How Dinosaur, A Movie You’ve Forgotten Existed, Shaped The Disney Landscape Forever

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures / Walt Disney Animation Studios

If you saw Toy Story 2 when it opened theatrically in the winter of 1999 or owned a copy of Tarzan after its home video release in early 2000, you probably still remember it — a wordless, five-minute-long prologue that played before the film. It followed a dinosaur egg as it careened through an unforgiving primeval landscape while accompanied by soaring, Lion King-esque music (intentionally so — as the song featured Lion King vocalist Lebo M) and some truly stunning visuals. The fact that it was promoting a movie being released next summer was almost beside the point; this was a breathless blast on its own, with all the drama and emotion and raw power of the best Disney had to offer. The prologue was also frightfully misleading.

When Dinosaur finally opened in theaters on May 19, 2000, audiences were treated to a very different movie, full of cutesy characters and a familiar story. While it wound up being a sizable hit for the studio, the stakes could not have been higher for Dinosaur. And while it may not be remembered 20 years later and was a production plagued by difficulties, it was also one of the most important movies Disney had released at the time — for better or worse.

The idea for Dinosaur started way back in 1986 on the set of the ultra-violent RoboCop between director Paul Verhoeven and visual effects producer and animator Phil Tippett. "We were doing the scene where ED-209 falls down the stairs," Tippett tells SYFY WIRE. "We're sitting in this stairwell and everybody started bitching about how there were no good movies made anymore. And I said, 'Well I have an idea for a movie about dinosaurs.'" Verhoeven was instantly excited.

"That could be cosmic," Tippett recalls Verhoeven saying. "There could be meteors and the death of the dinosaurs and huge battles with geysers of blood." Rumors swirled that the dinosaurs would poop and have sex and rip each others' heads off; Tippett confirms that yes, that was what they had planned.

When the pair wrapped RoboCop and returned to Los Angeles, producer Jon Davison made an appointment to pitch the untitled dinosaur project to then-Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg. They entered with armfuls of books, countless illustrations, and a plan to make the movie in stop-motion with Tippett and Verhoeven co-directing. Katzenberg gave them the go-ahead to hire a writer and the team chose Walon Green (The Wild Bunch). "It would be an experiential sort of trip into the Cretaceous world, with a simple story about dinosaurs that people could follow and relate to without dialogue," Green explained in the making-of book Dinosaur: The Evolution of a Feature Film by Jeff Kurtti. "They thought it was challenging and daring, something different." Tippett says that what Green produced "wasn't a screenplay per se. It was a story so that they could understand it." Green and the team looked at Disney's Bambi and the company's early nature films for inspiration. "The whole thing was a pretty revolutionary idea," Green admitted in The Evolution of a Feature Film. "We thought for 84 minutes, this could work."

In 1990, Walt Disney Feature Animation president Thomas Schumacher had made a trip to Eastern Europe following the release of The Rescuers Down Under. While he was looking for traditional animators for some main features, he was also seeking help with the stop-motion dinosaur project. "While I traveled around Eastern Europe looking for my traditional animators, I was meeting with people who had also been talked with about the stop-motion animation to make this dinosaur film," Schumacher told Kurtti.

Budgetary concerns were immediately raised. According to The Evolution of a Feature Film, then Disney production chief Marty Katz reeled at the proposed $72 million budget since the studio wanted it to cost around $20 million. The studio executives realized the film could be accomplished using a combination of various disciplines: stop-motion animation, animatronics, and live-action photography. Disney asked Green to do a "voice over version" where the characters wouldn't speak but their thoughts would be heard (this idea would return later). "I did a version like that and I thought, 'I don't know if this'll work or not,'" Green told Kurtti.

Unbeknownst to Verhoeven and Tippett, the meteor was bearing down on them. "It went from bad to worse," Tippett says. "They did the typical Disney thing where they wanted eyelashes on the dinosaurs and wanted them to talk and sing songs." Unhappy with the way things were headed, Green, Davison, and Verhoeven told Tippett that they were going to skip a meeting scheduled with Katzenberg. "We're going to blow him off," they told the animator. "Don't go down there." Tippett says the perceived slight led to him getting banned from the Disney lot "until Katzenberg left" in 1994. (He claims the executive didn't even know Tippett was working on 1989's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.) "It devolved into nothingness," Tippett says.

Not that Tippett was totally out of the dinosaur game. While waiting on one of the Katzenberg meetings, producer Kathleen Kennedy had sent Tippett a galley for an upcoming novel — Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Later, Tippett says, Verhoeven called him. "I know Spielberg has contacted you about Jurassic Park, you should do that instead," Verhoeven told Tippett. "And you should forget the dinosaur movie."

"And that's what happened," Tippett says with a deep breath.

