Long ago, on an untouched Earth, giant lizard-like animals walked, grazed and hunted in their millions. Can you imagine a more awesome sight?
Disney couldn’t, hence their first non-Pixar CGI project: Dinosaur, a computer-animated film that integrates CGI characters with real life photography and footage. To make sure it was as convincing as possible, Disney dropped songs, showed some wounds and even dinosaur meat during the film, and very nearly kept the characters mute in a documentary style. With this in mind, you would think the rest of the details would be as true to life. And therein lies the problem.
Dinosaur films are notorious for bending the rules of timescales, their behaviour and even appearance, the main reason being that the only “facts” rely on whichever remains are available for study at the time, as well as whichever theories are currently doing the rounds. This can change year on year and even month on month as new discoveries are unearthed, so to a point it’s unfair to expect any film to be able to keep up.
This might sound like Disney have carte blanche to do what they like here, but even with the above there are some well established facts and theories that, sadly, were just as ignored as the film was. (Seriously, people, it’s dinosaurs. What’s wrong with you all?! End rant.)
Disclaimer: As with the previous entry, I’m not referring to the fact that the dinosaurs can all talk. This is about comparing their behaviour and other traits with what we believe they were like at the time of writing.
Millions of years ago, in what one could call a land before time, an Iguanodon egg is separated from its nest and dropped on a remote offshore island. A family of lemurs hatch the egg and decide to raise the baby inside, naming him Aladar, and together they live for many peaceful years in their mini tropical paradise. Unfortunately, this all comes to a grinding halt when the infamous comet falls from the sky, destroying their island and forcing the adult Aladar to ferry them across to the mainland on his back. On arrival, they find it’s full of deserts, vicious Velociraptors and other carnivores. Luckily they also come across a herd of veggie-loving dinosaurs who are heading to the safety of the
Great Valley Nesting Grounds, and decide to join up with them on their dino road trip.
The leader of the herd is a big gruff Iguanodon named Kron who takes Darwinism to an extreme even before it’s invented – if you can’t keep up with the herd or get injured, it’s your funeral, literally. This is at odds with Aladar and the lemurs’ caring mentality, and so they end up pally with Baylene, Eema and Url, older dregs of the herd who are having trouble on their journey. Eventually, Aladar’s indomitable spirit, even in the face of vicious Carnotaurs, wins the hearts of the rest of the herd as well as Kron’s sister, Neera, resulting in a showdown with Kron (if you can call a bit of shoving about a “showdown”) and him guiding the herd back to the safety of the Nesting Grounds via a safer route, resulting in the unintentional deaths of Kron and the last Carnotaur on their trail. Once at the Nesting Grounds, it’s babies galore, followed by a hopeful voiceover about the future.
At least their optimism didn’t go extinct.
What They Got Right
Eema, Url and “Pompadour”
The comet that ended the dinosaurs’ reign struck the Gulf of Mexico about 65 milion years ago, which places Dinosaur during the Late Cretaceous period in Earth’s history. During this time, Styracosaurus, Ankylosaurus and Parasaurolophus were all doing their respective dinosaur things in what is now North America, and may even have mixed occasionally.
Probably to out-ugly eachother.
The Iguanodon Herd
Iguanodon were like the rabbits of the Early Cretaceous period, at least in numbers. They were found pretty much everywhere, and their bones were often discovered in large groups. Conventional wisdom holds that this wasn’t due to some mass cult suicide and that they must have therefore formed herds when grazing and travelling.
The Lemur Family
Another social arrangement true to life is that of the lemurs – specifically, a group of Verreaux’s sifakas. Plio is the mother and implied leader of the troop (not that this counts a jot when the comet hits and she absconds with her nearest and dearest), and the courtship dance, spectacularly failed by Zini, takes place annually: sifakas are matriarchal and only breed once a year. They must save a fortune on contraception.
I’m guessing if you have any knowledge about dinosaurs you can already see the (decidedly small and furry) elephant in the room, but first let’s look at some of the things we can let Disney off the hook for.
