Teaching Moments from Disney's Dinosaur

Review by Dennis Wagner

There is nothing like going to a Disney matinee in the summer to make you feel like a kid again. My brother, sister and I used to pay fifty cents at the local theater to watch Disney reruns all afternoon and escape the 100-degree heat in LA. I had the opportunity to relive those memories recently when I took my twelve-year-old son and 10 of his friends to the new Disney Dinosaur movie to celebrate his birthday. But my encounter with rather unDarwinian dinosaurs left me thinking about the “teaching moments” that the film offered.

Teaching moment number one: learning to discern between fantasy and reality. Disney, no doubt, is feeling the pressure of the Hollywood success of mixing live action film with computer generated images. With Dinosaur they establish that they are in the same league as Star Wars and Jurassic Park. The visual effects in the theater are definitely worth the experience even though the story line and character development are weaker than previous animated Disney hits. It has been reported that the movie production required 3.2 million computer processing hours and 45 Terabytes of disk storage. All that horsepower was used to integrate digital characters with spectacular live-action scenery shot from Death Valley to Venezuela. With the advances in digital movie technology we have to work harder to help our children discern between fantasy and reality. I am a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. I think they allow the mind to exercise in ways few other activities do. But at some point fantasy can become a replacement for a reality that we do not like. We need to teach our children the difference, especially our younger children. For starters you can discuss whether dinosaurs really talked as they do in the Disney movie. Talking animals are a hallmark of Disney cartoons, but when cartoons become more like real-life movies our children may not understand the difference.

Teaching moment number two: The unDarwinian dinosaurs in Disney’s movie are a great teaching opportunity for those who don’t think the universe is one big accident. The basic plot revolves around an iguanadon (Aladar) who is transplanted, while still in his egg, by a pterodactyl to an island where he is raised by a family of lemurs. Life is wonderful until a meteor shower destroys their home and threatens their very existence. Aladar and four of his faithful lemurs escape with their lives and hook up with an intraspecies herd of herbivorous orthnipods who are making haste for the breeding grounds where they hope to find a patch of paradise unscathed by the firestorm.

To Aladar’s great surprise, he discovers that the leaders of the herd, Kron and Bruton, live and rule by a Darwinian worldview. They are driving the herd at breakneck pace to reach the nesting grounds before they are over-taken by the ruthless meat-eating veloceraptors and carnotaurs. When Aladar complains to Kron that the young and elderly cannot keep up and will surely die if left behind, Kron snaps back “only the strong should survive” and threatens to kill Aladar if he interferes with his leadership again. Although Aladar is an iguanadon like Kron and Bruton, his upbringing by the gentle lemurs has taught him that cooperation is a better means to survival than competition. This appears to be a departure from Disney’s typical subliminal Darwinian message such as the Lion King’s “Circle of Life” theme. Instead the “help thy neighbor” theme is woven throughout Dinosaur. Need to find water? Let’s cooperate. Need to get out of a dead-end cave? Let’s work together. Need to standup to the bully or the bad guy? Let’s band together as a group. In fact the “survival of the fittest” proponents all die off by the end of the movie.

The third teaching moment in Dinosaur revolves around the meteor shower. Although meteor impact is a current scientific theory about why the dinosaurs went extinct, it is a message of catastrophe and not the message of the slow natural processes of classic Darwinism. It is interesting how scientists have shifted over the past 25 years to place more emphasis on catastrophe for explaining major events in earth history rather than incremental natural processes at work over millions of years. Disney is careful however, not to make this a story of extinction, but rather a story of hope in the midst of life’s catastrophes.

So why the unDarwinian message from Disney? Perhaps Disney is responding to the public outcry in recent years that they are moving in anti-family directions. The studio may hope that by valuing the weak and helpless over the survival of the fittest they can win back their traditional family audience. Perhaps Disney is simply reflecting the thinking of T.H. Huxley, one of Darwin’s greatest advocates who accepted biological Darwinism but rejected the ethical implications of social Darwinism. Modern feminists might be quick to point out that the cooperation theme of Dinosaur is simply a re-interpretation of Darwinism that incorporates the nurturing and altruistic strengths of females. Those who view the movie theater as a leading indicator of cultural change might argue that Disney is simply reflecting increasing dissatisfaction with Darwin’s theory in scientific circles and the increasing evidence for design in nature. Economic realists would claim Disney’s only motive for an unDarwinian Dinosaur was pure greed. It’s a good story line that will sell more tickets.

Regardless of Disney’s real motives, the movie offers some teaching moments for the family. I would not recommend Dinosaur for younger children because the trauma of the meteor shower and the scary bad-guy dinosaurs might be more than their tender spirits can handle. But for the rest of the family I think it provides an entertaining opportunity to talk about why fantasy or the Darwinian worldview do not contain all of life’s answers.

Dennis Wagner is Executive Director of Access Research Network (www.arn.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing accessible information on science, technology and society issues from an intelligent design perspective. Mr. Wagner lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Priscilla and his three sons Austin, Spencer, and Skylar.

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