Dinosaurs used to be cool. In 1969, if you had asked me what was the best movie ever made, the answer would likely have been The Valley of Gwangi, in which a group of cowboys in the Mexican desert find a gully full of leftover dinosaurs, animated by Ray Harryhausen, and lasso a Tyrannosaurus rex for their Wild West show. The reason for that choice, in the face of the wooden acting, the cornball dialogue and the utterly predictable plot, would have been simple: The dinosaurs were cool.
In those days, dinosaurs were still regarded by science as falling into two groups -- rampaging carnivores and sluggish, pea-brained herbivores. But in the intervening years, paleontology has grown more sophisticated -- pushed forward, probably, by the obsessions of geeky kids who grew up watching The Valley of Gwangi -- and a deeper understanding of the prehistoric reptiles has replaced our earlier ideas.
It is now generally accepted that dinosaurs were dynamic, relatively intelligent creatures who courted and mated, reared young and fought rivals. They were animals, it turns out, not the medieval dragons we used to imagine. No doubt this makes them more complex and more beautiful as objects of scientific study, but it also makes them, as movie characters, less cool.
There are some pretty cool dinosaurs in the new Disney computer-animated feature Dinosaur: The pair of carnotaurs that stalk the herd could give Gwangi a run for his money. Part of what makes this toothsome duo, intended as the movie's villains, so impressive is that they, unlike the dinos that we're supposed to root for, are unrepentant predators. But the bigger reason they come off so agreeably may be simpler yet: They don't talk.
Disney did dinosaurs once before: In the original 1940 Fantasia, an allosaurus and a stegosaurus squared off with each other to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. They didn't talk, either, and they were pretty cool.
Not so, alas, the other dinosaurs in Dinosaur. If you saw the long, wordless, visually beautiful and exciting trailer for the film before last year's Toy Story 2, you may have thought the whole movie would be in the same style -- a dialogue-free evocation of the Mesozoic Era that traced the life of one dinosaur from hatchling to old campaigner in a more or less realistic manner. That may well be how the original screenplay, by Walon Green, was conceived. But Disney's rewrite thugs, John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs, have put mouse ears on the dinosaurs.
That "trailer" is really just the first scene, which depicts how a dinosaur egg gets separated from its nest and is discovered, as it hatches, by a family of lemurs (lemurs coexisting with dinosaurs is the first of the film's numerous scientific absurdities). At exactly the point where the trailer ends, the critters start moving their little computer-imaged mouths, and out come the voices of familiar Hollywood actors -- Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Max Casella and Hayden Panettiere. This is no joke. The story that ensues: The hatchling, raised by the lemurs (exactly how they raise him is glossed over) grows into a strapping young iguanodon named Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney, who sounds like an ingenue Bruce Willis). When a giant meteor crashes into the sea, Aladar and his surrogate mammal family must join a herd of herbivores who are desperately migrating across the desert in search of a nesting ground. Aladar falls in with the herd's aging stragglers: a big sauropod (Joan Plowright), a horned styracosaur (Della Reese) and an armored ankylosaur who acts like a dog. When Aladar sticks up for these new friends, he gains the enmity of the herd's leader, Kron (Samuel E. Wright). But Kron's foxy sister Neera (Julianna Margulies) thinks Aladar is cute and becomes his special friend.
The plot, in other words, is straight out of the familiar Disney template: Sensitive misfit hero with wisecracking pals overcomes adversity in the face of brutish enemies and finds romance besides. Yet somehow, when this story is enacted not by fanciful cartoon animals but by giant behemoths rendered with considerable attention to scientific detail, the effect is quite deranged. Even for Disney.
Compounding the oddity is Dinosaur's barely acknowledged undercurrent of grimness. The chipper wisecracks, for instance, ring really weird in the middle of the flight across the desert, which looks disturbingly like a death march. And the meteor that sets the plot in motion seems to be a reference to the theory that such a collision was what triggered the dinosaurs' demise -- an alternative title for the film might be Love in the Time of Extinction. It's probably safe to say that Dinosaur is the first apocalyptic kiddie movie.
None of this is to say that Dinosaur isn't visually ravishing, or that the faux-Stravinsky on the soundtrack by James Newton Howard isn't zesty. It's not even to say that a lot of kids, and some adults, won't respond to the film; after all, it's doubtful that Pavlov ever conditioned his dogs to drool as well as Disney conditions children to respond to its formula. But some of the tougher-minded children among us may find it hard to sit, without embarrassment, through this bizarre mixture of paleontology, preposterous anthropomorphism and fuzzy-headed New Age mythmaking in which the only thing missing are the show tunes. Thank God for small favors.
Opens May 19.