Jurassic Park, of course, would go on to become the biggest movie of all time (at the time) and won Tippett a Best Visual Effects Oscar for his pioneering work on those dinosaurs. Still, Tippett admits, his other dinosaur movie "would have been cool."

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures / Walt Disney Animation Studios

In 1990, following the opening of its ambitious Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida, Disney looked to open another new park, this time centered around animals. Imagineer Joe Rohde, known for his attention to detail and his flamboyant style (he's the guy on The Imagineering Story with the crazy earrings), was tasked to lead the project.

"Really all that existed was a germ of a notion from Michael Eisner that the company should do something with animals," Rohde told the Orlando Sentinel about the development of Disney's Animal Kingdom. By 1993, the idea had expanded to involve mythological creatures and extinct animals — dinosaurs.

"Eisner said, 'Let's bring back the dinosaur idea,'" Schumacher told Kurtti. "Developing the film along with an attraction would create a kind of reciprocal process between the studio and Imagineering."

And so Dinosaur trekked along, tied to the park. For a while, the movie was called Countdown to Extinction, like the theme park attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom. There wasn't a story exactly, but there was a corporate mandate. Then-senior vice president of production for Walt Disney Feature Animation Kathleen Gavin told Kurtii that the "first reason" to make the movie was that "it tied into the Animal Kingdom project." At one point during production, Kathleen Kennedy stopped an executive working on the project and asked them why they were making the movie. The executive didn't have a good answer.

"Piles of scripts" were developed, according to Schumacher, and Gavin considered farming the project out to Industrial Light & Magic (it would have been too costly), but when Disney acquired Dream Quest Images in 1996 — after Eisner had been blown away by the group's work on Disney's Crimson Tide, according to Disney historian Jim Hill — it had its answer. According to Gavin, they would build a "digital studio for the entire Disney company," one that would support Imagineering, live-action movies, television, and stand-alone computer-generated features — like Dinosaur. Disney would renovate an abandoned Lockheed building (once part of the famous Skunk Works operation) and the four-story, 200,000-square-foot space would be home to this new, as-yet-unnamed digital studio (with a slight assist from animators at Disney's satellite studio in Florida, down the street from the Animal Kingdom at Disney-MGM).

A team was put together, led by directors Ralph Zondag (who had directed We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story and worked on The Land Before Time) and Eric Leighton (a stop-motion veteran who had worked with Tippett). Leighton replaced longtime Disney Animation stalwart and Oliver and Company director George Scribner (who'd left to join Imagineering). Leighton already had a relationship with the material, making him the perfect fit. "The first time I read a script for this movie was in 1988," Leighton told Kurtti. He had been pitched on it by Tippett. The team also included producer Pam Marsden, who now runs animation at Sony, and producer Baker Bloodworth, a longtime Disney man who had just finished Pocahontas for the studio. Noted illustrator William Stout, who also worked on the Animal Kingdom attraction, provided early designs.

But the film's story was still foggy. They tried the version that Green had last submitted, with a tiny mammal narrating, then another with the voice-over proposition. A proof of concept test for this version of the movie (now known as the "Noah version") was likened to Disney's live-action hit Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. Eisner hated it. "The characters conversing without mouth movement felt strange – and actually emphasized a technical inability to accomplish the sophisticated facial animation required for believable mouth movements," Eisner told Kurtti.

The earthy believability, outlined from the very beginning by Tippett, was now out the window. Tippett's worst fears were coming true: The dinosaurs would speak.

On April 22, 1998, Countdown to Extinction the ride opened with the rest of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Utilizing the same ride vehicle and track layout as Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, guests boarded a "Time Rover" and were sent back to the time of dinosaurs. The attraction, at the time sponsored by McDonald's (you could order a Big Mac next door), was a herky-jerky thrill ride and in 1998 was full of special effects and tiny flourishes that were later abandoned or not kept up. Another attraction, the Discovery River Boats, also opened along with the park. Guests floated down a serene river setting, at one point passing an animatronic Aladar bathing in the water. As the Animal Kingdom attractions opened to guests, work on the feature barreled forward.

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures / Walt Disney Animation Studios

On October 29, 1999, Disney officially announced its secretive "digital studio," which finally had a name: The Secret Lab. The press release indicated it would combine Dream Quest Images with what was then known as Walt Disney Feature Animation. The new studio would be jointly overseen by former Dream Quest executive Andrew Millstein and Schumacher and, while the press release stated the team would work out of the Feature Animation building on the lot (the one with the giant Sorcerer Mickey hat), their actual location was the former Lockheed building over by the Burbank airport. "Merging Dream Quest and Disney's computer animation operation represents a tremendous pooling of talent and resources," Schumacher said at the time. "Disney has built a first-class digital animation studio and together with Dream Quest Images will continue to push the boundaries of digital filmmaking." Dinosaur would be The Secret Lab's first feature film.

