Dinosaur: A Disney Experiment In Politics

Hello, everyone! The current state of Disney is all about tentpole brands: Marvel, Star Wars, Elsa, etc. Back in the day, however, the mouse-eared monopoly used to take chances, gifting us with truly bizarre movies that have faded away into our collective memories. Dinosaur is one of those movies: a live-action/CGI hybrid adventure film about talking dinosaurs on a journey to find sanctuary after a meteor strikes Earth. Devoid of Disney’s usual cutesy antics, Dinosaur is a surprisingly serious film about the dangers of strong-man leadership, all told through the eyes of an optimistic Iguanadon named Aladar.

Happy 17th Anniversary, Dinosaur! (May 19th, 2000... - Tumbex
Aladar in Dinosaur

Synopsis: After a T-Rex kills a nesting Iguanadon, all of her eggs are crushed except for one, which is whisked away by a flying dinosaur and dropped onto an island inhabited only by prehistoric lemurs. The chief leader Yar is hesistant to adopt the baby Iguanadon, but his daughter Plio convinces him to take the baby in, and Aladar soon becomes a part of the lemurs’ family. After Aladar is grown, a meteor strikes Earth, forcing Aladar to flee with his lemur family. They meet a herd of other dinosaurs on their way to the “nesting grounds,” an idyllic paradise that can only be reached after a difficult journey through the barren desert. Aladar falls in with a group of slower dinosaurs, and his compassion for them puts him at odds with the herd’s leader, Kron, who has little sympathy for the weaker dinosaurs in the herd. Aladar gains the sympathy of Kron’s sister, Neera, but continues to clash with Kron, whose cruel leadership style puts the herd in danger. With vicious Carnotaurs on their tail, and Kron leading the herd towards doom, Aladar must find a way to save the herd and protect his family without incurring Kron’s wrath.

My thoughts: Originally conceptualized as a dark, documentary-style dinosaur film in 1986, Dinosaur underwent several evolutions before emerging as the 2000 movie we have today. Influenced by the success of Jurassic Park, Disney execs wanted to capitalize on dinosaur fever, but they also wanted it to have that essential Disney flair. As a result, Dinosaur has a tone that’s hard to pin down. For every scene with a wise-cracking lemur, there’s another scene where a dinosaur is brutally attacked, bloody wounds on fully display. Vicious Carnotaurs are featured in all of their sharp-toothed glory, and even the flat-toothed herbivore protagonists have no qualms about resorting to violence. As children’s movies go, it’s a grim one, with death lurking around every corner. Perhaps the fuzzy lemurs and pee jokes helped with the PG rating.

The most mature aspect of the movie, however, is not the violence, but the film’s ideological subtext. The movie centers around the conflict between the leadership styles of Aladar and Kron. Aladar believes in the power of the people, and values the contributions of the “weaker” dinosaurs in the group. His unconventional ideas, open-mindedness, and willingness to value the ideas of those without social capital helps him solve the problems that Kron cannot. In one scene, Aladar uses the strength of Baylene, an elderly Brachiosaurus, to uncover water hidden beneath a seemingly barren desert. In another scene, he harnesses the strength of the herd to push back a hungry Carnotaur. Kron, in contrast, believes only in the power of physical strength. His “my way or the highway” attitude discourages individual thinking and innovation, and he relies on intimidation, violence, and fear of exile to keep the herd in line. Although Kron’s leadership has led the herd to success in the past, his refusal to compromise his pace for the weaker members of the herd shows that he is willing to sacrifice those he considers unimportant in order to ensure the survival of the rest of the herd.

While watching the movie, my brother and I joked that Dinosaur was Disney’s own version of the Communist Manifesto, but even if that’s a stretch, it’s not wrong to categorize this movie as a political one. Disney has always written movies about free-thinking protagonists who don’t quite fit in with the rest of their world, but they usually stay away from movies about mass social change. Dinosaur is an adventure movie about, well, dinosaurs, but it’s also a movie about a character fighting against a dictator, harnessing the power of the people, and creating a more tolerant society. Even if you only pay attention to the fighting Iguanadons and talking lemurs, it’s impossible to miss the politics of the film. And that’s a good thing.

