"Jurassic Park III" is neither as dreadful as it might be, nor as perfectly wrought as it could be. For one thing, it moves along as jauntily as one of those horrific raptors scooting along the plain; the movie wraps itself up so quickly, and after such a relatively low-key climax, that you can barely believe it's over. It runs about 90 minutes, and that's sweet relief. You can get your fix of dino effects (most of which are starting to look pretty familiar anyway, after the original "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park"), with a few good jokes and interesting performances thrown in, and be on your way.
One of the best things about "Jurassic Park III" is that it brings back Sam Neill, who starred in the original, and he's a distinctly human and humane presence. As the movie opens, we see Neill's adventuresome paleontologist, Dr. Alan Grant, playing with the toddler of his former collaborator Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern, in a nicely played cameo), who has settled down with an earnest, unexciting husband and is quietly raising their two kids. Neill plays the scene beautifully: He's half puzzled by the idea that anybody would want to settle down to a life like this, and half wistfully jealous that it's just not for him.
He has no desire to see any more live dinosaurs up close and personal. Nonetheless, he and his young assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola) are reluctantly roped into an adventure expedition to Isla Sorna (the "Site II" from "The Lost World," where the prehistoric horrors were bred in a flagrant expression of human arrogance), by Amanda and Paul Kirby (Téa Leoni and William H. Macy), a rich couple hankering for danger.
Of course, they have another motive. But the bare-bones plot, from a script written by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne (writer and director of "Election" and "Citizen Ruth") and Jim Taylor (who co-wrote those pictures with Payne), is probably the last reason anybody would go to see it. What most of us want are dinosaurs, and there are just the right number of those here, from a flock of fierce pterodactyl-like pteranodons with mischievously knowing eyes, to the dreaded raptors (who always look to me as if they should be dangling old-lady pocketbooks from their disproportionately smallish, curled-over front claws). Although it's probably still too intense for very small children, "Jurassic Park III" features a blessed minimum of torso chewing. The worst part is watching one of the raptors use a giant toenail to puncture the spine of a minor character played by Michael Jeter -- he's too fine an actor to meet such a ignominious end.
Another saving grace of "Jurassic Park III" is that it captures some of the wonder from the first picture. Director Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Jumanji") is much more low-key than his predecessor Steven Spielberg, who directed the first two pictures in the series. Thankfully, he's out to set us rambling and bumping on a scary-funny amusement park ride; he doesn't hammer on the whiskery old theme of man-playing-God, nor does he seem to take much pleasure in the requisite bloody chomping, even though he of course has to include some of it.
And he offers us one extraordinary panorama that looks as if it had been lifted straight out of those softly colored educational picture books of the '50s and '60s, a group of peaceful vegetarian apatosauruses against a purply pink Maxfield Parrish sky on the banks of a canal, chomping placidly on the plants they so love to eat. Dr. Grant and his group view the scene as they pass by it on a barge, and Neill plays the moment perfectly, like a man deep in love. It's as if a sight like this could make up for any number of dreadful dinosaur encounters.
The other actors here are just as game. As Eric, a kid who's been stranded on the island, Trevor Morgan shows the kind of appealing resourcefulness that's always fun for kids to watch. Macy is more than serviceable in a throwaway role: He manages to give his cowardly-lion character a great deal of charm and comic texture. Leoni does the best she can with her character, but there's not much to work with: She doesn't get a chance to use her best gift, a flair for snappy, screwball-comedy timing that sparkled in her short-lived TV show "The Naked Truth."
Even so, Payne, Buchman and Taylor give us plenty of little things to laugh at along the way: Dr. Grant and Eric have a pleasingly tossed-off exchange as Grant incredulously holds up a bottle of T. Rex pee that Eric has collected. "How did you get this?" he demands. "You don't wanna know," Eric deadpans ruefully. There are a few moments in the picture that are streaked with a sense of terror, scenes where you think the absolute worst is going to happen. But it never quite does. There's a surprisingly delicate touch at work in "Jurassic Park III," and the movie is marbled through with strands of acerbic wit. You might think that a filmmaker's going to that much trouble in a "Jurassic Park" picture is like casting pearls before swine. What chance do pearls have under the feet of prehistoric giants? Miraculously, they survive the trampling intact, and they're what you remember long after the last mighty footstep resonates.