Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movie Review: Dinosaur 2000

Time for another review, and like last week’s, it’s connected to the upcoming dinosaur movie next week. This one played a big role in my youth. I remember being a 10 year old and finding out that Disney, my favorite studio, was making a movie about dinosaurs. I remember checking the website daily. I saw the trailer before Toy Story that was basically the opening 3 minutes of the film, and I was in love. The breathtaking visuals, the lush epic score-how could this go wrong? After all, I was about to see a great Disney movie after the trailer, and I remembered how much I loved the Star Wars trailer. I fully expected the best. Sure enough, I loved both Toy Story 2 and the first Star Wars prequel. Things were looking up

After I finally saw it in theaters the next summer, I left the theater feeling pretty hollow. I didn’t hate the film, but felt truly disappointed. I learned not to trust a trailer. I learned that you could take a great premise for a film and ruin it. I learned that the movies in my mind were far better than those on screen. That’s why this one is personal. This review is going to add criticism even as I go. Each reviewer has a movie they single out for betrayal. Indeed, the Phantom Menace is one for many of them. I could easily bring up Hunchback of Notre Dame, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or the Jurassic Park sequels are examples of ultimate betrayal of potential and missed opportunity. This one was my first real nemesis. I won’t say it’s a terrible movie (although here’s a great review on why it is:

It actually could have been a good film. Director Paul Verhoven, artist William Stout and stop-motion animator Phil Tippet dreamed up a masterpiece-it would be the saga of a single Styracosaur, his Tyrannosaurus nemesis, and ending with the extinction of all dinosaurs. No dialogue but a laconic narrator. Violent, realistic, epic.  Sort of a Conan the Barbarian version of Land Before Time.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out who is responsible for the complete change. I suspect Michael Eisner is to blame, but I ultimately don’t know. Fantasia 2000 also suffered from the bungling of Disney Execs, but this one was a radical transformation.

So we begin inside an egg. Already, the cinematography is stunning, and creative. The shadows of dinosaurs pass though the thin shell while James Newton Howard’s score sets the haunting stage. Then comes a trite narrator, what sounds like a very sedated woman that will only speak two lines at the beginning and end of the story. “Some things start out big. And some things start out small…but sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest changes.”  This applies to Lord of the Rings or Land Before Time, but as we’ll soon see this will have nothing to do with this story.

Then we see the CG dinosaurs. First, the good parts: the dinosaurs are in lush, vibrant pastels with patterned hides. They have depth and texture in excellent lighting and gorgeous cinematography. The bad news is first that Iguanodons are given lips. Yeah, this is bad. It just looks weird, and the cartoony- looking eyes don’t help either. Compare this from Disney and this from the previous year’s Walking With Dinosaur for Iguanodon. We don’t need lip movement for them to talk-this year’s Walking With Dinosaurs seems to have learned that lesson. In order to make the dinosaurs more like us, they lose a lot of what makes them so interesting to look at. The CGI didn’t age well, either. It looks fine in long shots and some angles, but this movie has far too many close-ups, and they make the viewer look more at the really awkward-looking faces and cartoony textures.


Fortunately, things improve as we move into the trailer footage with neither dialogue nor narration. An Iguanodon tends her eggs, seeing off a curious baby Parasaurolophus. The Parasaurolophus runs off into the lush landscape, splashing through a river, under a Brachiosaurus, chasing ducks and finally pursuing a Longisquama into the jungle. There, we get a great reveal as it looks up to see the menacing face of a Carnotaurus. Carnotaurus will serve as the villains in this film-red, spiky, and blown up to twice their original size, they steal the show despite having never speaking a word and acting more like plot devices than characters.

This one chases the Parasaurolophus, causing a stampede and forcing the Iguanodon to abandon her nest. As it brings down an unlucky Pachyrhinosaurus (ironically, this dinosaur will be the star of the 2013 film),  the egg is stolen by an Oviraptor (the Oviraptor of popular culture, by the way, is based more on Citipati. I’ll get into that with an article next week). We get some decent physical comedy as another Oviraptor tries to steal it and they lose the egg in a scuffle. The score returns with an epic, “African”-themed piece as the egg drops into the driver and is passed from dinosaur to dinosaur (not including a Koolasuchus and Geostenbergia) as it floats by. This comes off as a bit of a rip-off of Prince of Egypt, but it’s a well-shot sequence with great music. This ends when the egg is carried off by a Geostenbergia, who flies out to sea with it to feet her hatchlings before she is waylaid by Ichthyornis and drops the egg.  By the way, none of these dinosaurs except for Talaurus and Oviraptor, and Geostenbergia and Icthyornis actually coexisted. This distracts from the realism, but I consider it one of the lesser flaws in the film since only Brachiosaurus and maybe Oviraptor are truly popular dinosaurs.

