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Review: Jurassic Park III - A thrilling ride

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By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "Jurassic Park III" wisely pretends that the second wildly successful but creatively limp "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997) never took place. This third film in the dinosaur franchise picks up eight years after the original "Jurassic Park" (1993), and once again features Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), one of the world's foremost paleontologists. Laura Dern is also back, in an extremely reduced (but pivotal) role as Grant's paleobotanist colleague, Ellie Sattler.

In the first movie (for anyone who has been living under a rock for the last few years), Grant was lured by industrialist John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) into his fateful journey to Jurassic Park by the promise of grant money to continue his research into the history of dinosaurs. Located on the remote island of Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica, the park was to be a unique tourist attraction where people could interact with genetically engineered dinosaurs. To say things didn't work as planned would be a gross understatement. Many of the island's inhabitants become dino snacks, and Grant and Sattler barely escaped with their lives.

Isla Nublar and the adjacent Isla Sorna are now under quarantine. Both have become primordial breeding grounds for all types of prehistoric creatures, including many dinos that were not a part of the original Jurassic Park. Both forbidden locations have become magnets for thrill-seekers, who illegally fly over them in private planes or cruise alongside them in boats, hoping to catch a glimpse of the prehistoric residents.

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The film opens with two such overeager adventurers, 14-year-old Eric Kirby (Trevor Morgan) and his mother's reckless boyfriend. They have hired a boat to pull them parasailing alongside Isla Sorna. Things go horribly wrong, and they disappear into the island's interior.

Meanwhile, Grant has retreated to his research, safely studying dinosaur bones millions of years old, and determined to put his disastrous experience with the real things behind him forever. However, as in the original, Grant is desperate for research money. When wealthy adventurer Paul Kirby (William H. Macy) and his ex-wife Amanda (Tea Leoni) offer him a blank check just to accompany them on an aerial tour of Isla Sorna, he caves into his need for cash.

Unbeknownst to Grant and his protege Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola), the Kirbys are actually just a middle-class divorced couple with a secret plan. They're Eric's parents, and the excursion was never intended to be a simple aerial tour, but a search-and-rescue mission. Much to Grant's horror, they land the plane on the island. Within moments, they're attacked by an enormous creature, causing the aircraft to crash into the jungle.

It's deja vu all over again. But instead of a jeep (as in the original), our reluctant heroes' first encounter with the monsters occurs while trapped in a plane's fuselage, as they're batted around in what has now become a tin can death trap. Miraculously, and conveniently, they escape -- otherwise this would be a very short movie. The race is now on to find the missing boy. (The boyfriend, we soon find out, has become a dinosaur canape.)

Unlike the first two films, "Jurassic Park III" is not based on a book by Michael Crichton. Instead, screenwriters Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have used Crichton's basic concept and characters to create an original story. Also unlike the other two films, No. 3 was not directed by Steven Spielberg, who chose to just executive produce this time around. George Lucas's and Spielberg's protege, former visual effects art director Joe Johnston (who went on to direct "Jumanji" 1995 and "October Sky" 1999), is in the catbird seat for this most recent return to the ill-fated park. This infusion of new creative blood serves the film very well. The script is full of dark gallows humor, and the direction is crisp and well-paced. Johnston never lets his characters get overwhelmed by special effects, while keeping the action going non-stop from the moment they hit the island.

The jeopardy has also been heightened by the addition of some new dinosaurs. Along with our old favorites, T. Rexes and Velociraptors, the island is also populated with a Spinosaurus, a creature larger and more vicious then any other known dinosaur. Also along for the ride are some Pteranodons, gigantic flying reptiles which provide some heart-stopping moments.

However, not one of these three films could have been made without the remarkable talents and genius of Stan Winston, who is thankfully a member of Part Three's behind-the-scenes team. Winston has revolutionized the use of makeup effects and live-action robotics for the big screen. This four-time Academy Award winner has outdone himself once again: these latest dinos are even more realistic and frightening then ever before. They actually look like living, breathing creatures, and Winston has taken advantage of every technical advance in his impressive arsenal.

This is the first time that Neill has reprised a role in a sequel, and the part of Dr. Grant fits him like a comfortable old shoe. Macy, as always, is the perfect everyman trapped in a situation that is out of control. Leoni holds her own, never letting her character become a stereotypical helpless chick caught in an action flick. Spielberg once again has the perfect eye when it comes to casting child actors: Morgan (one of Mel Gibson's sons in "The Patriot" 2000) has the wonderful combination of innocence and bravado needed for the important role of Eric, who is the catalyst for the entire story.

Wisely held down to a breath-taking 92 minutes, "Jurassic Park III" is actually just what it's supposed to be -- a popcorn-chomping thrill ride that's perfect as a summertime distraction. And yes, the ending leaves things wide open for "Jurassic Park IV." Was there ever any doubt? Don't think so.

"Jurassic Park III" opens nationwide on Wednesday, July 18 and is rated "PG-13" with a running time of 92 minutes.







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