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Blunted bite

Universal Pictures didn't wait for Michael Crichton to write another book before making Jurassic Park III. Heck, the studio barely paused for anyone to write a script.

Granted, it's hard to imagine a compelling reason why anyone would return to an island populated by dinosaurs. Didn't everyone see what happened to that lawyer in Part 1, or the mess left in San Diego by Part 2? The only motivations are money and whatever can be dreamed up for actors posing as dino-snacks.

Jurassic Park III is leaner _ only 86 minutes of action _ and meaner than its predecessors, but that doesn't make it as impressive. Steven Spielberg skipped directing this chapter, and the movie misses his gee-whiz sensibilities as much as A.I. was hindered by them. His replacement, Joe Johnston, cuts all but the chases. There's more of everything in Jurassic Park III, and less than we expect.

The series' odd shuffling of characters continues with Sam Neill returning as Dr. Alan Grant after skipping The Lost World. Grant is still digging for dinosaur fossils, tired of answering questions about that nasty business in the original movie. He's hired by businessman Paul Kirby (William H. Macy) to guide a tour of Isla Sorna, where creatures rule.

There's a subplot concerning Paul's true motives, but that's just another excuse for grumpy Grant to team up with a feisty kid (Trevor Morgan), one of several established elements Johnston dutifully mimics. Tea Leoni mostly looks worried as Paul's estranged wife, Amanda. Hey, somebody around here needs to have a high-pitched scream.

Everyone else may as well have "USDA Dead Meat" tattooed on their foreheads. Hints of what mercenary soldiers could do to dinosaurs with their mega-guns are forgotten in a gobble. Grant's assistant and resident pin-up boy (Alessandro Nivola) messes with the forces of nature and redeems himself. Only Part 1's Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) is completely safe, since she stays in the United States.

But, we're kidding ourselves. Moviegoers won't see Jurassic Park III for the people. It's dinosaurs that matter, and Johnston delivers quite a menagerie. The raptors are back and badder than ever, but T-Rex barely rears his ugly head, possibly due to overexposure in The Lost World. Instead, we get spinosaurus, an even larger carnivore. Flying, fictitious pteranodons inspire some neat midair antics. Johnston stages another stampede, triceratops-style, and compi cameos.

There's also a late shot of assorted dinosaurs that proves how much awe is missing in Jurassic Park III. It's almost a carbon copy of the first time we saw Spielberg's dinosaurs in 1993, but the wonderment is gone. We've grown too accustomed to computers and puppets defying evolution. The boat passing through the shot brings Jurassic Park III into focus; it's no different or deeper than the river raft ride at Universal's theme parks.


Jurassic Park III

Grade: C+

Director: Joe Johnston

Cast: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Michael Jeter, Alessandro Nivola, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan

Screenplay: Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on characters created by Michael Crichton

Rating: PG-13; violence

Running time: 92 min.