Better-looking dinosaurs have been made by movie studios in the 20 years since Dinosaur, but these surrogate humans’ message feels more vital than ever.
The sixth computer-animated feature film ever, Dinosaur exists in a more rarified time for the genre. It wasn’t a given that a new feature would be computer-animated in 2000; the style was new and electrifying, and the film exists largely to flex its possibilities. Ever since Gertie, the dinosaur has been the perfect guinea pig for new animation technologies. It’s a beast we can literally only imagine, something even P.T. Barnum couldn’t pull out of his bag of tricks, so what better way for animation studios to play God than to bring them to us right there in the theater?
Dinosaur was made by superimposing animated dinosaurs onto live-action landscapes: big piles of jagged rocks, monumental-looking valleys, green fields where diplodocids graze. This surely wasn’t true in 2000, but the cinematography sometimes looks more impressive than the dinosaurs, which can be unnaturally smooth-looking and tend to call attention to themselves as the surrogate humans the plot requires them to be. The most convincing creatures tend to be the meat-eaters, which are denied the agency and human speech capabilities of most of the herbivores and are able to be animated as the rough, scaly reptiles they are. Ditto Kron, the least likable of the herbivores, whose name I will forever associate with the Bay Area’s KRON 4.
The project has roots in a darker, more realistic, Paul Verhoeven-helmed project, which I would love to see. But it’s not really a detriment that it plays by the Disney laws of nature, where the roles of animal and human are arbitrarily assigned to characters based on their importance in the plot. There’s even a dog-like Ankylosaurus who fills the Pluto role and seems to be owned by one of the other beasts. The writers have too much respect for the medium to fill the script with pop-culture gags, but some of the adult jokes will simply gross out anyone who’s old enough to get them, not least the mammalian characters’ commentary on their hygiene.
The plot: Aladar the brave Iguanodon and his adopted family of lemurs try to find a new home after theirs is wiped out by a meteor shower. They find a herd led by the autocratic Kron, a firm believer in “survival of the fittest” who will happily abandon old and wounded kin as to not compromise the herd. Aladar befriends a few elderly, straggling dinosaurs and leads a rebellion against Kron, eventually forming a better herd where everyone sticks out for each other. You may be thinking that dinosaurs don’t have much room in their brains for equity, but that’s beside the point. It’s a great moral, and though there wasn’t much reason to watch the movie in 2000 except as a chronicle of the early days of computer animation, it’s a pertinent one now.
The best scene in the movie is when the characters are trapped in a cave and Aladar wants to give up, but Baylene the elderly Brachiosaurus will not resign herself to die and throws her full 80-ton weight against the rocks blocking the way, which inevitably yield. Dinosaur is really is a movie about the will to live and how everyone has the right to do so no matter how “useful” they are; in a time where the President of the United States discusses sacrificing hundreds of thousands of American lives in order to reopen the country, the scene is almost overwhelming in its life-force. Better-looking dinosaurs have been made by movie studios in the 20 years since Dinosaur, but these surrogate humans’ message feels more vital than ever.