Building A Better Dinosaur

The earth begins to tremble. The jungle begins to sway. Through the rustling trees emerges the terrifying head of a carnotaur, the gargantuan two-legged carnivore all other dinosaurs fear. Bounding from massive leg to leg, it crosses the plain, four tons of murderous intent descending on its lunch. With surprising swiftness, it overtakes a pachyrhinosaur, pulls the writhing beast down and plunges its razor-sharp teeth into its victim. Gotcha!

This primal moment comes near the beginning of Disney's splendiferous "Dinosaur." The hearts of millions of little boys and girls are going to race at this bone-crunching spectacle. They won't be the only ones in the grip of an adrenaline rush: their parents will not have forgotten the awe these prehistoric beasts inspire. This PG-rated movie--a breakthrough in the merging of computer-generated images and real backgrounds--is the first film to come out of Disney's new digital studio. It taps into an obsession that has been growing since 1841, when the British scientist Sir Richard Owen named these creatures Dinosauria, Greek for "terrible lizard."

"Dinosaur," which has been in the works on and off for 12 years and which the studio says cost $127.5 million, is more than just Disney's latest summer movie. (The total price tag runs to $200 million if the cost of the digital studio built to make the movie is included.) With "Dinosaur," the House That Mickey Built aims to show the world, and its competitors, that it can be as dominant in 3-D digital animation as it has always been in traditional, two-dimensional formats. It comes at a moment when the Disney film division (unlike the "Millionaire"- fueled ABC-TV division) is under pressure, having suffered big disappointments on movies such as "Mission to Mars" and in its home-video division. Though no other studio has been able to compete with its traditional animation hits, up until now it's been Disney's partner, Pixar, which has ruled the CGI roost with the two "Toy Storys" and "A Bug's Life." Disney distributed these movies, but splits the take with its northern California partners 50-50.

Up in Silicon Valley, John Lasseter and Steve Jobs have used computers to create a cartoon universe rendered in photo-realist detail (remember the slob Big Al nodding out amid junk food in "Toy Story 2"?). The Pixar style creates an alternate reality not meant to be confused with our own. In "Dinosaur," which seamlessly plops computer-generated dinosaurs into real-world backgrounds, we get a peek at where the revolution in CGI could be leading--to a day when it will no longer be possible to tell photographic reality from illusion. Just as in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator," where the audience can't tell which part of the Roman Coliseum was built in real space and which in virtual, the obviously fantastical "Dinosaur" takes us a playful step closer to this unnerving future. For if we can create dinosaurs and ancient Rome in a machine, can artificial Leos, Keanus and Demis be far behind?

The timing for Disney's movie couldn't be better. Dinomania--stirred to a fever pitch by "Jurassic Park" back in 1993--is once again raging. Three weeks ago the Discovery Channel's three-hour "Walking With Dinosaurs" reportedly drew 10.7 million viewers, the largest ever for a cable documentary.

The genesis of Disney's "Dinosaur" actually predates the Spielberg blockbuster. It started life as a 1988 Walon Green screenplay that Paul Verhoeven was interested in directing as a live-action drama. Many years and a revolution in computer technology later, the 2000 version--a wondrous hybrid between fantasy and reality--is a family entertainment not quite like anything we've seen before. On the one hand it's pure traditional Disney storytelling--anthropomor-phized talking animals learning humanistic life lessons in a brisk 82 minutes. But this fantasy about a young Iguanodon with the rather Hungarian name of Aladar (voice of D. B. Sweeney), who is separated from his parents and raised, Tarzan style, by a family of friendly lemurs, is placed in a prehistoric setting that has been imagined in almost photo-realist detail. And the violence within that world may be too intense for very young kids. That carnotaur with the tiny hands and big teeth is no cartoon villain--he's a terrifying beast whose weight, mass and thorny texture are the end product of six years and roughly 3.2 million computer-hours of work.

"Dinosaur" gives us a glimpse of the earth's past and the medium's future. It has been put together with an almost fanatical attention to detail: the jiggle of the skin on the old Brachiosaurus Baylene (Joan Plowright) is the result of a careful study of elephants in motion; each hair on the lemurs (and there are 1.1 million hairs on each) is a three-dimensional entity whose movement was controlled by "fur stylist" Charles Colladay. Even the wind is art-directed.

"Dinosaur" is at its exhilarating best in the long, dazzling opening sequence, which follows the egg out of which Aladar will be hatched as it is snatched from its nest by a swift Oviraptor, passed through dense forests from species to species, sent floating down rivers like a Mesozoic Moses, borne aloft in the beak of a winged Pteranodon, soaring over dinosaur-dotted plains and jagged canyons and seacoast cliffs on a magical Cretaceous carpet ride that has the cliffhanging inventiveness of a James Bond action overture.

