Instead of the annual G-rated musical cartoon released just as school lets out, this year Disney’s big summer release is “Dinosaur,” a stunning integration of computer graphics over live backgrounds.
Aladar is an orphan Iguanodon raised by monkey-like lemurs. When flaming meteors destroy their home they join a group of dinosaurs trying to find food and water. The leader of the group, Kron, insists that stopping to help the older or slower dinosaurs is too dangerous. But Aladar shows the others that cooperation, teamwork, and kindness make more sense because then everyone gets a chance to contribute. That resolution brings to mind another dinosaur — a big, purple one on PBS. Aladar just is not that interesting a character. Disney worked very hard to make sure that the faces of the dinosaurs were expressive, but should have worked a little harder on giving them some more complex and subtle emotions to express. Even in a movie for kids, it is not enough for the characters to overcome some external challenge. What makes a story get into your heart is seeing the characters learn and grow and overcome internal challenges. It is a marvel of skill, but does not have half of the heart or wit of either of the “Toy Storys” or “A Bug’s Life.”
The technological mastery is dazzling to watch, though, especially the textures. Fur, scales, eggshell, water, and goo are all so vivid you can almost feel them. It is a shame that the story and characters are not as strong as the visuals, though that will be more of a problem for the adults in the audience than the children.
Parents should know that the movie is dark and scary at times. Characters are frequently in peril and some are killed. A three year old sitting near me cried for more than half of the movie. But most kids find enormous appeal in the idea of creatures that are amazingly huge and powerful and reassuringly long departed. While they may not connect to these characters the way they do with the animated films, most kids will like watching the dinosaurs and will find the conclusion satisfying.
Families who see the movie may want to talk about the narrator’s comment that “sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest changes of all.” What is the “smallest thing” and what are the changes? How did being treated with kindness change the way some of the characters behaved? How did making Baylene feel needed change the way she behaved? Why was Aladar’s point of view so different? Could it have been due to the loving way he was raised? How did Aladar help Neera see things differently?
Families — especially blended, foster, and adoptive families — may also want to talk about how the lemurs decide to “adopt” the huge dinosaur, and about how some species were intolerant of others. Older children may want to talk about Kron’s view that the only way to keep some members of the herd alive was to sacrifice those who could not keep up, and the way his behavior showed that he believed the only way to maintain power was to refuse to listen to anyone else.
Kids who like this movie will enjoy “The Land Before Time” and its sequels and “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.”