But the implications and expectations for both Dinosaur and The Secret Lab were much bigger than the press release was letting on. With the formation of the new unit, Eisner saw a way of making Pixar-quality animated features and besting old guard visual effects studios at the same time. They'd toggle between an animated feature like Dinosaur and then shift to working on, say, creating the complex dragon effects for Reign of Fire. At this point, Disney's relationship with Pixar was beginning to sour after Eisner's insistence that Toy Story 2, since it was a sequel, fell outside of the studios' original agreement. If Pixar bowed out of its deal with Disney and Feature Animation was still handling traditionally hand-drawn animation like 2000's The Emperor's New Groove (which featured a joke aimed at the new studio), then Eisner needed a viable alternative for computer-generated animated features — and that was The Secret Lab.

In fact, The Secret Lab had already quietly begun work on its second feature. On the visual effects side, The Secret Lab had produced groundbreaking early tests for a Jerry Bruckheimer project at Disney called Gemini Man for director Tony Scott (the project would finally get made last year at Paramount with Ang Lee and Will Smith). The future of The Secret Lab seemed bright.

A few months later, Dinosaur roared into theaters. (Down in Florida, Countdown to Extinction's name had been changed to the much-more-generic "Dinosaur," and a Dinosaur statue out front had been replaced with an on-model statue of the film's hero Aladar. The Discovery River Boats were already closed.) The final story followed a collection of misfit dinosaurs — led by the impressionable Aladar (D.B. Sweeney) and his adoptive lemur family — on their journey to find a place to safely live after a devastating meteor strike. Unlike Verhoeven and Tippett's proposal, the film would not end with the dinosaurs dying out.

With a reported budget of $127.5 million (undoubtedly not factoring in the costs of building The Secret Lab or those associated with the Walt Disney World attractions), it was the most expensive computer-animated film of all time and the most expensive film released that year. On its opening weekend, it beat out Gladiator for the No. 1 spot at the box office with $38.8 million. Critics, though, were largely unimpressed — dazzled by the visuals but left cold by the story.

"The aim was to blend computer-generated characters with live-action backgrounds, and, on the visual level at least, it works beautifully," Kenneth Turan wrote in The Los Angeles Times. The wordless prologue was largely cited as the movie's highpoint (Turan called the "bravura opening" Dinosaur's "most effective sequence"), while the rest of the story (ultimately attributed to John Harrison, Robert Nelson Jacobs, Thom Enriquez, and Ralph Zondag) felt limp and familiar. "They totally f***ed it up," Tippett says of the final product. "It was awful."

Still, it was a hit (of sorts), bringing in $350 million worldwide, enough to make it the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year and Disney's No. 1 earner of 2000. And it made almost $200 million more the following year in home video sales (then a huge part of the business). Disney had plans for a Dinosaur sequel. But disaster was about to strike.

A little over a year after Dinosaur's release, in October 2001, Disney announced that the Secret Lab was closing its expensively remodeled doors. ("Disney can't keep Secret" was Variety's cheeky headline.) Its final two features would be Reign of Fire and Bruckheimer's Down Under (later called Kangaroo Jack) for Warner Bros. The second Secret Lab animated feature, an edgy satire of '70s culture called Wild Life, directed by Howard Baker and Roger Gould, was canceled, in part because Roy Disney objected to its risqué humor. There would be no Dinosaur sequels either. "The studio had no contingency plan in place for its Secret Lab," said Disney historian Jim Hill.

By the time Disney made the announcement, the Secret Lab was already in tatters: Millstein had moved to Florida to oversee the Disney Animation satellite unit there (it would also close just a few years later after the company switched primarily to computer-animated features). Hundreds of animators were let go or reassigned. "We're not actively soliciting outside work under the banner of the Secret Lab anymore," Schumacher told Variety. Dream Quest Images co-founder Hoyt Yeatman stayed at Disney and later directed G-Force for the studio and Jerry Bruckheimer. The tale of secret agent talking guinea pigs would have been an ideal project for The Secret Lab.

In the 20 years since Dinosaur was released, Disney successfully made deals to acquire Pixar and, later, Lucasfilm (which includes owning effects house Industrial Light & Magic). It also now owns Connecticut-based computer animation studio Blue Sky, which came along as part of the more recent Fox deal; it is now run by Secret Lab stalwart Andrew Millstein.

Had Dinosaur been a truly meteoric phenomenon along the lines of Jurassic Park, it would have theoretically profoundly changed Disney and, potentially, the industry as a whole. It's all-in-one approach to visual effects and feature-length animation was unprecedented and bold. Unfortunately, it came and went. And all we have left are the fossilized remains — and Dinosaur.