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Thursday, May 18, 2000

Mighty footsteps

Movie: Dinosaur

Posted on Thu, May 18, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 4.00

The stats on the making of "Dinosaur," a groundbreaking Disney family film that blends computer-animated critters with live-action photography and special effects, are so mind-boggling that they're worth chewing on for a while.

The studio spent $80 million to create a digital-production studio from the ground up and poured $140 million into the making of the movie; some reports place the combined cost of the facility and the film at $350 million. Forty-eight animators were employed to create a "cast" that includes more than 30 different species of prehistoric beasts, from a 12-inch gliding lizard to a 120-foot Brachiosaur.

Two live-action crews traveled around the world -- shooting in California, Florida, Hawaii, Venezuela, Australia and Western Samoa -- to capture the backdrops. Completing the film involved 3.2 million hours of work on 250 computer processors and required 45 million megabytes of disc space. The software group wrote 70,000 lines of code. The entire process took more than five years.

The gargantuan effort and expense find their payoff in the look, feel and overall appeal of "Dinosaur." Co-directors Ralph Zondag ("We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story") and Eric Leighton ("The Nightmare Before Christmas") have helmed a gorgeous piece of work that's visually enthralling from the get-go. Their cinematic achievement may be the next logical step in CGI evolution after the accomplishments of "Toy Story" and its sequel, and A Bug's Life.

A knockout opening sequence sets the standard. Traveling back in time about 65 million years, we're introduced to a wondrous world where huge reptiles live in relative harmony with mammals. (It's a theory that's not universally accepted, but works well for the purposes of the story at hand.) A giant dino suddenly goes on a rampage, chomping down on an unfortunate victim and provoking a stampede. A flying creature grabs a surviving egg and then we're off, soaring over awesome vistas of forest, fields, mountains and oceans. Don't worry, parents: Neither the attack nor anything else in "Dinosaur" is bloody or too frightening for children, say, five years or older.

The story begins in earnest when Aladar the Iguanodon (voiced by D.B. Sweeney) hatches from his egg and is adopted by a family of friendly lemurs. Yar (Ossie Davis), the protective patriarch, wants to toss the unfamiliar creature to the forest floor. "This monster's got no teeth," protests young Zini (Max Casella). "What's he gonna do, gum us to death?" The stranger from the strange land stays. The decision is typical of the mostly warm-and-fuzzy "Dinosaur," which espouses a Disney-ized brand of philosophy that rests on tolerance and diversity.

The storyline, borrowed in part from the likes of "Tarzan" and "The Lion King," is at its most original during the prologue and the first act, wherein Aladar grows up to become a gentle giant and protective pal to the lemurs. But their paradise is poisoned by the arrival of a devastating, enchantingly photographed meteor shower.

From there, the narrative becomes noticeably more mundane. A road trip of sorts ensues as Aladar and his furry friends join a group of herbivores who are migrating toward their nesting ground. Danger arises in the form of snapping raptors and other ferocious predators. Our hero befriends a pair of older dinosaurs -- Brachiosaur Baylene (Joan Plowright) and Styrachosaur Eema (Della Reese) -- and faces off against the pack's bullying leader, the Iguanodon Kron (Samuel E. Wright), who is not coincidentally the older brother of Aladar's potential love interest, Neera (Julianna Margulies).

The kids in the audience won't be satisfied until the dinosaurs find their way home. Lovers of top-flight animation, however, will easily recognize that they're already there.


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