Like with many of the films I’ve talked about on this blog, I have fond memories of watching this film numerous times when I was a kid. But it’s been at least 5 years since last I sat through it, and so I honestly wasn’t sure which category I was going to end up putting it in: Underrated or Degraded. It’s pretty clear to me, though, that this film must be put in the Degraded section, because there are simply way too many problems with it.
Arguably the “premise” of this film is an interesting one, and one with a lot of potential. A benevolent and kind-hearted time-traveler named Professor New Eyes decides to travel to the Cretaceous period to pick up a few dinosaurs, and feeds them a special substance in the form of cereal called “Brain Grain” in order to make them as smart as humans. And he does this in order to fulfill the wishes of hundreds of thousands of children living in modern-day New York City, who yearn to see real live dinosaurs. You could almost say he’s like Doctor Who mixed with Santa Claus.
The dinosaurs’ names are Elsa, a pterodactyl, Woog, a triceratops, Dweeb, an Apatosaurus, and Rex, you all know what he is.
Even though this premise seems a tad too strange, it’s not beyond the realm of an 80s or even early 90s film. There were plenty weirder stories to be told. But the problems start to come in when you try to describe the actual plot line: because the plot is much longer and more complicated than the initial premise.
So when the Dinosaurs are literally dropped off in the 20th century by Professor New Eyes, they fall onto a small raft, and nearly drown the kid on it. And of course how could a mid-90s movie be complete without the obligatory pre-teen boy with an attitude? This is where we meet Louis, the lovable tough-guy. Despite the fact that Louis has just been nearly killed by Dinosaurs falling on him, he quickly makes friends with them and promises to get them to the Museum of Natural History: where they were told to head for once they hit ground. There they’re supposed to meet Doctor Juliath Bleeb, one of the museum curators. But Louis persuades the group to take a detour towards Central Park in order to take him to the circus, where he plans to get a job in order to get away from his parents. But what the dinosaurs don’t know, is that this circus is run by the evil Professor Screw Eyes, who is the brother of Professor New Eyes, and whom they were all warned about before they were sent off.
Now tell me if you’re starting to notice an issue here… There is WAY too much crap going on here. You’ve got a an old man who flies around in a steampunk space ship, with an alien side-kick I might add, and takes it upon himself to fulfill the wishes of children by way of his “Wish-radio.” You’ve got a group of Dinosaurs who are taken out of their element and thrown into modern day New York city. Hijinks ensue. You’ve then got a young punk kid whose sick of his parents and wants to join the circus. (I thought that notion died with the 1950s). You’ve got another young girl that this kid meets while flying around on Elsa the pterodactyl. She of course joins the party. And now you’ve got another Professor, who’s mad with evil powers, and runs his own spooktacular horror show inside of a circus, in the middle of Central Park.
Holy Fritos this is a dumpster load of insanity. This is just as convoluted as Spiderman 3 or Amazing Spiderman 2. How is anyone supposed to make all of this crap make sense?
Well guess what? They don’t.
And don’t even get me started on the book ends for this film! Oh yes, it has bookends: and completely pointless bookends too. With a little blue-bird who talks to Rex and Rex tells the little blue-bird the whole story, while he’s playing 18 holes of golf. GAAAHH!
So with a film this messed up from the beginning, none of the other problems that come along with that should be surprising. But I’ll explain what they are anyway.
You see, the way that I just explained the plot to you isn’t a whole lot different than how the movie does. The story literally has Professor New Eyes pontificate about the movie’s plot before anything even happens. And it’s perhaps the most blatant of exposition dumps that I’ve ever seen. He lays out what he does for a living, he lays out why he does it, he explains why he picked up the dinosaurs, and he explains where he wants them to go, even though he clearly doesn’t consider their personal opinion about it, because he never asks them if they want to be a wish-fulfillment for children or not. And then, almost as if it’s a “Coming Attraction,” he explains that the token villain of the picture is actually his brother, Professor Screw Eyes. And that the dinosaurs should stay clear away from him, even though it’s obvious that New Eyes is way too clever not to know that the dinosaurs will inevitably run into Screw Eyes somewhere down the road.
