There are more than a few bastard stepchildren in the history of Walt Disney Feature Animation; setting aside the projects like Victory Through Air Power and Pete's Dragon, movies with significant content produced by the Disney animators, that for this reason or that didn't get tallied up in the official WDFA canon (e.g. the first was insanely unmarketable, the second was a live-action movie with animated effects), there are even a few projects that have made that list of films which don't seem to fit exactly right. The curious South American propaganda documentaries Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are misfits even by the standards of Disney's package films; The Black Cauldron, despite a modest cult following, is plainly something the company has absolutely no idea what to do with. There are others, the movies you forget about every single time the name "Disney" comes up.

And then there's Dinosaur, the most bastardly of them all. Upon its release in May, 2000, it wasn't even held to be part of the holy list of WDFA releases, but something different and special. It wasn't until years later, with a minimum of fanfare, that the film was quietly slotted into the list as at #39, a tiny piece of revisionist history from a corporation that has refined revising history into an art form. It's thus tempting for the Disney scholar to dismiss it as a needless interpolation, not a true Disney animated feature at all; but once something has been canonised, it's not much use to sit and grouse about why it shouldn't have ever been canonised in the first place. If you care about the canon, you have to deal with it in whatever form it comes. Just ask Saint Drogo, patron of coffeehouses and unattractive people.

At any rate, when the film was new, Disney just couldn't stop talking up how Dinosaur was the first project from their exciting new division, The Secret Lab. The what, now? you ask, years later, never having heard of this "Secret Lab" thingy. Ay, the story of that cursed project is truly one of the most peculiar in all the annals of the Walt Disney Company. A full version can be found here, but even in an abbreviated form, it's a weird tale. Buckle up.

It begins not in animation, but in live-action. Throughout the 1990s, Disney had its own in-house effects studio, Buena Vista Visual Effects. Their work was solid - enough so that they even contributed to non-Disney features - but in the middle of the decade, Michael Eisner began to grow concerned that BVVE was simply not capable of meeting the quality of its competitors, and in 1996, he ordered the division dissolved, right at the same time that Disney purchased Dream Quest Images, the company run by Hoyt Yeatman, a visual effects legend, though I prefer to think of him as the future director of G-Force. DQI did such wonderful work for Disney over the next few years, that the executives came up with an even better idea: Yeatman and his men would be folded into a new division that would also include the CGI department of the feature animation department, to create a new animation and effects house that would stand proudly at the bleeding-edge of computer graphics in the cinema, mounting a twin attack against both ILM and Pixar (which, in those days, enjoyed only a distribution partnership with Disney, and by no means a terribly friendly one).

This was The Secret Lab, and its great coming-out party was to be Dinosaur: a film combining live-action backgrounds with computer-animated dinosaurs made using all the resources of the best animators and the best effects artists in the country. Money was lavished upon it - the official budget was $130 million, though it was an open secret that the final cost was nearly $200 - it was heavily promoted and given a prime summer tentpole release date, a costly ride was built at the Walt Disney World Resort to tie-in with the film, a sequel was planned, and Disney was already wondering what to with all the money it was going to get when The Secret Lab became everybody's new favorite effects house, and then something a silly happened.

Dinosaur bombed. OK, "bombed" is a strong word for it: it grossed a perfectly respectable $138 million at the U.S. box office (for that was a more impressive total back in 2000), and its hefty overseas tallies - $212 million above and beyond its domestic gross - almost certainly covered its production and its huge promotion budgets, so at the very least Disney didn't take a bath on the project, contra its reputation. But it suffered something even worse: humiliation. Dinosaur was meant to be The Big Deal of 2000, and it wasn't even able to crack the box office top 10 for the year. Panicking, Disney cancelled all of TSL's future projects, laid off a hefty percentage of the division's employees, and generally behaved like a fluttery dowager rushing about and looking for her smelling salts. The inevitable shut down didn't come until October, 2001, by which point TSL had been reduced to a support staff for the companies doing the "real" effects work in Disney's live-action projects. The animators who weren't let go were folded back into the main animation division, where some were punished for their sins by being assigned to Treasure Planet.

Walt Disney Feature Animation had been The Secret Lab's mother; now the last dregs of TSL made their way back home in defeat. From the standpoint of marketing and (more importantly) ass-covering, it made good sense to act as though TSL had always just been an offshoot of WDFA, and that Dinosaur was just another Disney animated feature. And I think, in explaining why the film was added to the canon at all, I think I have also explained what it was done so very quietly.

