In prehistoric times a stray iguanodon egg miraculously evades various perils and predators to be adopted by a family of friendly lemurs. Pilo (voiced by Alfre Woodard) christens her newly-hatched dinosaur baby Aladar (D.B. Sweeney). Despite some brief hesitance from clan patriarch Yar (Ossie Davis), Aladar is embraced by his mammalian brethren and grows up happily alongside precocious "kid sister" Suri (Hayden Panettiere). Alas, their idyllic life comes to an abrupt end when a meteor crashes into Earth creating a shockwave that destroys their island. The newly displaced family then join up with a band of dinosaur refugees, including female iguanodon Neera (Juliana Margulies) who takes a shine to kindly Aladar, in search of a safe stretch of land to call home. Leading the herd through a scarred wasteland Neera's brother, the uncompromising Kron (Samuel E. Wright) takes umbrage at Aladar's compassionate determination to help the weak and the sick survive the dangerous journey.
Disney's first computer animated feature not produced by their affiliates at Pixar began life in the mid-Eighties as a project developed by stop-motion animator Phil Tippett and future Robocop (1987) director Paul Verhoeven, later adapted into a screenplay by Walon Green, writer behind The Wild Bunch (1969)! As one might expect their take on the material was rather more sober, certainly darker than the family-friendly Disney product that eventually reached screens. On a technical level, while inevitably somewhat dated, Dinosaur's photo-realistic animation remains impressive. Its scope and ambition result in several remarkably immersive and lifelike sequences. While the characters' "cartoony" eyeballs do work against the film’s attempt at documentary realism given the dead-eyed zombie animals that lurched through The Lion King (2019) reboot, it is no big flaw.
Where Dinosaur truly scores is with its wordless opening sequence which tracks the little dinosaur egg as it floats along the river past grazing herbivores and carnivorous pursuers, through majestic valleys and over sweeping aerial vistas. These stunning visuals are set to a thunderous score by James Newton Howard and evoke the prehistoric segments in Disney's classic Fantasia (1940). Once the animals start talking however the spell is broken. The film lapses into more conventional Disney anthropomorphization. While the digital animation is more sophisticated the story is as cloying as The Land Before Time (1988). That is not to say events and characterization within the movie are not engaging, only less ambitious than the epic visuals suggest.
Once that pesky meteor wipes out poor Aladar's happy adopted home (a reminder that Disney animated movies are almost always about coping with death) and the focus shifts to dinosaur refugees and mammalian stowaways struggling to survive their deadly trek through the desert, the story evolves into a clash between Kron's brutal Darwinism and the more, dare one say, humanistic philosophy espoused by the compassionate Aladar. If that sounds unlikely and weird given we are dealing with cold blooded reptiles, well, it is. But it is a solid theme nonetheless and one that Dinosaur develops quite succinctly. Interestingly the Asian release featured a Cantopop theme song performed by Hong Kong superstar Jacky Cheung. Not faring so well was a song composed by iconoclastic British pop star Kate Bush which test audiences rejected outright.