What They Got Away With
Life After the Comet
Given the sudden drop off of dinosaurs (in evolutionary terms), and the high amount of iridium found in rocks during this period, the comet is considered the prime if not only suspect of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. In which case, you may be wondering why the Nesting Grounds appears untouched and why plenty of animals seem to be alive and well during the film. The impact certainly finished off a great deal of them, but for the rest it was only the beginning of the end – there is no accurate indication of how long it took for the dinosaurs to die out afterwards. It could have taken days, months, weeks, even hundreds of years or more, so life did still go on during this time. Basically, Disney get a free pass here because we honestly don’t know the answer yet.
It’s now generally accepted that most predators like Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus had feathers for insulation, but this is a very recent theory and one that wasn’t fully recognised when Dinosaur was in production (between 1996 and 2000). Also, they had enough trouble rendering the grass and the lemurs’ fur, so I don’t think we should begrudge them a couple of dino headdresses.
Feathers weren’t the only omission in the designs.
Dinosaurs in the Iguanodon family eventually gave way to the duck-bills, and so they had jaws ending in a beak. This was removed from the design for Dinosaur due to expression and animation constraints. On the Collector’s Edition DVD there is some test footage of this but it makes the characters look like they only ever have one expression, as if after a bad facelift. As far as we know they didn’t have eyebrows or eyelashes either, so you can understand why Disney made this tweak.
Ah. It seems I was being a bit generous with “things” (plural) we can let slide, because a good deal of the other changes aren’t quite so forgiveable. Have you got 65 million hours to spare?
Thanks to Jurassic Park, any mention of Velociraptors being smaller and spindlier than their kitchen-stalking counterparts makes people clap their hands over their ears and shout loudly (or yawn loudly, but if that’s you then you probably shouldn’t be reading this post). The truth is, they were about the size of wolves, but Disney have gone and made them even larger – up to about 10ft high compared to Jurassic Park‘s now modest 6ft. This is even sillier considering that there actually is a type of raptor about this size. Known as Utahraptor, it was discovered while Jurassic Park was being filmed, so unlike with this film Disney had no excuse not to use it instead of Velociraptor, especially as Utahraptor was found in the U.S. and Velociraptor only rampaged across Mongolia and other parts of Asia. You’ll notice that geography isn’t Disney’s strong point either.
On the one hand, props to them for choosing such an awesome (and until then unknown) carnivore for their villain. Carnotaurus really did have horns like that – its name means “meat-eating bull” – and it’s a refreshing change from good old T-Rex. However, its killing ground was in fact Argentina and other parts of Central and South America.
At one point Kron does mention that Carnotaurs “never come this far north” and his lieutenant Bruton chimes in that the “fireball must have driven them out”, but this doesn’t account for the one that attacks Aladar’s mother in the Nesting Grounds at the beginning of the film. The way it attacks its prey is also up for debate, as we’ll see from the next point.
Charge of the Bite Brigade
Thanks to Kron’s stubborn direction, the herd ends up cornered in a ravine with a hungry Carnotaur at the other end of it. The dinosaurs panic as the carnivore rushes towards them, which makes no sense on two fronts. First of all, the herd is cornered, so a leisurely pace would be equally as effective at catching prey. Secondly, notice how some of the dinosaurs have spikes and horns? If a predator had rushed them like this, this is what would have likely happened:
It’s possible that such stupidity made Carnotaurus extinct, but despite Kron’s objections it doesn’t look like the weak or idiotic dinosaurs come a cropper at all.
Badass Baby Iguanodons
During the march we see no fewer than two dinosaurs drop down dead from exhaustion, and Eema almost succumbs when they don’t get enough water at the halfway point. These are all adults who have presumably made the trip before, but these two baby Iguanodons trump them entirely. Even before Neera decides to help them, they manage to keep up with the herd, are somehow the first dinosaurs to reach the dried up lake, and the absolute last dinosaurs to have a drink of water.
If you are an uber dinosaur geek like me then you have no doubt noticed some other discrepancies in the film after looking at the composition of said herd. If not, then sit up straight and you may learn something. You never know, it might come up in a pub quiz or something.
The Fallacious Cretaceous
As I mentioned earlier, the comet shows that the events of the film take place near the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, or K-T boundary, 65 million years ago. This represents only a tiny part of the dinosaurs’ reign; they lived on Earth for about 140 million years in total, and in that time there were various species with various adaptations.
To help get your (and my) head around the timescale involved, imagine that every single person in Greater London or New York City represents one year. Now imagine 8 Greater Londons or New York Cities. That number of years takes you back to the time of the comet and the K-T boundary, i.e. the Late Cretaceous period.
