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Seeing Disney's "Dinosaur"

The movie has deeper messages Disney didn't put in

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Disney Enterprises, like any modern storyteller, looks to Shakespeare for inspiration. The Bard took well-known stories from ancient chronicles and English history and rejiggered them to engage the playgoers of his day.

And so also does Disney play free with the icons of our national culture, like Pocahontas and Aladdin, to make these stale tales more commercial. So when Disney sets out to make a dinosaur movie, like Dinosaur, you don't look for National Geographic or "Nova" or the Discovery Channel, you look for Disney characters in dinosaur drag.

Anyone who knows about dinosaurs will enjoy how well the animators have painted the different species. Anyone who likes current family movies will like this year's iteration of Disney characters. If you're a science-literate viewer, you may hold your nose at Dinosaur and you may want to shield your children from its distortion of the geologic facts. But I submit that if you can get past that obvious stuff, you might have the most satisfying experience of all.

Let the Kids Scoff

Don't worry about things your average 10-year-old expert will scoff at. About a dozen dinosaur species appear in the film, and a quick visit to your favorite dinosaur site shows that most of them didn't live during the same geologic period. And the gentle tribe of lemurs that raise the main character, an iguanodon named Aladar whose egg washed ashore on their island, are pure fiction. That's OK.

Don't freak about Disney's playing fast and loose with animals, even dinosaurs, by giving them speech and personality. Seventy-five years after Mickey Mouse, no problem there.

And look past the crisis the characters face—the great "K–T impact" of 65 million years ago that forces the animals out of their comfortable lives—it's just good storytelling. Disney's producers chose to overlook what we all know about the K–T impact, which is that it killed every last dinosaur dead, forever. In the movie, the tribe arrives at their nesting grounds ready to continue the species.

What Kids Should Believe

It may be hard to suspend your disbelief when this well-known geologic holocaust is turned into something more like the forest fire in Bambi—so don't. As an adult, you should watch it in disbelief. Whether it was rare commercial genius or typical Disney crassness, they spared the kids the painful truth: extinction is the destiny of species, just as death is our destiny as individuals. But you're a grownup and can handle it.

Let your kids believe it all; that won't hurt them. Let them take in the surface story, about the iguanodon tribe learning to cope together with life-threatening challenges. Make sure your children know that "survival of the fittest," a notion that Aladar consistently rejects, is not the right default approach for human affairs. Remember that Darwin himself rejected "social Darwinism."

Remember, as you affirm the healthy relationship of the lemurs and their giant foster child Aladar, that there are all kinds of families in real life too. Discuss how crisis can turn anyone into a leader, and make your kids understand that maladaptive traditions can be questioned, just as Aladar challenged the tribe's dangerously inflexible leader Kron, if you have logic, passion, and justice on your side.

Lessons for Grownups

But remember, as you watch, that nothing saved the dinosaurs and nothing could have. They were the grandest, most successful line of animal life that Earth has ever produced. They populated every continent, and the seas and the air too. They made Earth their home for over a hundred million years, weathering everything the planet threw at them. It was a random dumb asteroid crash at exactly the wrong time—in the middle of an era of continental breakup and enormous volcanic activity—that wiped them out with no hope of even the fittest surviving (unless you count the birds).

Dinosaur isn't really about dinosaurs at all, but about humanity. Disney Enterprises' parable is about our time. And these days it isn't just children who believe that things will never get that bad. Many adults have no idea how fragile civilization is in the face of climate change, war, resource depletion, and habitat destruction. As you watch, keep in mind the deep story—although our wits and skills have kept our species going so far, we too risk oblivion as we keep up our collective journey through this dangerous world. Your kids can learn more about that when they're a little older.

PS: We have a fair idea of how horrific the K–T impact really was—and not even Disney could depict it. But something like that's extremely unlikely, and maybe it's better to worry about nuclear-sized events that we have survived, like the cometary impact in Siberia not too long ago.

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