Then we turn into a completely different (albeit still well-shot and well-scored) movie. The egg is adopted by a sifaka named Plio and her father named Yar. Sifakas missed dinosaurs by a great deal, but this is a contrivance in order to give audiences primates to sympathize with. If they really wanted a mammal, why not marsupials like Didelphodon? If people can emphasize with a mouse or dog, what’s wrong with a dinosaur or an opossum?  Another problem is that the lemurs really didn’t age well. The skin and eyes look particularly cartoony and unreal, although the fur is passable in wider shots. 

Then the lemurs start talking. I’m actually not opposed to talking animals-I mean, I love the Lion King, I liked Bambi and Jungle Book, and this wasn’t a problem when I first heard it. It’s just that their dialogue is, well, sitcomy. They all talk like 20th century suburbanites at their most stereotyped. Yar is terrified, Plio makes fun of him and proposes they raise him on their side. Yes, this is where the Tarzan and Lion King influence is felt, and not in a good way. See, with Lion King they did it cleverly as a plot device to transform Simba from emotional, impetuous princeling to do-nothing slacker, and with Tarzan they made it into the main struggle of the title ape. Here, it just comes off as a ripoff. And it doesn’t help my mood when they do a peeing joke with the baby. They’ve turned a prehistoric epic into a TGIF sitcom.

We flash forward an unknown period to when the Iguanodon orphan, named Aladar, is playing dragons and damsels with his foster siblings (we never see Plio’s mate, by the way, and only one child lemur is featured). Considering how fast Hadrosaurs matured according to fossils, I would say Iguanodons would have reached maturity between 10 and 15 years. Lemurs can live up to 20 years. I guess Yar’s younger than he looks. Anyway, we transition to the lemur mating season, establishing Aladar’s isolation despite his helping out the other males and his foster brother Zini as a clumsy, smart-alecky wannabe Casanova and designated comic relief. This entire sequence, despite the Lion King-esque chorals, balletic choreography, and lovely sunset, is mostly played for laughs and really has nothing to do with the plot.  Already the lemurs are wearing out their welcome-they’re all one-dimensional stereotypes that tire out quickly. Now, the dinosaurs characters suffer the same problems, but the lemurs are absolutely pointless in the rest of the story.

The lemur couples, like those of modern irritating primates, are interrupted from consummating by a mass murderer. Not a slasher movie villain, however, but the culprit is a meteor shower. It wrecks the island, and only Aladar and his close family barely manage to escape.  The fire and flames and mushroom clouds are intimidating and effective menaces, and this apocalypse proves to be the main plot device of the story as it drives Aladar back to his kind and turns the lush forests and rivers of the prelude into a Mad-Max-esque wasteland. However, the movie firmly establishes that while this is a late Cretaceous meteor strike, it is not THE strike that would end the movie very quickly.

The mainland is a barren desert, and you can add in your own Mad Max, Dune, Star Wars, or Western jokes at any time for the rest of the movie. Instead of biker goons, native American stereotypes or Tusken raiders, Aladar and his family are attacked by oversized, naked Velociraptors. He saved by a sandstorm and the arrival of the herd. The herd’s trek through the desert will make up the remainder of the film, and the three Iguanodon leaders will quickly overshadow the lemurs as important characters. The three Iguanodons are very different looking not only from the other Iguanodons but each other. Kron, the tyrannical leader, is orange-pink with a crest on his snout. His sister Neera has a very slender, smaller face and is a lighter shade of pink. His lieutenant Bruton is dark brown with a nasal boss. Why do they look different? Why are all the dinosaurs following them? What makes them the leaders? Why would anyone obey Kron? None of these questions are answered. To be fair, Kron and Bruton are more interesting than Aladar and could have been developed far more than tyrants.
We finally meet some likable characters when Aladar falls in with two elderly dinosaurs Baylene the Brachiosaur, Eema the Styracosaur, and their pet dog/Ankylosaur.  They honestly are the best-written characters, and Joan Plowright and Della Reese are good enough actresses to give them much-needed spark and charm. I don’t get Url, though-it’s a stupid joke and it’s an insult to ankylosaurs. Funny enough, the designs for the two old ladies are fairly close to the original animals. Eema speaks with her beak, not with lips, and the voice acting, eyebrows, and body language get her meaning across very well. Why wasn’t that done with Iguanodonts? 

