Like almost everyone else who saw Jurassic Park during its initial theatrical run 20 years ago, I have a lot of nostalgic fondness for Steven Spielberg's feature-length montage of dino rampage, which was based on Michael Crichton's best-selling book. It's an old-fashioned summer blockbuster executed with then new (and now old-fashioned) digital wizardry that plays like gangbusters when seen on the big screen with a packed crowd. And I have no doubt that the third-dimension enhanced Jurassic Park 3D, which opens theatrically on Friday, will be one of the better post-3D conversions of library titles, if only because Spielberg is a James Cameron-level stickler when it comes to the presentation of his past work. But as impressive as the T-Rex, those velociraptors and the rest of the film's computer-generated cast of giant lizards might look in 3D, there are some deep-seated flaws with Jurassic Park that even the format change won't be able to compensate for or distract from. Flaws like...
Mr. DNA -- The World's Worst Animated Educator
To be fair, it can't have been easy for Spielberg and screenwriters Crichton and David Koepp to figure out a way to distill the book's lengthy explanations of the science of cloning into a more digestible bit of exposition for the moviegoing crowd. Still, the "edutainment" cartoon mini-movie that introduces Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to how the dinos populating Jurassic Park came to be is pretty terrible, like a sub-par knock-off of a Sesame Street segment. The chief offender of this segment has to be that annoying animated strand of Deoxyribonucleic acid, Mr. DNA, gratingly voiced by Greg Burson. Now, I'm willing to entertain the notion that Spielberg & Co. deliberately made this cartoon painfully cheesy as a way of lightly satirizing educational television's kid-oriented explanations of complex sciences. But that doesn't make it any less irritating to sit through. (Mr. DNA isn't the only obnoxious animated know-it-all in Spielberg's canon; A.I.: Artificial Intelligence ground to a total standstill when the Robin Williams-voiced "Dr. Know" popped up to provide little David with mostly useless information.)
Richard Attenborough's Cute 'n' Cuddly John Hammond
On the page, Jurassic Park's owner and operator, John Hammond, was one of Crichton's most enjoyable villain -- a ruthless capitalist who always puts profits ahead of people, even if those people happen to be his own grandchildren. Unfortunately, that characterization of Hammond underwent a total rewrite when Spielberg tapped British director, Richard Attenborough, to play the role in the movie version. To be sure, Attenborough's uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus (who he later played in a Miracle on 34th Street remake) might make it difficult to completely buy him as the cruel, heartless profiteer described in the book. On the other hand, that sort of anti-typecasting might have worked out brilliantly if they had bothered to attempt it. (See also: Albert Brooks in Drive.) As it is, Hammond goes from being a driving force of the conflict in the original story to a mere bystander.
The Mid-Movie Lull
After a mostly-exciting first hour that includes the movie's most famous set-piece (though not it's best -- that honor goes to the velociraptors-in-the-kitchen finale), the nighttime T. Rex attack, Jurassic Park lapses into a fugue state midway through as Alan and Hammond's two grandkids Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) get lost on the ground and have to make their way back to Jurassic Park HQ without becoming dino dinner. In the book, their journey involves a river-rafting trip that's probably the novel's single most exciting sequence, as that infernal T. Rex attacks them once again -- this time on the open water. Unfortunately, the entire rafting expedition was axed from the movie due to time and budget constraints (although it was later incorporated into Jurassic Park III as well as the Jurassic Park water ride at Universal Studios Hollywood). Instead, we're stuck watching Alan and the kids plod through the jungle experiencing "exciting" encounters with such "dangerous" elements as...
For the most part, Jurassic Park's digital dinos look as convincing today as they were twenty years ago. The animatronic models, however, haven't aged as well. The most egregious offender is probably the leaf-eating Brachiosaurus who awakens Alan, Lex and Tim from a night spent sleeping in a tree. A forced moment of Spielbergian cutesy-pooness ensues as Alan -- whose primary character arc in the movie involves getting in touch with his inner father figure -- feeds the creature a branch, before inviting the two kids to pet this "big cow" like they're in a freaking petting zoo. The brachiosaurus then rears back and unleashes an enormous sneeze that covers shrill Lex in slimy nose boogers. Because snot is intrinsically hi-larious, don'tcha know. That kind of humor could land Spielberg a steady gig helming Kevin James comedies.
Jurassic Park's hugely disappointing final scene confirms that one of Spielberg's biggest weak spots can be knowing when and how to end a movie. Sure, there are exceptions: Jaws, E.T. and Raiders spring immediately to mind. But on the other hand you've got Hook, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Crystal Skull and, most recently, Lincoln, all of which either end in an underwhelming, overly sentimental dénouement and/or needlessly ramble on well past their obvious stopping point. (Even Jurassic Park co-star Sam Jackson thought Lincoln whiffed the ending.) In Crichton's book, somebody at least does something about this island filled with killer dinosaurs: specifically, the Costa Rican army napalms the place to kingdom come. But in the movie, the characters just... leave. No attempts to blow up the visitor's center and potentially take out that T. Rex. No informing the authorities that someone might want to come up with some kind of containment plan. And, above all, no consequences for Hammond for screwing up so royally. The survivors just clamber aboard a helicopter and fly away towards the endless horizon, ceding Jurassic Park entirely to the dinos. Sure, it's an easy lay-up for the sequel, but as the ending to an otherwise exciting blockbuster, it's more of a discordant flute squeak than a triumphant cymbal crash.
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