Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Recent Watches: We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (1993)

Steven Spielberg really likes dinosaurs. I can’t blame the guy, as dinosaurs are awesome and objectively one of the best things to exist ever. Back in the late eighties, he produced “The Land Before Time,” a classic cartoon about dinosaurs. In 1993, Spielberg would direct a little dinosaur movie you might have heard of called “Jurassic Park.” That same year, through his Amblimation studio, Spielberg would produced another, far more whimsical dinosaur movie. Called “We’re Back! A Dinosaur's Story,” the animated film was loosely based on Hudson Talbott’s children’s book. Though overlooked upon release, the quirky animated film has collected an internet following for its odd combination of fluffy kids’ stuff, catch-all plot, and darker elements.

In the distant future, time travel has become possible. The benevolent Dr. Neweyes uses this technology to make the dreams of children come true. You see, Neweyes has a magical radio that can tune into the dreams of people, which manifest as bubbles. Anyway, he gathers some dinosaurs from the past, making them intelligent and sentient with his magical cereal. Taking the dinosaurs into the present day, the creature meet some modern day kids. Their journey to the museum is interrupted and the dinosaurs wind up in the hands of Professor Screweyes, Neweyes’ evil brother.

“We’re Back!” has to check-off a lot of boxes in order to get to its' main plot. We’ve got time travel, dream-detecting radios, space ships, a little floating alien guy, intelligence expanding drugs, and that’s before we even get to the dinosaurs. Once we get pass all that, the film gets to the point. Primarily: Dinosaurs! The movie makes the not-at-ridiculous assumption that kids all over the planet - regardless of gender, age, race, or creed - want to meet dinosaurs. So here’s the saurian cast. The T-Rex is, naturally, named Rex and introduced on the golf green, which doesn’t even rank on the list of funny, odd images in this movie. John Goodman, whose rolly-polly physique and matching voice would soon make him a regular presence in animation, brings a goofy, likable quality to the part. There’s a pink Pterodactyl named Elsa, who seems generally loving. Woog the Triceratops and Dweeb the Parasaurolophus don’t get much development, beyond their love of food and general awkwardness. The scenes of the dinosaurs having a slap-stick adventure through the streets of Manhattan is probably the funniest, most cartoon-y stuff in “We’re Back!”

Rex and his friends discover Louie and Cecilia. The two kids have wildly different backgrounds. Louie is middle class. Cecilia’s parents live in a New York City penthouse. Louie talks with a tough guy Brooklyn accent. Cecilia is posh and upper-class, even curtseying when introducing herself to the dinosaurs. Despite their differences, the two both feel abandoned by their parents. The relationship between the two is cute, though the film’s decision to go romantic with grade schoolers is a little weird. “We’re Back!” runs a brief 70 minutes. In that time, the film has to establish that the kids and the dinos love each other enough to risk their lives for one another. Surprisingly, it works. Though a very silly film, “A Dinosaur Story” packs in enough earnestness to earn that emotions it seeks.

Helping matters is how weird this kid’s flick is willing to get. Though Amblin had long since severed its connection to Don Bluth, it’s good to know that the company was carrying on Bluth’s goal to traumatize children. The film’s villain lives up to his name: Professor Screweyes has a literal screw for an eye, with which he can hypnotize people and dinosaurs to his will. He also makes Faustian bargains with children, getting them to sign their lives to him in blood. At one point, he turns Louie and Cecilia into apes. This is creepy enough but the movie also makes Screweye the ringmaster of a circus of fear. Unlike his brother’s dream radio, Screweye has a fear radio. He seems to feed off bad vibes. The circus features demonic torturers, ghosts, grim reaper-like spectres, and sad looking mastodons. I’m not a big fan of the film’s suggestion that fear is a wholly negative emotion and that people who seek out being scared are freaks and weirdos. And how serious can the film be when it obviously delights in presenting spooky, weird imagery to the kiddies?

On top of everything else, the film is loaded with an utterly bizarre, star-studded voice cast. But they’re not the kind of stars you may be expecting. Rhea Perlman as a smothering mother bird, sure, I can see that. Kenneth Mars, and his gravelly voice, adds some nice sadistic glee to Professor Screweyes. Martin Short, as the sole non-evil clown (if such a thing exist) in the professor’s employ, brings the expected level of manic energy to the part. But what about Walter Cronkite as Neweyes? Cronkite’s voice is world famous but he’s not exactly an actor. Neither is Julia Child as Dr. Bleeb, the kindly paleontologist who assist the dinosaurs. Even Jay Leno – who voices Vorb, Neweyes’ floating alien side-kick, and has maybe six lines of dialogue - is not really an actor per say. The weirdest thing about this non-voice-actor voice cast? They’re all pretty good! The film seemed to have a strong idea of what it wanted its' characters to sound like and rolled with it.

Though not really a musical, the film still features one song, “Roll Back the Rock,” a goofy, catchy number written by Thomas Dolby. James Horner contributes another gorgeous score, which is surprisingly deep and meloncholey for a kid’s film. “We’re Back! A Dinosaur Story” had a highly marketable premise, a blockbuster cast, and all the expected media tie-ins, like toys, a video game, and a decapitated balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Despite this, the movie bombed in theaters. As with many cartoons, it found its audience on video, who have come to embrace this uneven but oddly satisfying bit of animation. It’s not exactly a classic but the film has just enough strangeness to make it memorable and just enough emotion to make it likable. [7/10]

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