Animated Film Reviews: Dinosaur (2000) - Dinosaurs Here, There and  Everywhere
Kron in Dinosaur

At its initial release, critics praised the movie for its visual effects, but disliked the actual plot of the film. Variety critic Todd McCarthy said the movie was “an eye-popping visual spectacle”, but also said that, “somewhere around half-way through, you begin to get used to the film’s pictorial wondrousness — to take it for granted, even — and start to realize that the characters and story are exceedingly mundane, unsurprising and pre-programmed.” Most critics agreed that the plot was derivative, which just shows that the 1990s and early 2000s was the golden age of original animated movies. Back then, Disney was still taking chances and writing movies that said something, even if that something wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking. Dinosaur came out only a few years after The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, and Pocahontas, all movies about outcast characters standing up to strong-men dictators. Compared to those recent movies, Dinosaur would have seemed derivative, but in today’s current Disney movie landscape, Dinosaur feels like a breath of fresh air. Current Disney films, with the exception of a recent gem like Raya, are made with the intention of being sold to such a large and diverse group of people (including large audiences that don’t speak English), that their themes are purposely distilled into simplified platitudes in order to appeal to as many viewers as possible. In 2019, Disney made more than $7 billion from international box-office sales, breaking their own world record. Even though box-office profits are only their third-highest generator of revenue (after media networks and parks), there is an astronomical incentive to produce movies that can appeal to everyone from a 3rd grader in Wisconsin to a 30-year-old in Beijing. Consequently, Disney can’t get away with making movies that say anything anymore, or risk offending some segment of their enormous audience. Avengers:Endgame, for example, made $629 million in Chinese ticket sales alone, which amounted to around 22% of their total $2.8 billion profit. They certainly can’t make a movie about a group of idealists standing up to a dictator and hope to earn Chinese approval.

All this to say that Dinosaur is one of the last Disney movies to make a statement, and that’s one of the reasons that it’s a notable film. If Disney were to make a similar film today, we already know what it would look like: The Good Dinosaur, which takes the standard Disney/Pixar coming-of-age tale and tells it through the perspective of a cute little dinosaur. The Good Dinosaur is about overcoming personal obstacles, not societal ones, and makes no larger statement about the world as a whole. Look at any recent animated Disney movie, and you’ll see the same thing. Every story occurs on a micro-level, and most of them revolve around solving problems that affect only the protagonist. While you might see some light inter-personal conflict, you won’t see any movie about a group of individuals banding together to throw off an oppressive regime. Even the most recent Disney animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, is about individuals coming together to defeat a vague inhuman enemy, and the politics of the movie appear only in subtext. If you follow the money, there’s a reason for that.

There are several aspects of Dinosaur that make it a weird movie: the historical inaccuracies (lemurs and dinosaurs never lived at the same time), the anthropomorphic dinosaur faces (why do the protagonists have such high cheekbones?), and the juvenile jokes, but the weirdest thing in this dinosaur movie is the fact that it’s overtly political. I don’t expect my dinosaur movies to come with a meaty helping of political themes, but when they do, I don’t object. Dinosaur was clearly an experiment for Disney, and even though the movie made a hefty $348 million worldwide (almost $545 million adjusted for inflation), it’s clear that it’s not the type of movie they’re willing to make again. It’s not the lack of dinosaur fever that’s stopping them, as Jurassic World‘s $1.6 billion gross shows that interest is still high for dino flicks. Rather, it’s a fear of losing profits that’s halting Disney’s innovation. As long as they’re making movies for the masses, they can’t risk creating a film that might offend a core segment of their audience. For now, it seems like the only Disney movies with a message are they ones that they’ve already made.

Cretaceous Paradise — Colours and sounds of Disney's Dinosaur (For the...

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