Aladar asks Kron to slow down, and is met with sarcasm. Neera calls him charming and it’s obvious they’re attracted to each other. Neera’s only role in the movie is to fall in love with Aladar. Zini, unfortunately, is savvy enough to see this. His response? “You just need a little help from the love monkey” and he starts hooting and cat-calling. Neera’s reply? “That, children, is what we call a jerkosaurus” For those few seconds alone, the writers of this film deserve a beating with a thagomizer. It’s at this point that I realized this was nothing going to be a sweeping epic.  When Peetrie and Ducky from Land Before Time have better dialogue, your dinosaur film is awful. Speaking of Land Before Time, the herd is moving to the “nesting grounds”, which is the Great Valley for all intents and purposes. The problem is that while Littlefoot and co were only a 5-man band with their own personalities, we have to deal with far more characters, far fewer personality, and really bad children’s movie cliches. You could argue that this counts as a sequel to Land Before Time in that it resembles trite, cloying actual sequels to the original classic.

The herd, by the way, is made of a wonderful wild variety of species-Microceratus, Stygimoloch, Gallimimus, Parasaurolophus, Iguanodon, Pachyrhinosaurus, and Styracosaurus. The next sequence is less Land Before Time and more Fantasia as we see a montage (again, great cinematography on the landscapes, some great camera angles, and great music) as they cross the desert with Carnotaurs and Velociraptors on their heels and reach a dry river bed. Apparently, unlike their kin in Fantasia, they’re not smart enough to drink. Kron, logically enough, has them double time to reach the next oasis. Also logically enough, Neera points out that many of the dinosaurs will collapse at any second.
Eema collapses and Baylene accidentally breaks the sand to reveal the water underneath. Aladar tells the herd to come, but they just form a stupid mob towards the pond Baylene dug before Kron claims it as his own. How can Kron intimidate a Brachiosaurus or Styracosaurus? Why do Bruton and Neera support him in the first place? Neera’s his sister, but we’ll see how long that holds.  Meanwhile, Bruton and an Iguanodon with one line get ambushed by Carnotaurs.

At sunset, we see Aladar befriending two orphan Iguanodon and teaching them how to dig for water. Neera is impressed and the two have their little romantic scene despite no chemistry or development simply because marketing required a love story. Thank all the dinosaur gods for Bruton showing up warning of the Carnotaurs. Kron has the herd flee, and Aladar protests for no real reason. Kron beats him up and threatens him before shoving Neera away. What else do you do but run if you’re not going to fight them? Unless he’s suggesting fighting them, and he’s too stupid to articulate a battle plan, but that comes later. 

Anyway, a storm forces Aladar and his sidekicks (let’s face it, they have no character arcs but his) to take shelter in a cave, and invite the wounded Bruton with them. Plio gives a big speech to Bruton about how all life is sacred and he still has a choice and everyone should help each other bla bla blah.  Plio’s one role is to be the seer and mom and voice of wisdom. She and Aladar basically have no flaws or character arcs, just speechifying dull moralizers. The lemurs, as I’ve said, are useless, but are supposed to be the superior race compared to stupid and brutal dinosaurs. They should have just renamed the movie Lemur. 

Anyway, we get a decent action scene when the Carnotaurus attack and Bruton fights them and sacrifices himself to bring down the cave roof on them. It’s at this point that the lemurs completely disappear from the plot. They ride on top of Aladar to the Great Valley, but that’s it. They proceed further into the cave until meeting a dead end. Aladar gives up, but it’s less sympathetic and instead just makes him sound like an annoying hypocrite. Baylene gets her moment of awesome by giving him a good talking to and smashing through the rock wall to the Great Valley. Yeah, I’m not calling it Nesting Grounds. It’s the Great Valley. Why is it lush while the rest of the world is desert waste? Because it’s the Great Valley.