Different people will give different explanations for why Dinosaur failed so huge. The early arrival of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, which premiered on America's Discovery Channel barely one month before the Disney film opened, certainly stole some of its thunder (while being, in almost every possible way, aesthetically superior); the fact that Dinosaur was rushed into an early release when it became clear that The Emperor's New Groove wasn't going to be complete anywhere near early enough to give Disney a summer release had obvious and unflattering effect on Dinosaur's visuals, which are at about 95% throughout the whole movie - and that missing 5% is damning. But I think it was the film critics of summer, 2000, who mostly got it right; while being understandably charmed by the visuals, hardly a one of them failed to mention the paint-by-numbers script, a tremendously insulting, cloying, and stupid number that anticipates the worst of DreamWorks Animation in the decade to come while repeating the most irritating mistakes that had plagued Disney's animated films since time began, all while hauling out a story that effectively replicates Don Bluth's The Land Before Time, only without being quite as intelligent.

When you have spent $200 million on "the dumber version of The Land Before Time", you deserve everything that comes to you.

The film starts with bland narration (here and afterward, any text in bold identifies specific similarities between Dinosaur and TLBT; it would too much typing to point it out every time), that if you really pay attention has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. "Sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest changes of all. But since I'm a lemur, and the story I'm about to tell you is about an iguanodon who is several hundred times my size, sometimes bigger things make much bigger changes than small things."

In the late Cretaceous, a lone iguanodon egg is the sole survivor of an attack on an iguanodon herd by a large carnotaur. Stolen by an oviraptor, the egg manages to fall into a river, where it floats past a menagerie of dinosaur age creatures before ending up, at long last, in the hands of a lemur family, and hatches.

(Believe it or not, the depiction of modern lemurs isn't as idiotic as it seems. Lemurs split from other primates not more than 63 million years ago; a couple million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, of course, but it's not nearly as big a chronological gulf as the span separating Iguanodon from Carnotaurus - or Iguanodon from the K-T extinction event 65.5 mya).

The baby iguanodon is christened Aladar, and adopted by the young female Plio (Alfre Woodard) daughter of the lemur elder Yar (Ossie Davis). Then we skip ahead a few years, to find Aladar all grown up, having never seen another dinosaur in all that time, though he's become the toast of the lemur community. On the day we catch up to him and his adopted family, it's the lemur's courtship festival, where everyone but Plio's brother Zini (Max Casella) ends up with a mate. It doesn't really matter, of course, because just as the ceremony ends, the lemurs are surprised to see strange lights in the sky, plunging into the ocean, followed by a huge chunk of rock that crashes across the water, throwing up a huge mushroom cloud.

(No, the Yucatan peninsula was not visible from Madagascar, not even then).

Aladar, Yar, Plio, Zini, and Plio's daughter Suri (Hayden Panettiere) are the only survivors to escape through a stormy sea to end up on a desolate beach. Making their way inland, they are almost captured by a pack of velociraptors (who are presented at roughly their correct size, far tinier than the monsters of Jurassic Park). Only the arrival of a great migratory herd saves them: this large collection of a motley assortment of species is being led by the grim iguanodon Kron (Samuel E. Wright) to the Nesting Grounds, the last refuge of verdant plant life, far across the desert, nestled in a valley.

Aladar and his crew join the migration, but he is put off by Kron's dictatorial ways, and his lack of concern for the slower, elderly travelers: an old brachiosaur named Baylene (Joan Plowright), an even older styracosaur named Eema (Della Reese), and Url, a mute ankylosaur that acts like a pet dog. Aladar, the lemurs, and the old ones form a family group of outcast misfits, that eventually is separated from the main body of the herd. The worse for them, as they are being followed by a wordless, implacable predator - a pair of them, in fact, two carnotaurs (who are, unlike the raptors, very much larger than they should be). It should be mentioned, that the carnotaurs are absolutely denied any personality, a threat that is never "present", in the way that TLBT's Sharptooth is; a stronger, more well-identified villain might have even been enough to save Dinosaur, but that was not to be.

And the rest pretty much writes itself: Aladar has to come to the rescue of the whole herd, and in doing so endears himself to Kron's sister Neera (Julianna Margulies) and everything ends happily for everybody we like. The story is faintly awful, not least because it is aggressively straightforward: but it's a Disney film, and banal homilies are to be expected. Still, there is the familiar and the comforting, and there is the excruciatingly unimaginative, and Dinosaur's flotilla of seven writers and story people have succeeded largely in telling an easy story with the barest possible amount of creativity, insight, or joy. The whole thing suffers from a deeply unpleasant sense of the perfunctory: characters marshaled from one place to another like chess pieces, without any care paid to whether they, or we, are particularly inspired by the journey.

Another big problem - perhaps even the biggest - is that the characters simply aren't very likable, on account of being not very interesting. The most distinct figure in the picture is Zini the lemur, and that only because he's the film's designated Anachronism Machine; before Ice Age introduced the rhythms and language of a middleweight sitcom to the Pleistocene Epoch, there was Zini, shamelessly delivering lines like "Girls, I'm known as the 'professor of love' and school's in session" and "I believe you asked for a wake-up call at the dawn of time", and I have given two examples only because I could not decide which one I hated more.