So then once the dinosaurs land on Earth, the movie throws me for a loop when it actually tries to force in action scenes. And brother, when you force a story to have action and tension rather than write a story that naturally has it, you end up with some pretty pointless moments. Like not even 3 minutes after we meet Louis, the whole group looks up upon New York’s skyline for the first time. And Rex is so overblown and taken aback by the spectacle, that he literally falls off the wooden pier they’re standing on, and falls in the water. And he starts to drown.
SERIOUSLY!? Are you really serious with this?
So then we have to sit through a so-called “intense scene,” while watching a kid we barely know, rescue a dinosaur we also barely know, and then watch them have a small moment together before they all head off into down-town NY, where we’re sure to have even more pointless action.
So now we’ve seen lazy exposition dumps, and forced action sequences. What could make number three on this countdown? Shoe-horned characters of course!
Now we meet Cecelia Nuthatch. And yes, the writers felt it necessary to give this character a last name even though they didn’t give Louis one. And they even repeat it so that you don’t forget it. In fact, they repeat everyone’s names so that you’re sure not to forget them. And that was likely intentional, because the side-kick Dinosaurs Dweeb, Woog, and Elsa are so rarely used that it’s easy to forget who they are.
Anyway, Cecelia comes into the story for two reasons: 1, because the story would have seemed empty if it only had one human character who was friends with the Dinosaurs (I mean Hogarth did have Dean. So he wasn’t alone), and 2, because 1990s Hollywood required that all single male characters in a children’s or young adult’s film must have a love-interest that hooks up with them by movie’s end. And dear Lord am I tired of that! At least if the romance was realistic, genuine, grew naturally, and wasn’t picture perfect, then I could enjoy having it in the film. But this is so forced and baseless and this girl is so pointless to the overall story that it’s just shocking how quickly and abruptly they shove her in here.
But don’t worry, we’ve got some more pointlessness for ya. How’bout a chant-styled musical number during the middle of a parade? No? Well too bad. Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care.
How about a cooky clown character named Stubbs who performs non-sequitur slapstick bits for your amusement? No? Come on, he’s probably the best thing in the whole picture! You sure? Well too bad, you’re getting your dose of comedy anyway. Trust me, they’re the only laughs you’ll have while watching this.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for this film structure-wise is how the conversations are carried out. They’re slow, they’re awkward, they drag on way too long, and they include a lot of unnecessary information about things and characters that we really don’t need to know and shouldn’t really have time to listen to because it will never amount to anything. The worst of it comes when Louis meets Professor Screw Eyes, because Screw Eyes, just like his brother, is a blabbermouth that doesn’t know when to stop expositing about every single freaking detail. Enough dude. I get it!
Now you want to know something, this movie actually has two protagonists. And not like a buddy cop film or a movie that shares the leading role between two people, but literally two different characters that we—as an audience—are supposed to relate to. Because if you think about it, Rex is our straight man. He’s the character who’s taken out of his element and is forced into a world with a brain full of knowledge he doesn’t fully understand. And we as an audience are supposed to experience the film through his eyes because he’s the one who’s asking questions and learning things. But the film clearly didn’t feel like that was the way to go. Instead, the story brings in Louis, who could have just been a side-kick or supporting character, but ended up becoming a bit too much of a leading character. And so way too much focus was put on him: effectively making Louis our second protagonist whom we as an audience are supposed to relate to.
You can’t do that movie! You can’t make two completely separate characters the surrogate for the audience. We’re supposed to experience a film from a primary character perspective and a secondary character perspective. The primary is meant to be our main character who learns things and asks questions, and is for all intents and purposes “uninformed.” Then the secondary character or characters are supposed to be the knowledgeable characters with a problem: characters who are informed about their world and are pretty familiar with it, but are running into issues that are new to them or are difficult to overcome.
It’s just like in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke has learned a lot since the first movie, but he now has to learn the ropes of becoming a Jedi. And so we learn a lot of new things from his experiences with Yoda. But then at the same time, we’re watching Han, Laia and C3-PO deal with dodging the Empire’s forces, all while trying to get to Cloud City. They never ask any questions or teach us anything new because they’re already informed about their world. Han is a smuggler whose seen quite a bit in his time, and Laia is a member of Royalty and a political figure, so she knows quite a bit as well. And C3-PO is a droid: he’s programmed to know tons of stuff. So during their story-line, they deal with a series of problems rather than a series of questions.