The landscapes in this sequence were shot in Florida, Australia, Venezuela and the Los Angeles Arboretum (Jordan, Samoa, Hawaii and the Mojave Desert are also seen). But in this computer-manipulated film, nothing is as it seems--the sky may be from one part of the world, the mountains from another and the river that runs through it entirely generated by computer. There are scenes in which nothing is real, followed by a shot in which all the backgrounds are actual places, and it is impossible to tell the difference. When the feet of these virtual dinosaurs touch ground, real dust rises in their wake.

Aladar's idyll among the lemurs, who raise him with their mammalian values of adaptability and compassion, comes to an end when the world is threatened by deadly meteor showers. It is, we know, the beginning of the end of the dinosaur's reign on earth. Aladar and his lemur friends, forced to leave their island, join the herd of deracinated dinos trekking across a blasted landscape in search of their verdant nesting grounds. At this point "Dinosaur" becomes a prehistoric remake of the 1948 cattle-drive classic "Red River" with Aladar in the Monty Clift role and the herd's leader, the ferocious iguanodon Kron (Samuel E. Wright), playing the authoritarian John Wayne part. The love interest, Neera (Julianna Margulies), Kron's sister, comes to see that Aladar's new, un-dinosauric ways of thinking (teamwork, valor, compassion!) hold out more hope for the future than her brother's survival-of-the-fittest social Darwinism.

If the narrative pieces of "Dinosaur" seem familiar (you'll get whiffs of "The Lion King" in its circle-of-life salute) and some of its comic shtik--the lemur Zini as a failed pickup artist-- halfhearted, in the end it barely matters. First and foremost this is a feast for the eyes, a prehistoric pageant whose savage and soaring images will infiltrate your dreams.

Since 1994, when producer Pam Marsden and directors Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton were hired to work on some sort of ill- defined dinosaur movie, the company has had two simultaneous goals in mind: to make a movie, and to build a digital studio that would service the entire Walt Disney Co. Both "Dinosaur" and the studio that is now known as the Secret Lab (built from the skeleton of an old Lockheed aircraft plant) were literally made up as they went along.

In '94, Marsden recalls, "we started testing to see if we could create a CG dinosaur that could act." At first they considered using miniature backgrounds. Then the idea of computerized backgrounds was considered and rejected. Two years later the tests were completed, and they knew they wanted to set their digital dinos in real settings, to better emphasize their size and reality. At this point they went to CEO Michael Eisner and announced that, though they didn't know how much it would cost or how long it would take, they could make the movie. Movie moguls don't usually like such uncertainty, but Eisner gave them the go-ahead: it was a leap of faith. "To business-school students, I would hasten to say that this is not the way you should be doing business," Eisner says. "However, when it is the core of your company--the culture and the heritage which stands for the name Disney--the investment in equipment, space and talent must be made."

At its peak, "Dinosaur" employed close to 900 people. But CG animation was such a new field that "the world didn't have 50 A-list senior CG animators," says coproducer Baker Bloodworth. They had to hire traditional animators and spend a year and a half training them. Much of the software had to be invented from scratch. Technology, to some extent, dictated the movie's story, which kept getting rewritten according to what the animators could or could not pull off. Once it was decided, early on, that the dinos would talk (at Eisner's insistence), certain liberties had to be taken with scientific fact: iguanodons, for example, had to acquire lips. "We had a joke," Marsden recalls: "Oh my God, next they'll sing!" That never became a real threat. If it had, she says, "people would have walked." Some may still choose that option: dino fanatics flooded the Internet with angry posts when they discovered that the realistic (and silent) beasts they had seen in an early trailer spoke English.

That passion is a good indication of the depth of our obsession with dinosaurs. We can't seem to get enough of these titans, and every new breakthrough in paleontology--and in movie technology--helps whet our insatiable appetite. Why are we so obsessed? Sheer bigness is the most obvious answer. Couple that with savagery--always a lure. Then add the mammoth irony--and safety net--of extinction. For University of Chicago professor W.J.T. Mitchell, the fact that all the dinosaurs perished enables them to serve as "a metaphor for our anxieties about mass death and destruction." Will we as a species die out, too? Children, who tend to fixate on dinosaurs when they're 4 and 5, often encounter the concept of death for the first time when contemplating these giants.

Also, as any kid can tell you, they look so cool! Dinos have always made natural movie stars, but the sad truth is, most of the century's dinosaur movies provoked more giggles than gasps. They've been trying to get it right since 1914, when the hand-drawn Gertie the Dinosaur made her first appearance. Filmmakers have tried everything from dressing up magnified lizards in dino drag to the celebrated stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. For the most part, the fear these movies inspired quickly turned into camp.

Hollywood used to offer us only teasing glimpses of stegosaurs and brontosaurs, for fear that a longer gaze would reveal the tacky artifice of the special effects. Now, in the dazzling "Dinosaur," we can stare for minutes on end, in no danger of satiation. However this movie fares at the box office (it's hard to imagine it can miss), Disney's huge investment in both its digital studio and its movie serves as a formidable challenge to the industry. In the process, it should fuel the fantasies and nightmares of a whole new generation of dinophiles. It's Disney's big-byte bid for the future.