“Dinosaur” is, first and foremost, a most impressive technical
accomplishment. It blends computer-generated creatures
seamlessly with stunningly-photographed live-action backgrounds
to fashion a visual atmosphere that, especially in the early
scenes, is quite magnificent. From this perspective alone it
represents a major step forward in Hollywood animation, and
a triumph for its makers.

If appearances were all that mattered in a movie–even one so
clearly intended for the full family crowd–one wouldn’t have
to say anything further. Unfortunately, plot and dialogue
are still significant elements, and it’s in the area of content
that Disney’s big summer release falls short, despite the size
of its lead players. “Dinosaur” is first and foremost a
reptilian variant of the “Tarzan” story so beautifully realized
by the Disney animators only last year: an egg left by a
mommy iguanodon killed by a horrid carnotaur finds its way to
a family of lemurs inhabiting an isolated island, who adopt
the little fellow that emerges when it hatches. He grows up
as sort of a bigger brother to the primate kids, and helps
save some of the tribe when a meteor shower devastates their
home. The survivors struggle across the sea to a distant
land, where they fall in with a herd of dinos wending their
way through the parched, ruined landscape to a hoped-for
sanctuary called The Nesting Place while simultaneously being
pursued by more nasty carnotaurs. This longer “journey”
section of the film isn’t “Tarzan” anymore, but a weird
variant on any number of “Wagon Train”-style flicks wherein
young Aladar, as our heroic iguanodon is called, must complete
for leadership against a crusty old member of the same species
named Kron; the latter represents a mindless, brutal sort of
selfishness in which each individual must take care of himself,
while Aladar stands for cooperation and mutual assistance in
achieving a common goal. Meanwhile Aladar also romances
Kron’s not-so-beautiful but sweet-voiced sister Neera, who
will eventually have to make a choice between family and
heartthrob. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure out
how the conflicts are going to be resolved; suffice it to say
that we all learn the virtue of working together, and that the
lake which the herd eventually reaches is probably not far
from Loch Ness.

The opening half-hour or so of “Dinosaur” is its most winning
element. The first appearance of the myriad kinds of creatures
sprinting across the vast natural settings is remarkable, and
the entire sequence of Aladar’s egg being transported, by
air, land and water, to its final resting place is charmingly
done. The scenes of the devastating meteor shower are mighty
impressive, too. But when the plot switches to “the long
march,” as it might be called, the movie loses energy. About
half of the time it’s typically cutesy Disney stuff, complete
with cuddly little creatures and surprisingly lame jokes, many
assigned to an amorous monkey named Zini (voiced by Max
Casella); the other half involves action sequences (including a
few battles reminiscent of “The Lost World”) that are kept
mild enough not to frighten tykes in the audience unduly. And
both portions are ripe with the sort of gooey sentiment that
one would expect. (On the other hand, one appreciates the
absence of soulful songs so typical of today’s Disney features,
even if the underlying score by James Newton Howard sounds
like watered-down shards of John Williams’ “Star Wars” music.)

The vocal cast does nice, if unexceptional, work. D.B.
Sweeney is jovial and enthusiastic as Aladar, while Samuel E.
Wright is suitably gruff and menacing as Kron and Julianna
Margulies winsome yet self-confident as Neera. Alfre Woodard
and Ossie Davis nicely characterize Aladar’s simian Ma and Pa,
and Joan Plowright and Della Reese put acoss a couple of
elderly dinosaurs whom Aladar befriends.

So there’s a good deal that’s successful about “Dinosaur,”
especially the animation and visual effects. But ultimately
all the talent and commitment that have gone into enlivening
its prehistoric creatures and placing them in an arresting
environment are undermined by the weakness of the script they
inhabit. By the sixty-minute mark, even the visual splendor
begins to lose its luster, becoming repetitive and predictable,
and by the close the picture seems to be lumbering along as
clumsily as the titular lizards. It just goes to show that
even in this age of extraordinary special effects, those old,
stone-age virtues of narrative imagination and storytelling
creativity still have their place.