Film Article: “Dinosaur” and the Independence of Film Music

Written by Matt Butler July 17, 2017

Dinosaur

Sound is 80% of a movie.

Showing may be the ultimate principle of film, but in truth, the frame only captures a small fraction of what goes into a movie. Take Star Wars for example. If you strip it down to the raw audio, you’ll see why so many of the crew behind Star Wars (1977) thought it would be just another hack sci-fi film. It’s only with the SFX -expect a full article on that in the future- and the music that the movie is able to catapult you through an adventure as epic and limitless as the stars.

But I’m not here to talk about the music of Star Wars (today). I’m here to talk about the music of Disney’s animated feature, Dinosaur. Released in 2000, one year after the Disney Renaissance (The Little Mermaid (1989) – Tarzan (1999). There are some movies you don’t even have to watch, you just have to hear the score. Dinosaur is one of those movies. While the movie is nothing to behold, the score is an adventure in and of itself. It’s the musical love child of Jurassic Park and The Lion King.

Might as well get this out of the way. As a film, Dinosaur is as forgettable as they come. It’s the Chosen One/Moses fable we’ve seen a dozen times, but with dinosaurs. That alone would have at least made the movie serviceable. But for some reason, Dinosaur, with its hyper-realistic creature and set designs, insists on a modern, pseudo-hip, light-hearted tone. On the one hand, it’s trying to be this epic voyage across the pre-historic vista. On the other, it’s trying to be just like every other Disney feature before it. It’s trying to be different, but also not, and the two tones cancel each other out.

It shares the same tonal problems as The Good Dinosaur, coincidentally. I’m convinced if you trade Dinosaur’s dull and earthy aesthetic for The Good Dinosaur’s colourful and cartoony one, you’ll have something at least more fitting to the tone. Really it’s a matter of execution, and the guts to take risks, which Disney, particularly in the Post-Renaissance Era, isn’t known for.

Alright, enough about the boring movie. Have you ever listened to music that just feels…big? Epic in size and scale?

If not, maybe this will clue you in.

You might recognize this track since it’s in the trailer (along with the trailers for Lilo and Stitch, The Wild Thornberrys Movie and 2004’s Around The World In 80 Days). This track marks what’s easily the best part of the film. We follow this Iguanadon egg as it’s swept from place to place, helpless to its surroundings, but clearly governed by destiny (or the plot I guess). The egg’s journey introduces us to this lush, realistic Cretaceous landscape, filled with true-to-science looking dinosaurs. All this would have made for a fine episode of Walking With Dinosaurs, but it’s the music that elevates the scene to cinematic heights until we find ourselves literally soaring through the sky. It’s only when the animals start talking that the movie descends back to earth.

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Dinosaur’s score composer is James Newton Howard, a recurring composer for Disney’s early 2000 works. He’s known for his recurring collaborations with directors Francis Lawrence and M. Night Shyamalan. I want to turn my focus to Shamaylan for a bit because it helps prove a point I’m trying to make. I can’t sit through five minutes of The Last Airbender or After Earth (because they’re both intolerably stupid) yet I still really enjoy the music for both films. This makes perfect sense to me because, in most cases, film score composers are left to their own devices.

Sure, directors give temp tracks and the editing of the film often dictates the pacing of the score, but the quality of a composer’s work is generally independent of the film itself. Just listen to the music of the Star Wars prequels. Even if you hate them, you can’t deny that at the very least, it still sounds like Star Wars. (What did I say about not talking about Star Wars? Oh yeah, not talking about Star Wars…).

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The music for Dinosaur accomplishes everything a standard film score should. It captures the intended emotion of the scene and intensifies it. What’s more, the film’s adventure genre allows the music to explore its full range of motion. From simple wonderment (The Egg Travels, Aladar & Neera) to rapturous excitement (The Courtship, Breakout). From thrilling terror (The End of Our Island, The Carnotaur Attack) to soothing lullabies (Inner Sanctum/Nesting Grounds, The Cave). As forgettable as the film is, Dinosaur at the very least gives Howard a template for a classic aural adventure. Really, everything you need to know about the story, everything exciting anyway, is in the music.

My appreciation for the score may connect with my indifference to the film. But I know there’s a reason why I keep replaying the score and why I can barely remember anything from the film. While Dinosaur‘s conflicting tones bog down the film, the score soars like an eagle (or pterodactyl). It knows what it is and what it has to do: be big, be booming, be exciting. It’s a simple and straightforward adventure piece. There’s definitely a dozen other examples I could think of that fit this distinction. But I chose this one to prove a point. That a score is able to work independent of a film, and if it can’t elevate the visuals, it can still soar all on its own.

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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