So is 'Dinosaur' the animated reference disc we've been waiting for? First, a look at the movie itself...
Surprisingly, after 'Jurassic Park' came out in 1993 and quickly turned into one of the biggest box office hits of all time, Hollywood did not flood theaters with a spate of rip-offs. In fact, aside from the official 'Jurassic' sequels and Steven Spielberg's long-running 'We're Back!" direct-to-video animated series, you'd be hard-pressed to recall any other dino-related movies aside from Disney's big-budget, CGI entry in the 'Jurassic' sweepstakes, 'Dinosaur.' And judging by how it turned out, that's probably a good thing.
On paper, I'm sure that 'Dinosaur' sounded like a slam-dunk. Kids love dinosaurs, so why not make an all-CGI animated epic packed with wall-to-wall, talking dinos? Marry it with sweeping computer-generated vistas, an all-star voice cast and plenty of action and adventure, and it is hard to imagine you wouldn't have a $300 million-grossing blockbuster on your hands, easy. Let alone a brand-new toy line, a Disney theme park ride, a Disney Channel spin-off TV series, etc. Unfortunately, without a moving story and memorable characters, even the most well-planned "franchise" can quickly go belly up. Which is exactly what happened when 'Dinosaur' finally hit theaters in May of 2000, fading as quickly from screens as those plush toys slid into the bargain racks at Wal-mart.
The story is admittedly a cute one. 65 million years ago, on an unknown island (Isla Nubar?), a clan of lemurs find a dinosaur egg in mid-hatch. Since the little dino newborn has no parents, the lemurs decide to adopt him as one of their own, and name him Aladar. Years later, after a meteor crash forces the lemurs to flee their continent, Aladar will meet other dinosaurs for the first time -- both the nice ones and the "meat-o-sauruses." Faster than you can say, 'The Lion King,' Aladar will have to navigate the already-difficult passage from child to adult dino, as well as make the transition into a new herd while avoiding the mighty wrath of the T.Rex.
Truth be told, 'Dinosaur' isn't really a bad film. Okay, it's not great, and nowhere near the best of Disney's recent animated output -- and it certainly can't hold a candle to even the worst Pixar short film. But for kids under the age of, say, eight years-old, it is diverting enough. Which, ironically, may have been its ultimate undoing. By skewing so young, Disney has made a film that is visually impressive but fails to engage adult emotions and sensibilities. Where 'Jurassic Park' was a rollercoaster ride that, whatever its faults, was funny, scary and exciting as hell, 'Dinosaur' never rises above safe, wishy-washy family melodrama. And where Pixar has always been able to craft stories that cross generational boundaries, 'Dinosaur' gets mired down in mawkish sentimentality. Really, do even eight-year-olds really want to see cuddly, benevolent dinosaurs, or would they rather see a T.Rex stomping around, trying to eat Laura Dern? Maybe I was a demented kid, but even as a pre-teen I wanted the real stuff, not teddy-bear dinosaurs.
However, 'Dinosaur' does have a few plusses. Visually, it can be breathtaking. The "Comet Shower" sequence is one of those great Disney moments that make you want to rush out and buy tickets to Disneyland for the whole family. The fine voice cast, including D.B Sweeney, Alfre Woodward, Della Reese, Julianna Margulies and Ossie Davis, also elevates some of the weaker dialogue, so even if none of the prehistoric characters are that memorable, at least they engage our sympathies throughout the film's scant 82-minute runtime. And dinosaurs are always fun to watch -- a number of species not seen in the 'Jurassic' movies show up in 'Dinosaur,' so if nothing else, the film serves as a genuine learning tool for the toddler set. Of course, none of this will help 'Dinosaur' earn a spot in the pantheon of all-time great CGI animated features, but hey, it's still better than Disney's 'Treasure Planet.'