Now, this motley crew,
were, long, long dead before the comet hit. They all hail from the Early-Mid Cretaceous period, up to 80 million years before the beforehand, ergo, 18 Greater Londons or New York cities ago.
And the last two were from Mongolia, so yet another geography fail.
An even (literally) bigger offender is Baylene, the second most amazing CGI Brachiosaur ever.
She is “the last of her kind”, which is good going considering the rest of her species died out about 100 million years earlier, i.e. 27 Greater Londons or New York Cities ago. The gap between Baylene and the comet is also more than twice the gap between it and us. So saying it’s okay because she’s the last one is like saying there could be a real life T-Rex among the other animals at your local zoo, probably in the cage next to the aforementioned elephant in the room:
This…is an odd choice for a family unit. I understand the idea of having some kind of mammal in the story that the audience can relate to, but a lemur? A mouse, possum or even a raccoon-like creature would be nearer the mark as there were similar mammals scurrying about at the dinosaurs’ feet in this period, but a primate makes no sense this far back in the fossil record. The sifakas also look like modern-day sifakas, so we’re not dealing with a more primitive species here either. It’s one thing to bung lots of dinosaurs together from different periods, but inserting a modern day creature into a film that was only a few steps away from being a prehistoric documentary smacks of laziness, or Disney were more lax with their research than first thought.
Not only is the time difference between the first ever primates and the comet about 7 Greater Londons or New York Cities, but between the primates and Aladar it’s about 11. Again, more than the gap between the comet and us.
Since we’re dealing with gargantuan numbers it’s all too easy to dismiss it as “eh, it’s pretty much the same”, but imagine if the person doling out your Lottery winnings had the same opinion. These animals didn’t coexist and to say so makes the story about as realistic as the Flintstones.
As far as social behaviour goes, Disney have stuck to the accepted theories about dinosaurs and also read up about sifakas. A couple of designs have understandably been tweaked, and there are a couple of points where their guess is about as good as any other. This is not the case for pretty much everything else.
When it comes to time periods, Disney are no further forward than their earlier rendition of dinosaurs in Fantasia. There seem to be two distinct groups – one from the Late Cretaceous when the comet struck, and another from the Early Cretaceous, as if they researched both periods independently and assiduously and then gave up and decided to throw them into the mix. It would have been so easy to just remove one group and/or the comet and make the story much more accurate, but instead they toss in a bunch of lemurs as well.
To be fair, this has been the crime of virtually every dinosaur film ever put to celluloid. Outside of younger children, an interest in dinosaurs is quite niche (as an example, when I announced I was doing my MA dissertation on palaeontology everyone laughed. Seriously.) and so to attract as wide an audience as possible they will throw the most popular and recognisable dinosaurs together. But Disney have also chosen some lesser known species, and every effort seems to have been made to shoot a film that looks realistic and portrays dinosaurs as they were. In the end, this suggests an Aladar-Kron-like struggle over realism versus marketability.
In short, Dinosaur is like the infamous shot of Nessie. It looks real, but if you go a bit deeper you’ll find one person trying to act convincingly while the other is using it to sell tickets.
Accuracy Rating: 3/10
1) Dinosaur, 2000. Film. Directed by Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Brusatte, Steve. Dinosaurs.Quercus, 2008 (Great Britain). ISBN: 978-1-84724-286-6
3) Gardon, Tim and Milner, Angela. The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs. Carlton, no year (Great Britain). ISBN: 1-85227-486-7
4) Haines, Tim. Walking With Dinosaurs: A Natural History. BBC, 1999 (Great Britain). ISBN: 0-563-38449-2
5) Mehlling, Carl. Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. 3C Publishing Ltd, 2009 (Great Britain). ISBN-13: 978-1-906842-0301
6) Norman, David. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. Salamander Books, 1985 (Great Britain). ISBN: 0-86101-225-9
7) Parker, Steve. The Complete Book of Dinosaurs. Apple Press, 2004 (Great Britain). ISBN: 1-84092-456-X
8) Walking With Dinosaurs, television programme, British Broadcasting Corporation, England, 1999.
13) Header image: http://walkingwithdinos.wikia.com/wiki/Iguanodon?file=Image4_-_Copy.jpg