So they find out the old entrance is blocked by a landslide so Aladar runs back to tell them. He’s too late, as Kron has already made it there and insists the herd go up the cliff. Aladar tells the herd of his way, they follow him, and Kron attacks him. This, by the way, is the only use of the Iguanodon thumb claw in the movie. Yeah, that’s the problem with making a PG dinosaur movie. Anyway, Neera turns on her brother to save Aladar.   As they walk off and leave Kron, we get a little bit of nice voice and animation acting as Kron’s world comes crashing around him. In a better film, this would last longer than a few seconds. 

Of course, the Carnotaurus is blocking the way out. The dinosaurs, being established as idiots, panic, but Aladar rallies the herd to stand together. Wait a minute-if the members of the herd were this selfish and mindless, why are they herding together? Wouldn’t each find their own way to the Great Valley? Why are they following Kron? Isn’t the purpose of a herd to defend against predators? 
Anyway, the dinosaurs roar at the errant Abeliosaur, and it decides to eat Kron instead. Neera tries to save her brother, but it’s too late and she’s a female character in a movie so of course she’s useless. Aladar then saves her, pushing the Carnotaur to the edge of a convenient cliff. The rocks give way and another dinosaur goes extinct- my least favorite cliché. It’s really a lazy way to avoid having a hero have to kill someone. This is a common problem in Disney movies, and a really stupid one.  I’m against people using violence to solve issues in real life and the promotion of violence in the media, but having the villain just fall during the finale makes both the villain and the hero look really stupid. If a film is mature enough to talk about murder and social Darwinism and to have very brief but violent fights, it’s mature enough for the hero to kill the villain. The villain’s so dehumanized and monsterified that it makes even less sense.  At least in earlier Disney movies, the villain was a human being. This one is basically turned into a monster. If there was any Disney villain you could stab in the neck with a thumb spike, this is it. At least Tarzan speared the leopard.

The denouement is saccharine and predictable; we flash forward a few months/weeks, everyone’s happy in the Great Valley, Zini has a harem of lonely lemurs with very very low standards, Aladar and Neera oversee their eggs hatching (this romance was really rushed and shallow, but so’s the rest of this movie) and Yar picks up the baby. We end with another piss joke and another bit of trite narration; sums up this movie in a nutshell.

As you can see, I’m not happy with it. It didn’t annoy me while watching it, but all the nagging questions, missed opportunities, and bad ideas just piled up on me. It’s  not boring, at least compared to Lost Continent and King Dinosaur, but it’s incredibly bland. Most people forgot about this movie. I can see why. The characters and situation are stock. This movie was only conceived to see the effects.  The problem is whtat effects date. Good movies do not. King Kong had dated effects. Seventh Voyage of Sinbad had dated effects. But they’re good movies because the sequences were done well, the characters were likeable, and they had consistent tones. This movie is just a mess. It’s too dark and violent for little kids, and too stupid for adults. 

I was very disappointed when I first saw it. I had high expectations, but the production values need to fulfill those expectations. You just can’t stuff a terrible script into such great music and visuals. This is an ambitious picture, but it falls short of the Disney films before. Would a musical number have helped? No, but it would be as appropriate as the cartoony characters, sitcom-level dialogue, and childish moralizing. This is a film that suffered from the worst of Hollywood meddling, and I fear that this upcoming film may be destroyed by the same thing. As I said before, it looks like there’s three different stories-an epic tale of dinosaurs and destiny, a kid-friendly comedy about growing up with lemurs, and a conventional coming of age story. We’ve seen all of this before-Land Before Time, the Lion King, Tarzan, Jungle Book-it goes on and on. There’s no complex questions-we could have had a complex discussion about mercy for the weak vs survival of the group, or the needs of the many vs the needs of a few, but it boils down to a maniacal brutal tyrant and a clean-cut, bland-as-white-bread hero. And once you get past the baubles and glitter, you have to have character and plot behind it. This film has been compared to a Christmas ornament-beautiful to behold, but empty and without weight. 

I give it a 38/100. It’s not intolerable, but the waste of potential. Don’t spend money on it.


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