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"Dinosaur' is no "Lion King'

The visuals are stunning, but the talking dinosaurs don't say much that speaks to a 21st century audience.

The first five minutes of Dinosaur almost make a viewer love the whole movie, wordless except for brief narration, with awesome computer-animated realism.

No Spielberg-style teasing here, no waiting for a half-hour to get a good look at prehistoric beasts. The camera glides through entire herds of assorted dinosaurs, constructed by keyboard and pasted over footage of real-life tropical backgrounds. Amazing sights, from tiny ancestors of butterflies to winged predators soaring over paradise. Whatever nature couldn't preserve, humans create again.

The past never seemed so real. The future of cyber-cinema rarely seems so now.

Then, the creatures speak.

The sound of wonder collapsing is a fuzzy lemur's squeaky voice and the cooing of a baby iguanodon. That is all it takes to jerk moviegoers out of astonishment and into the middle of a Disney movie.

What had been so thrilling, so genuine, becomes phony. Imagination and a sense of artistic mission make that opening sequence work. When dinosaurs can talk to explain their feelings, words replace that imagination. Listen to the dialogue, interchangeable with a number of films, and decide if it actually improves upon the overture's dino-roars and expressive visions. From this corner, it never does.

Dinosaur remains a technical marvel, costing a reported $200-million to produce despite its 82-minute length. Nearly one-tenth of the running time is used for closing credits. If that budget is correct, one wonders about claims that computer animation is a cost-cutting device. More could have been spent fleshing out the story. Perhaps the filmmakers think our enduring fascination with dinosaurs is enough.

The film focuses on that happy iguanodon, a kindly soul named Aladar (voice by D.B. Sweeney). The opening sequence shows his egg surviving a series of close calls to land among lemurs. These primates raise him as a son and brother despite the difference in species. Already, the plot replays elements of Tarzan and _ Disney will love this _ DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt.

Aladar's idyllic life is disrupted by an apocalyptic meteor shower, another chance for the animators to dazzle moviegoers. He survives with his adopted family, including wise papa Yar (Ossie Davis), patient mother Plio (Alfre Woodard) and the movie's designated plush toy, Zini (Max Casella).

They begin a trek to the safety of the nesting grounds, joining a dino-drive led by Kron (Samuel E. Wright). Kron takes that survival-of-the-fittest thing too seriously, like John Wayne's megalomaniac cattle herder in Red River. Nearly everything in Dinosaur except the visuals reminds you of some other movie, especially its Jurassic Park-style danger.

Hot on their herd's trail are a pair of carnotaurs. You know these are villains because they don't talk and have jagged teeth instead of human-looking choppers like everybody else. Showdowns with these killers and Kron await Aladar, who develops a standard shy crush on Kron's sister, Neera (Julianna Margulies).

The vocal performances are unremarkable, making James Newton Howard's ceaseless musical score the most interesting thing to hear.

Dinosaur creates a domino effect of contradictions, starting with its visual richness versus the empty narrative. Such realistic creatures shouldn't violate evolution by speaking. When they do, it's with elementary drama small children can understand, yet the attack scenes visibly disturbed some youngsters at a preview screening. The movie grabs attention, then has little else to do with it.

The best animation allows moviegoers to place themselves in the situations of fantasy characters. Toy Story isn't merely about toys, but about us, our fears and friendships. The Lion King is more than a zoo; it's a lesson in family and realizing potential. Dinosaur never makes that connection with modern lives due to the thin script, primitive drama that doesn't matter and reptilian faces too impassive to emote. We watch but rarely empathize.

There is also an interesting sense of denial arising from Plio's closing remarks, hopeful of a long, prosperous future for her kind. Hindsight makes such optimism a delusion, even an ironic joke, but Disney demands a happy ending. Whatever parents and teachers tell children about the fates of their new dino-pals after the show is up to them.




DIRECTORS: Eric Leighton, Ralph Zondag

CAST: Voices of D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Julianna Margulies, Joan Plowright, Della Reese

SCREENPLAY: John Harrison, Robert Nelson Jacobs

RATING: PG; violence