Disney has been making what amounts to the same animated feature for more than 60 years. In this "classic," an innocent creature, often an orphan (1942's Bambi, 1999's Tarzan), is abandoned in the wilderness, adopted by a sympathetic guardian (sometimes of another species), and acquires a wise and funny sidekick who guides him through adolescent trials to heroic manhood. Typically, these conclude in combat with an older male representing traditional ways.
The scenario is less a plot than a commercialized exploitation of primal material buried none too deep in mankind's collective unconscious and nowadays exploitable worldwide, down to the last plastic McDonald's mug. The hero with a thousand spin-offs.
But what about the squirming adults who have been there, done that since their own childhood? They may have trouble sitting still through the latest addition to the Disney canon. It is called Dinosaur and recounts the tale of an iguanodon named Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), who grows up, scaly but lovable, in the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago.
Whisked off to an Edenic island by improbable circumstances, his abandoned egg hatches in the midst of a lemur band--grumpy papa, adoring mom, frisky siblings. His idyllic upbringing is interrupted by a meteor shower--prefiguring the extinction of the species perhaps 150,000 years later--that brings Aladar and his pals back to a barren mainland and the lad's struggle to assert the values of a new masculine style in a sere landscape where the dino herd is ruled by the cranky and politically incorrect Kron (Samuel E. Wright).
Oh, all right. Kron's a fascist. And he pretty nearly gets everybody killed in the search for water and a green nesting place before Aladar prevails with his liberal-minded humanity. Wait a minute. Did we just say humanity? This creature is, in fact, pea-brained and prehistoric. And though he ends up entwining his endless neck around the "caring" Neera's (Julianna Margulies), his endeavors are quite a stretch for anthropomorphism. You may buy into chipper crickets and wise-guy meerkats, but the dinosaurs' reputation precedes them down the millenniums. Putting it mildly, it is not a warmhearted one.
Perhaps sensing that, the studio seems to be stressing the cutting-edge technology that made Dinosaur possible--1,300 effects shots, 3.2 million processing hours, 70,000 lines of computer code, blah-blah-blah. But this admirable effort doesn't quite make it to fully persuasive naturalism--something dead in the eyes, something not quite right in the ruffle of the monkey's fur.
Maybe kids will like the movie; their lust for dinolore appears to be insatiable. But the rest of us will yearn for Robin Williams' giddy goofing in Aladdin. And the narrative alertness of Toy Story 2. As James Newton Howard's nonstop score pushes us to an emotional involvement, we hope in vain that Barney will pop out from behind a rock. Alas, someone else holds the copyright on him.
--By Richard Schickel