In the last few years, filmmakers have pulled off some miraculous feats of computer-generated imagery, but no one has quite figured out how to use digital technology to create convincing flesh. The token humans in the Toy Story movies, for instance, just looked like squishier toys. But in Dinosaur, the visually astonishing new Disney feature, the gargantuan lizard kings of the Mesozoic era appear before us as if by magic, their movements free and supple, their thick, mottled, grayish-brown skin as grainy and lived-in as the hide of an elephant. The spectacular creatures wander through forests and green, green valleys, and then through an endless sandstone wasteland in search of water, all with a surface-of-the-ancient-earth authenticity that’s nearly three-dimensional in its clarity.
Dinosaur, the first film to emerge from Disney’s new digital studio, is a lost-world fantasy of breathtaking technological skill. It merges computer imagery with picturesque filmed backgrounds, and I’ll be damned if I could tell where one left off and the other began. The opening sequence, in which the unborn hero’s egg is carried from its nest, features a sudden, chomping attack by a carnotaur (the film’s paleontologically correct update of the T. rex) and climaxes with a majestically whooshing pteranodon’s-eye view from the air. The creatures, in addition, engage in an activity that even the most advanced dinosaurs never attempted: They talk, in the chatty, smart-aleck cadences of Disney’s cartoon animals. Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), a modest iguanodon, is raised, Tarzan-style, by a feisty pack of lemurs. When their lush, sylvan home is devastated by a fiery meteor holocaust, he joins a desperate herd of dinos, trekking through dust storms and the rocky desert, all in search of a new promised land.
Kids, of course, have always been the ultimate dinosaur fans, and for obvious reasons. With a few exceptions, notably the mighty, thresher-jawed T. rex (sorry, I mean carnotaur), these primeval reptiles are at once monstrous and benign, their brains too tiny to instill much aggression in their larger-than-life bodies. They’re as moonstruck and unthreatening as children themselves. Dinosaur doesn’t offer anything to adult viewers as thrilling, as shivery, as satisfyingly primal as Steven Spielberg’s intricate predator choreography in the original Jurassic Park. Yet it’s a serenely pleasing kiddie movie that invites little ones to sink into their dinosaur dreams.
If anything, the film’s visual sweep evokes the original Disney prehistoric fairy tale: the Rite of Spring section of Fantasia, with its grandly elegiac vision of dinosaurs at war with the entropy of nature. Aladar catches the eye of Neera (Julianna Margulies), an iguanodon cutie, but he must stand against the wrath of her brother, Kron (Samuel E. Wright), who rules the herd with fascist gruffness. It’s a standard brain-versus-brawn story line, though with a nifty hint of Darwinian urgency. The dialogue is a bit bland, but you hardly mind when the faces are as expressive as the ones here. By now, it’s a routine speculative joke that digital technology may one day render live actors obsolete. I somehow doubt it, but if Dinosaur is any indication, conventional hand-drawn animation may, within a decade or so, be on its way to extinction. B+