But otherwise, everybody is as smooth and undifferentiated as instant vanilla pudding: Baylene is vaguely prim and British, Eema is vaguely sassy and black, Kron is vaguely a dick, and everyone else is just vague. It's clear enough from the production history and the marketing that Dinosaur was always first imagined as a tech demo, with its merits as an actual work of cinema coming only as a matter of necessity; but there's no reason that the filmmakers had to declare their indifference to drama so boldly as by e.g. casting D.B. Sweeney in the lead role.

The original concept, changed by executive order, was to have the dinosaurs silent, more like real animals, and that could only have helped; for the worst elements of the script are generally those related to dialogue and characterisation, but there's no use wishing for the Dinosaur we could have had. The Dinosaur we got is a storytelling wreck, the first gesture in the mad rush to hideousness that would mark the next few years of Disney animation. High concepts, ill-advised pop culture references, scripts written not just for children, but for alarmingly stupid children; this was the way of the future, and it is all brilliantly foreshadowed here.

But what of that hugely-hyped new paradigm in visual effects, the industry-redefining blend of CGI and live action that was to have made Dinosaur such a vital step in the evolution of digital cinema? Well... it's pretty. Sure. Pretty shoddy!

No, actually, it's legitimately pretty.

Still, it's damn hard to get terribly excited about a film whose big claim to fame is that it marries realistic CGI dinosaurs to live-action backgrounds, a full seven years after a widely-seen blockbuster that married realistic CGI dinosaurs to live-action backgrounds. And frankly, Jurassic Park still holds up better than Dinosaur. Heck, as far as animated figures interacting with a real environment, though I am certain that The Secret Lab had some incredibly sophisticated brand-new technology at its disposal, there's nothing about Dinosaur that is in any particular way more convincing than Who Framed Roger Rabbit, made a solid twelve years earlier.

Simply put, Dinosaur isn't quite as good as it needed to be to justify all the faith that Disney was putting in their new division. Most of the shots work immaculately well. Sometimes I quite forgot I was even looking at a mixed-media project. And sometimes, there's just a little tiny mistake, usually because of infinitesimally mismatched lighting, that punts the whole shot right into the Uncanny Valley.

Still and all, the movie looks handsome as hell, and convincing, though all these years later it's easy to look at, say, Cars, and wonder if it wouldn't have just been easier to do the whole thing in CGI. But that's not what they wanted, and that's that.

Of course, that's just as far as the tech goes. As far as the animation goes, Dinosaur is pretty unpleasant. It's easy to explain why: unlike, again, Cars - and unlike any of Disney's own subsequent computer-animated features, and heck, unlike DreamWorks or Blue Sky, Dinosaur's animation team didn't consist entirely of, um, animators. Running through the list of supervising character animators, one finds that they're divided about half-and-half between people who'd come from traditional animation, and people who'd come from visual effects - great visual effects artists, but it's a different discipline. Character animators need to be able to express emotion and drama through subtle expressions, movements, bearing. Visual effects artists generally strive to create the most realistic figures they can, moving in a realistic way. Both jobs entail "acting" through the figure, but it's acting in entirely different registers, and the tension between these two halves of the animation team wears on Dinosaur terribly: the characters express themselves through a seeming paradox of mugging constantly, while being at stiff and inexpressive. Especially the lemurs.



This animation/VFX split runs all the way to the directorial team of Ralph Zondag (an animator) and Eric Leighton (who'd worked in animation, but mainly in an effects capacity), neither of whom has directed a feature since, and you'd be right to think that's a telling fact. Perhaps because of their different relationship with the material, and perhaps because neither of them really knew what they were doing, Dinosaur is, for all its innovation and technical wizardry, astoundingly pedestrian. There are lots of wide shots of the main characters milling around, with very few moments of actual spectacle; it's mostly the same damn thing over and over again, and the few attempts to do something memorable do not reflect well upon the directors. As in a shot in which a carnotaur edges its nose into a waterfall, looking for the heroes; having grown tired of aping The Land Before Time, the filmmakers now deciding to steal outright one of the few great moments from The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Beyond that, they certainly do not have any ideas about staging the film in a grand way, as we expect - and deserve! - from our dinosaur fiction. Given a toybox full of possibilities, the makers of Dinosaur had no idea whatsoever how to do something memorable or thrilling. Or, more likely, no motivation. Dinosaur is exactly what it is, an expensively produced, intellectually impoverished film that uses a screenplay suited only for distracting kids for its 82 minutes (which are thankfully fleet) to support a frivolous exercise in eye candy. Small wonder that nobody involved tried very hard to make Aladar a more distinct, more visually inviting character; to place him in an epic context; to find the poetry in what was never going to be aught but crappy kiddie flick like hundreds of other crappy kiddie flicks, that somehow had the gross indecency to become the costliest film of 2000. Disney's first attempt to stay on top of a changing animation marketplace was one of the biggest boondoggles in the studio's history.