises they make, and what’s going on. Right there is a strong example of why the blah-blah-blah derails the film, and why too much talking should be a big no-no in feature animation. Some of the greatest cinematic moments come from silence, or moments using very few words. The picture was doing so well without words, that whole opening is like a great short film. (Disney also used that instead of a more traditional teaser trailer, similar to how Lion King’s teaser was the whole ‘Circle of Life’ opening.) It’s rousing, exciting, it’s backed by an excellent score. The rest of the film is a real blow because of this contrast!

Thankfully, the circumstances that created Dinosaur’s massive shortcomings are a thing of the past; that executive and focus group-driven model is absent from Walt Disney Animation Studios today, and time has indeed healed the scratches. Now taken on its own, Dinosaur still just doesn’t do it. Riddled with paper-thin characters and uninterested vocal performances, the film doesn’t know what it wants to be, and is ultimately forgettable in the long run. A Disney animated film being forgettable is perhaps worse than being truly bad, or at least bad enough to be fascinating in its own way.

Dinosaur charged out of the gate when it was released in the summer of 2000. A $38 million opening weekend gross, fellow younger readers, was a big deal back then. It was no Toy Story 2 (then the record-holder, $57 million), but it was in the league of heavies like A Bug’s Life and Shrek. It was overall Disney Animation’s second biggest opening at the time, behind The Lion King. Unlike those films, Dinosaur had weaker word-of-mouth and legs, the $127 million-costing film didn’t crack $140 million domestically but did reach $349 million worldwide. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to make it profitable. Disney needed this film to do much more, because the cost of setting up The Secret Lab was factored into budget.

With Dinosaur not living up to expectations, and Roy E. Disney forcing the studio to shut down Secret Lab’s second project (Wild Life), that CG plan went bye-bye. The next CG project would be a feature done entirely in-house, which of course turned out to be Chicken Little five years later. Dinosaur began and ended a real “what could’ve been?” pocket in Disney Animation’s history. We were left with an ambitious misfire, one that was controlled and driven into the ground by careless executives who had little to no respect for Disney Animation’s legacy.

Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden

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