Presented in 1.85:1 and 1080p/MPEG-2 video, I was a little dubious going into 'Dinosaur' -- how would MPEG-2 compression handle an all-CGI animated feature? And given the fluctuating quality of some of the early Blu-ray releases (at least as viewed on the first-gen Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player), consistency was also foremost on my mind. Happily I found myself impressed with the cleanliness of this transfer -- in moments featuring large, solid image areas, I expected to see noise or posterization, yet saw none. This really is a very firm and stable picture, with even fast, complex motion handled adroitly by the MPEG-2 codec.
Unfortunately, most other aspects of this transfer left me disappointed. Colors just are not as vibrant as I expected -- they certainly can't compete with visually spectacular, all-CGI wonders like 'Toy Story' or 'Shrek.' Hues just never pop off the screen, though at least there is no chroma noise or other defects to distract. Sharpness is also wanting. The image is soft throughout, and never appears truly three-dimensional. I know it's not fair, but quickly popping in my standard-def DVD of 'The Incredibles' to compare, it easily trumped the high-def 'Dinosaur' in clarity and detail. Lastly, I was disappointed as well with blacks and contrast. Though black levels are accurate, the image looks too dim overall, as if the bulb in the projector was burning out. In fact, there were some moments during the film (for example a late-night cave scene about midway through) where I had trouble making out what was going on.
Admittedly, these same issues were apparent on the standard-def release of 'Dinosaur' as well, so they're likely indicative of the film's photographic style and not this transfer or the Blu-ray format. But at the end of the day, an image that looks flat, looks flat. Even taking into account the film's organic, earthy visual aesthetic, I will certainly not be throwing 'Dinosaur' in my player when I want to show off a little demo material to my friends.
'Dinosaur' continues to surprise in the audio department, with an uncompressed, 48kHz/24-bit PCM 5.1 surround track that also failed to wow me. It's a perfectly fine mix to be sure, but given that this is a launch title for a next-gen format, I wanted more out of this one. (Note that Disney has also included an optional standard DTS 5.1 surround track, but it trails considerably behind the PCM mix.)
To be fair, the sound design of 'Dinosaur' never thrilled me much on standard-def DVD, either. It is not only that the mix is far more front-heavy than I demand out of a big-budget animated spectacular like this, but even the depth and impact of the sound quality itself feels muted. There are no major problems with dynamic range, such as distorted high end or clipped low bass, but frequency response just never feels totally alive and full-bodied. Surround use is also restrained -- time and again in the film, during a sequence that should sound awe-inspiring and all-enveloping (such as the dinosaur attacks, or the nighttime rainstorm of comets), the rear channels hardly emit any activity. Pans between channels are rare, too, and certainly nothing in this mix comes close to producing the "wall of sound" that has so impressed me on past Blu-ray and HD DVD soundtracks such as 'The Corpse Bride,' 'Training Day' or 'Troy.' Alas, my first Disney Blu-ray sound experience left me feeling underwhelmed at best.
Though 'Dinosaur' came loaded with extras when it was issued as a two-disc Limited Edition DVD, Blu-ray disc storage limitations mean that most of those goodies have been nixed for the film's inaugural high-def release.
The main supplement is an audio commentary featuring co-directors Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag and effects supervisors Neil Krepeda and Neil Eskuri. This was actually only one of two commentaries featured on the original standard-def DVD, but luckily Disney picked the better one. It is a pretty informative effort, covering all of the basics of the story construction, the visual design concepts and working with the voice talent. Though likely far too boring for anyone under the age of, say, 14 years-old, this track is worth a listen if you are at all interested in dinosaurs and CGI animation.
No theatrical trailers or other promotional materials of any kind are included.
I am sincere in my disappointment with 'Dinosaur.' I wanted it to be a home run for Disney and Blu-ray, but I just wasn't blown away by the video, audio or the HD exclusive content. This disc looks and sounds perfectly fine, but frankly I thought Warner's new 'The Corpse Bride' looked better, and it is not even CGI. In any case, I look forward to bigger and better things from Disney with Blu-ray.