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Film review: Dinosaur

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It's getting to be just a little too easy for Walt Disney Pictures.

After all these years of box-office hits, it seems that all it takes is putting the word "Disney" on an animated film, and no matter what the quality, it will succeed ("Pocahontas" leaps to mind). So you can almost understand how such a lackluster piece as "Dinosaur" came to be made.

The combination of prehistoric "thunder lizard" characters and the Disney trademark name would seem to be a match made in box-office heaven. And in terms of technical achievement, this digitally animated feature is as accomplished as anything the studio has ever produced.

But in terms of actual content and sheer entertainment value, it's something of a disappointment. The story is a retread of "The Land Before Time," while its characters and situations are nowhere near as memorable as the ones in that film.

The title character is Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), an Iguanodon separated from his family at birth. In possibly the film's most visually stunning scene, the egg containing the unborn Aladar is is swiped from the nest by predators.

Fortunately for him, the egg winds up in the hands of some prehistoric lemurs, including Yar (the voice of Ossie Davis), who initially has some misgivings about taking in a dinosaur — even one as cute as the newborn Iguanodon.

To Yar's surprise, however, Aladar turns out to be a real godsend. In fact, the now-adolescent dino saves the lives of Yar and the rest of his adopted family when their island is destroyed by a meteor storm.

So this motley group finds itself without a home, until they're lucky enough to fall in with a huge "wagon train" of sorts that's headed for the "nesting ground," a Shangri-La for dinosaurs.

But there's still substantial danger for everyone, both from the predatory carnotaurs that are picking off the stragglers and from Kron (Samuel E. Wright), the stubborn leader of this dinosaur migration, who may be leading them all into the carnotaurs' jaws.

In what proves to a wise move for first-time filmmakers, co-directors Ralph Zontag and Eric Leighton keep the action moving, though in all honesty there's not much story to drag things down.

Unfortunately, they're saddled with a script (by John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs) crammed with bad gags and anachronisms.

It also subscribes to the tried-and-true Disney "formula," which includes giving our hero a cutesy sidekick — in this case, it's the lemur Zini (Max Casella), whose wisecracks are not only lame, they're downright annoying.

(However, one thing they have done right is eliminating the expected, clunky musical numbers that are a Disney trademark and which certainly aren't needed here.)

To its credit, the experienced voice cast — which also includes Alfre Woodard, Julianna Margulies and Della Reese — gamely tries to give the film some desperately needed character.

But the real reason to go to this film is the animation, which places these ultra-realistic, digitally created characters with "real," live-action backgrounds that have been digitally doctored.

"Dinosaur" is rated PG for violent dinosaur attacks, some of which may be a bit terrifying for very young audiences. Running time: 84 minutes.

You can reach Jeff Vice by e-mail at jeff@desnews.com