Revisiting “Dinosaur”

Disney+ appears to have very little dinosaur-related content. That made it pretty easy to view it all already: the National Geographic special Bizarre Dinosaurs, the Pixar film The Good Dinosaur, and the 2000 Disney adventure movie Dinosaur. I of course enjoyed it all. The production values of Bizarre Dinosaurs were a bit low, but the science documentary still showcased a lot of interesting fossils and theories with soundbites from some of the most well-known paleontologists out there. The Good Dinosaur, like virtually any Pixar movie, told an emotionally powerful story with a lot of cuteness, humor, and drama; I teared up at times, and my heart swelled at others–for instance, when we encounter the Tyrannosaur cattle ranchers. But Dinosaur was the movie that stuck with me the most, which is funny, because I don’t recall it being that good. I think I first saw it in theaters, but I don’t remember the experience; my impression at the time was that the dinosaurs looked good, but the story was boring. I was a huge fan of The Land Before Time series as a younger child, so even at age twelve, I found Dinosaur to offer little more than a retelling of that classic original film.

Dinosaur still isn’t a great film. It’s derivative, with a predictable narrative arc and expected character archetypes. Its parallels to The Land Before Time are strong: a young, orphaned herbivore joins with oddballs and outcasts from across species to make a journey across blighted lands to a fabled lush and fertile valley, all the while harried by dangerous carnivores. Even the opening feels like an attempt to update and extend The Land Before Time‘s sequence of misadventures for an imperiled egg before an eventual safe hatching. Still, the dinosaurs do look amazing and life-like, even when they talk (of course they talk; it’s a family movie, and it seems that kids can never be trusted to enjoy visual storytelling about more naturalistic animals). The settings are gorgeous as well, and there’s always something worth seeing in virtually every pane of the film.

But the reason I wanted to talk about Dinosaur now is because I was shocked by how contemporary the film’s themes appear. In this movie, a major natural disaster occurs, resulting in tremendous loss of life and the depletion of sustainable ecological systems. The prehistoric protagonists must venture to their nesting grounds in the hope that these lands have survived through the devastation. But reaching these nesting grounds can no longer be accomplished through the traditional, tried and tested means. Too many will be lost to thirst, fatigue, and predation if they are driven too hard. The old resources they depended on to make it are gone. The old herd leader chooses a path focused on austerity and sacrifice; he believes that if he pushes them hard enough, even if they lose half the herd, at least the strong and “deserving” will have survived. In contrast, young protagonist Aladar was raised not by dinosaurs but by a family of closely interconnected lemur-like creatures; he sees the value in all life and argues for protecting and caring for the old, weak, and infirm. He finds creative solutions to problems, and in the end, it is only his discovery of an alternate route to the nesting grounds, and his determination that the herd stick together even when confronted with a predator, that almost everyone makes it through okay. The old herd leader is faced with a literal rock wall preventing the advancement of the old way, but he doubles down on his course to the very end, leading to his doom.

Whether deliberate or not, the movie thus appears to have things to say about progressive change in the face of conservative resistance, about the need for communal effort in a society that has been built on individualist striving, and about the inevitable replacement of the old and staid with the young and new. These messages seem just as relevant now than ever, especially as our older generations’ leaders cling to their positions of power despite unrest and a desire for change among Millennials and Gen Z. There is an increasingly foolhardy and angry adherence to old ways, even when the crises of today, especially climate change, require drastic action and new solutions that may require considerable sacrifice, communal resilience, and adaptive thinking and behavior.

The strongest message I took away is that, no matter how dire the situation is, we must continue to hope. We can’t give in to fatalism, no matter what. It’s easy to read the initial devastating rain of meteors, followed by what appears to be a truly massive asteroid, as representative of the Yucatán impact that may have spelled the end for the dinosaurs. It smashes down over the sea; it causes colossal environmental destruction in a large swath around it, including further inland; and it appears to result in changes in climate (although the central dinosaur migration appears to be a regular occurrence during a dry season, so the dust storms and sun-obscuring clouds might have been intended to be more routine and less ominous than in my interpretation). The Cretaceous-era dinosaur lineup is of the right geologic age, mostly, and while the dinosaurs represent a bit of a geographic hodge-podge, the main villain Carnotaurus is from South America. More importantly, even if we aren’t witnessing the eventual end of the dinosaurs, we all know how the story of these marvelous creatures ends, and the movie doesn’t shy away from this. The last line of the film is as follows: “We can only hope that, in some small way, our time here will be remembered.”

There are many times when all hope seems lost. The lemur colony that serves as the adopted family of Aladar is almost completely wiped out very early in the film, and it is unclear until the end if there will be any others of their species to propagate future generations. One of Aladar’s early allies is an elderly Brachiosaurus, and we are told that she is the last of her kind. The environmental devastation and resultant changes to the landscape, including depletion of groundwater and the blockage of a major pass through a ring of mountains, create situations that initially suggest doom. Yet Aladar and his friends always find hope and keep on pushing, typically arriving at creative solutions that can only work through communal effort and group care. Surviving, living for another day and raising others up along with them, is an important enough goal, even if they can’t solve the broader problems of their time.

In a political climate where it can be tempting to give into fatalistic apathy, this message of hope and action for change, no matter what the future looks like, is rather inspiring. It was surprising to find this message in, of all places, a family film about dinosaurs.

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