In taking over the reins of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park franchise, director Joe Johnston almost does the unthinkable in Jurassic Park III. Not even trying to top its predecessors -- besides of course the special effects -- Johnston attempts a leaner, smarter film that actually strives for interesting themes, character development and (gasp) subtlety. Not all of it works, which certainly detracts from the overall presentation, but still credit is due.

For everything that's missing -- cartoon-like villains, violence, general silliness -- there's enough to suggest that instead of trying expand the series Johnston is trying to simply extend it without embarrassing himself. Who'd'a thunk?

Johnston and Spielberg go way back. Johnston, who was a special-effects whiz on George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy (creating, among other things, Yoda), also learned at the foot of the master in those heady early days of Raiders of the Lost Ark before doing his own thing with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and October Sky.

In Jurassic Park III, Johnston tames the beast a bit with some telling moves, not the least of which is bringing back Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant, who was sorely missing in the first sequel. Neill brings a nobility to virtually every movie he's in, and his reluctant return (at least on-screen) infuses the story with a strength of presence that contrasts to what at first feels like another battle with the monsters. Building on this move was the decision to recruit the screenwriting team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who earned an Oscar nomination for the excellent Election (which Payne directed), along with writer Peter Buchman. Coincidentally, this is the first installment without the benefit of the Michael Crichton novels.

Let's go out on a limb and guess that it was Payne and Taylor who decided to add the familial themes that provide the thread for Jurassic Park III. A divorced middle-class couple (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) dupe an unwitting Grant into helping rescue their son Eric (Trevor Morgan, who actually doesn't annoy). Eric has crash-landed on Isla Sorna, the second site of the InGen dinosaur-making corporation. Grant has family problems of his own; namely, he doesn't have one. His former partner, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) has without explanation married and is raising a son. So Grant settles for a surrogate son in his protégé, the impetuous Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola).

Their bond is threatened when what amounts to the rescue team also crash-lands and is immediately attacked by the evil (and suddenly very intelligent) dinosaurs. And when they eventually find Eric, Grant sees yet another son figure. As they struggle to escape the island, dinosaur eggs become a crucial plot device.

While bonds are being formed, others are being strengthened as the Kirbys reunite in the heat of battle. Macy and Leoni, who've done their fair share of broad acting bits, go the other way here, dishing their one-liners when needed but spending most of the film reaching out to each other.

It's nothing overwhelming in any real dramatic sense, but touching nonetheless. And the same goes for Grant's moments with everyone around him, whether fawning over Sattler's child, stewing over his relationship with Billy, or second-guessing himself while talking with young Eric. In fact, their connection is one of the film's delights, particularly when they first meet in Eric's shelter and Grant asks him how he secured a sample of T-Rex urine for protection. "You don't wanna know," Eric groans, in the film's funniest line. When Grant confesses he never told Sattler how much he appreciated her, Eric offers a light reproach: "Maybe you should."

In what borders on a rip-off from Aliens, the use of the dinosaur eggs as the ransom for safety is the icing on the family cake, and their ultimate fate shows just where Johnston's sensibilities lie. Perhaps he's not saying much more than "family is good," but at least there's a theme to hang the story on.

But who are we kidding? The real question is whether the crew at Industrial Light & Magic (working overtime this summer, what with The Mummy Returns and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) delivers the goods. Oh, of course they do, silly. Spielberg's favorite monsters (particularly the new Spinosaurus and Pteranodons) soar, stomp, swim and scare as usual, but this time they also talk amongst themselves even more believably than their mechanical ancestors. No worries there. And, remarkably, Jurassic Park III does so at a tidy 90-minute clip -- which might explain the weakly constructed set-up at the beginning of the film, and what feels like a tacked-on ending.

Not as funny or startling as the first, but not as plodding or self-conscious as the second, Jurassic Park III is, in more ways than one, simply a nice little family film. Which is as big a shocker as anything.

Welcome back: Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) gets caught in the middle of a raptor frenzy in Jurassic Park III.
  • Welcome back: Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) gets caught in the middle of a raptor frenzy in Jurassic Park III.

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