Along with that, the primary perspective will also always have more weight and screen time than the secondary, even if the entire film shifts to the secondary from time to time. But here, in A Dinosaur Story, the film completely shifts gears to Louis’ story half way through, and it never again feels like a film that supposed to be about Dinosaurs traveling to 20th Century New York. Now it’s about a kid who foolishly joins a mad-house circus and has to rescue some Dinosaurs from an evil mad-man with a screw for an eye. And did I mention the screw can hypnotize people?
But on top of that, I honestly think the entire premise was poorly conceived. Because you know who I’d much rather learn about? Professor New Eyes and his crazy brother.
That’s right. I’d rather watch a film where a kid, perhaps one like Louis, is inadvertently picked up by New Eyes in his giant flying trans-dimensional ship, and goes on adventures bringing different creatures from different worlds and times together, in order to teach them how to be intelligent beings. And then the evil Professor Screw Eyes would rear his ugly bolt face and cause some massive damage to the ship, which may strand it somewhere in purgatory, where the kid would have to help New Eyes escape from.
Doesn’t that sound great? It would literally have been the animated equivalent of Doctor Who. And it would have been AMAZING!
But no. Instead… we get a bunch of lousy dinosaurs hip-hoppin’ it up in Manhattan while they drag along a little punk kid and a rather polite and studious young rich girl, along for the ride. What a rip-off.
Now as a matter of fact, this movie was based on a book of the same name. However, MOST of the characters featured in the film were added on. Since the book appears to be a super super short story—only 17 pages—the story is actually a much simpler “what if” kind of story. It’s about how a bunch of dinosaurs are picked up by an alien passing by, who has his own brain evolving substance, and he sends the Dinosaurs into 20th Century New York, where they try to blend in during the Macy’s Day Parade. But once they get found out, the cops try to chase after them and take them down. And so when the kind-hearted Dr. Bleeb finds them, she hides them inside the Museum of Natural History and passes them off as museum exhibits. The story pretty much ends with the Dinosaurs no really sure what will happen to them, but they’re hopeful of the future.
So you can see that almost the entire plot as well as the 2nd half of the film was added on during story development in order to create something more conventional. Both Professors were added in to create a dreams VS nightmares aspect, which then ties into fulfilling children’s wishes. And Louis and Cecelia were added in to create surrogate characters for the sake of the children and pre-teens watching the movie: even though it’s never been a requirement that children need other fictional children to relate to in a movie.
I daresay if Pixar had adapted this into a film, they probably would have done a more faithful adaptation, adding in things that would have benefitted the story rather than things that seemingly make it ”cooler” for 1990s youths.
I suppose that’s probably the most I’ve ever had a problem with a film’s story thus far. It’s perhaps the strangest plot for any film I may talk about on this blog. But let’s take things down a notch now, and get into some other areas.
The biggest problem beyond story that bugged me about this production is that despite the animation being rather fluid and skillful most of the time, the line work and the coloring were horrendous. Every single shot looked blurry and sketchy and the colors would sometimes go outside of the lines. In certain scenes you can barely even make out character details because the lines are so thick and look like they were drawn with charcoal stubs.
The DVD transfer didn’t make things look any better, as the entire frame looked incredibly grainy and messy. It’s probably the grainiest DVD I’ve seen in a while. And I can’t even tell if the grain I’m seeing is the actual film grain or just digital noise. Because if it is real film grain, then that’s the worst grain I’ve ever seen on film either.
My guess is that the reason the ink and paint look so horrible is that this film was actually painted in the computer. And since this production was not a Disney film, they clearly had a lot more trouble getting a handle on the process. Many times the characters looked floaty and pasted on the backgrounds rather than rooted to the ground. The shading is all evenly colored and there’s a consistent graduated edge on every shadow on every object and character: adding credence to the theory that this was digitally painted. I suppose this then means that the sketchiness of the images is due to an inferior animation scanning process. They also seemed to have not done any sort of clean-up line-work, before or after scanning the animation in: which would have greatly improved the final look of the drawings. It ultimately makes the film rather hard to like visually, even though some moments are, like I said, very smooth and show great understanding of the animation principles.
