- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

''Dinosaur" looked promising when it was previewed last fall. Disney animators seemed to be tantalizing us with a miniature epic.

An egg from a dinosaur nest is stolen by one marauding bird and then transported by another across a vast landscape of prehistoric herds and a body of water to an island setting. There it lands in a tropical forest and begins to hatch.

The sequence was sustained by image, music and sound effects. While it seemed unlikely that an animated feature could postpone talking animals indefinitely, "Dinosaur" looked capable of making the attempt with a remarkable degree of skill and sophistication.

The finished film, which opens today, fulfills that initial promise in terms of pictorial spectacle and epic evocation. While "Dinosaur" doesn't try to transcend the need for talking and endearing animal characters of ostensibly Cretaceous vintage it achieves an impressive and satisfying blend of the portentous and playful, the serious and frivolous. Another landmark for Disney animation, "Dinosaur" stakes out a claim for the company as a pace setter and overachiever in the field of computer animation.

The stolen egg discloses its occupant: an infant iguanodon, which is reluctantly adopted by a family of lemurs. This is reminiscent of last summer's animated "Tarzan," with a dinosaur substituted for the orphaned human and little mammals for the sizable apes.

The thickest patch of Disneyesque whimsy can be found as the orphaned dinosaur grows into a lovable misfit called Aladar (spoken by D.B. Sweeney), frolicking about with diminutive adoptive siblings called Zini (Max Casella) and Suri (Hayden Panettiere, the juvenile actress who did the voice of Princess Dot in "A Bug's Life"). The doting parents, Plio (Alfre Woodard) and Yar (Ossie Davis), seem like variations on Tarzan's softhearted mom and hard-boiled dad.

What saves the movie at this early juncture is the need for Aladar to save himself and his adopted family from natural disaster, which arrives in the form of meteor showers. Pictorially splendid but devastating to the habitat, they force Aladar into a desperate swim from island to mainland, ferrying his diminutive loved ones.

Upon landing, he discovers creatures of his own species for the first time. The island survivors bump into a huge dinosaur exodus while fleeing some vicious scavengers who tend to prey on stragglers. Aladar and family become lifesaving stragglers for this group as it treks toward an ancestral nesting ground, presumed to be sheltered from the recent cataclysm.

During the rest of the film, ominous possibilities keep the cute stuff in line diverting but strictly subordinated comic relief. The exodus leads across badlands that teem with peril.

The journey is sufficiently tense and alarming to warrant some caution from parents attending with very young children. The age of fascination with dinosaurs should be a reliable guide to suitability, but there are more intimations of brute violence and more apprehensive sequences than one associates with Disney animated features.

The filmmakers don't depict predators at work with frequent and graphic vengeance. Those confrontations are occasional and incisive, but they emerge from a surprisingly consistent awareness of danger and doom in a prehistoric environment.

John Newton Howard's music provides unerring emotional anticipation and reinforcement from sequence to sequence. The animators achieve things with skin texture and muscular articulation that defy adequate appreciation in a single viewing.

"Dinosaur" exists in a fertile cinematic terrain somewhere between the documentary speculation of "Walking With Dinosaurs" and the cartoon charm of "The Land Before Time." The film looks magnificent and stimulates the imagination.

THREE-AND-A-HALF STARS OUT OF FOUR STARS

TITLE: "Dinosaur"

RATING: PG (Sustained suspense about prehistoric animals threatened with catastrophe; fleeting graphic violence but a stronger sense of mortality than one associates with animated features)

CREDITS: Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton. Produced by Pam Marsden. Screenplay by John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on an original screenplay by Walon Green.

RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes

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