If you didn’t know it already, this film was directed by Phil Nibbelick and Simon Wells: the same team who brought us An American Tail (2): Fievel Goes West. And the majority of that team seems to have animated this picture as well, but not all, as many shots are animated by separate groups of people, which can often make sequences of shots bounce between drastically different character design interpretations. It’s impressive to think then that just a few years later, Balto’s animation and production quality would look so much better, and the story would be so much simpler and coherent.
The sound-effects blow rocks. They are some of the laziest, most phoned-in bleeps, blops, squirts, and hoots I’ve ever heard. In fact, I’ve already heard most of these sounds before: probably from some tv show from the late 80s, but were repurposed for a feature film for some ridiculous reason. I mean who thought these sounds were a good idea? They lend nothing to the film’s aesthetic, they’re not funny, and they sound as cheap as a $0.50 cent kazoo.
As with films like Ferngully and An American Tail (2), it’s sometimes shocking to find out who did voices for the characters. In this case we have the surprising credits of Walter Cronkite as Professor New Eyes, TV chef super-star Julia Child as Doctor Juliath Bleeb, Jay Leno as Vorb the motor-mouthed alien, Yeardly Smith (who plays Lisa Simpson) as Cecelia, and Martin Short as Stubbs the clown. In Martin’s case this was two years before he’d play Hubie the Penguin in The Pebble and the Penguin. And of course we can’t forget John Goodman, who opens the film trying to do his best Bing Crosby impression, but then slips back into a slightly more cheerful version of himself for the rest of the picture. This was actually not John’s first foray into voice acting. He had played Frosty the Snowman in Frosty Returns in 1991. But this was his first feature film voice role. But you probably know him better as Sully from Monsters Inc, or my favorite of his voice roles, Pacha from The Emperor’s New Groove.
Something that I discovered while looking for images for this entry, was a small article that shows how a lot of the production design for the film is inspired by turn-of-the-century Art Neuvo.
And that does strike me as rather unique, because a lot of the designs in this film aren’t bad at all. They’re quite stunning and well-crafted. It’s just a shame that they had to be used in a film like this. I tend to run across that issue quite a bit: terribly paced and badly structured films that otherwise have an amazing production design going for them.
Lastly, I must address the musical score for this film, because it happens to be yet another fanciful score by our good friend James Horner.
Ah James Horner. As many of your contemporaries you’ve had your good projects and your bad projects. But you’ve always pulled out amazing work no matter what the visual content. And that’s just as true here.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Horner’s score is by far the best-made thing about this film, because his music does exactly what it’s intended to do: accentuate the action and the visuals. And as with any other project he’s on, his music fits the mood, fits the character, fits the atmosphere, and fits the environment of every scene it’s in. He simply does not skimp on his work, no matter what film he’s a part of. And that is an admirable trait.
Now does that mean his music here is memorable here? No, of course it isn’t. And that’s not because he’s not capable of writing memorable music. Every ”good” film he’s worked on has a memorable soundtrack. It’s simply the fact that the film is poorly paced, the audio tracks are badly mastered, and the convoluted story do not allow for signature tracks to be written for it. It’s more of an industrial soundtrack than anything else, and only serves to underscore what’s happening on screen rather than enhance it. Sometimes the music does come to the front of the track and becomes the focal point, like during the whole Screw Eyes circus sequence. But beyond that, it tends to stay in the background.
What’s sad is that I feel like this film may have started to turn off James Horner from working on animated features, because while he did do Once Upon A Forest that same year, and The Page Master the year after (1994), his previous works had all been Don Bluth related pictures, which greatly offered him much more visuals and slow character moments to build off from. Just the opening sequence of The Land Before Time is a masterpiece of composition all on its own. But you don’t get any of that here. And that’s a shame. Because he was one of those composers that made you feel the weight and the beauty of animated films. He made you believe that animation could be more than just children’s entertainment. But We’re Back just takes all that and stomps it under a dinosaur’s foot.
So there you are. This movie is one pure pile of fossilized dino-feces. Probably will never watch it again as long as I live. And I might just mean that too.
If you’re looking for an interesting experience as far as another review goes, you might want to check out the Nostalgia Critic’s (Doug Walker’s) review of the movie, where he comments on the film as if he’s Johnny Depp from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Makes for a very trippy experience.