Sunday, September 27, 2015

We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (Amblimation, 1993)

We're skipping past the first Amblimation film, as my sister, a guest reviewer, writes about as fast as I do. But the short version: Steven Spielberg made an animation studio, but forgot to bring any ideas. Also, all three movies they made are directed by H.G. Wells' great grandson. Weird.

Okay, I have some loyal readers here, so I trust what I’m about to say carries some weight. You’ve sat with me through Rock-a-doodle, Quest For Camelot, and Animalympics, so you know where I’m coming from when I say that this movie, this freaking movie, is the WEIRDEST thing I’ve ever seen. And it’s probably not even nearly as weird as it could have been, for reasons we’ll get to at the end. But I don’t think any of the films I’ve seen so far in this endeavor have filled me with quite as much utter bafflement as this.






Let’s start with that title. First of all, that is the title, punctuation and all. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story is based on a 1987 picture book about an alien that feeds a bunch of dinosaurs a special vitamin called Brain Grain that makes them sentient. Not wanting to leave these newly intelligent dinos in the past, the alien brings them to 20th century New York, where they can stay at the Museum of Natural History in the care of Dr. Miriam Bleeb. There is some confusion as they walk through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, first being mistaken for animatronics, then causing alarm after they pop a balloon. After some hubbub, Dr. Bleeb convinces everyone they were just a promotional stunt for the museum, and there they stay.

Nice little plot for a kid’s book, no? But hardly what you’d call feature length. So they decided to expand the plot. And that’s when things get weird. Here are the three methods of padding, in order of increasing insanity.

In the film version, the Brain Grain is a breakfast cereal, invented by a human from the far future named Professor Neweyes, who lives in sort of a steampunk blimp. The cereal has made him insanely wealthy, and he’s decided to retire and devote himself to philanthropy. He invented a Wish Radio, that allows him to hear the wishes of all the world’s children. And the most common wish is to see a real live dinosaur. So he came back to grant that wish. He told Dr. Bleeb to expect them, and drops them into NYC via parachute. I don’t know why he brings them to the late 20th century instead of his own time, or why he doesn’t just fly his blimp to the museum directly, or how he set this up with Dr. Bleeb, or why he’s bringing dinosaurs back instead of curing AIDS, but hey, he’s the guy with the wish radio.

"Why does this movie make no sense, Professor." "Because that's the way it is." For an explanation of this joke, see the bit about the voice actors.

Of course, we need more than just a dumb opening, so let’s throw in some annoying kids, too! After all, how else are you going to get kids to pay attention to the movie? Kids famously hate and get bored by dinosaurs. So let’s through in the two most stereotypical kids’ movie leads ever. First, we have Louie. Louie is a supremely irritating “cool kid”, who’s running away from home. Despite the fact that he is in New York City, and not 1840s Missouri, he is choosing to travel by raft. When we meet him, he is making himself an egg sandwich on an incredibly impractical Rube Goldberg contraption that must have taken five times as long as the raft to build, and required an exceptional amount of planning, engineering, and forethought. He’s running away to join the circus. Be more of a cliche, kid. I dare you. He eventually meets up with a Poor Little Rich Girl named Cecilia Nuthatch, and if you missed that, she’ll say it a thousand times more. She has been abandoned by her parents with the hilariously vague explanation "My father is in business, and my mother is in society", so Louie is easily able to convince her to run off to the circus with him. AND THERE'S THE THIRD THING.

Okay, so they finally get to the circus and it’s called “PROFESSOR SCREWEYES’ ECCENTRIC CIRCUS”. See, when the dinosaurs came to our time - bear with me here - Professor Neweyes warned them that his brother, Screweyes, is also living in that time period? Why? Who knows. How did he get a time machine? Who knows. Does he think that a circus founded on the notion of exposing people to their deepest fears is a moneymaker? It might be, actually.  But this audience doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Anyway, he allows Louie and Cecilia Nuthatch to join his circus, and they sign a blank piece of paper with their blood, and a contract magically appears when they do. Our Louis is not a canny businessman. And by the way, Screweyes didn’t tempt them into it, either. He wanted them to leave, because who wouldn’t, and Louie badgered him into it. Idiot. Anyway, he’s got a nightmare radio, obviously, and kids are scared of monsters, so he makes the dinosaurs into monsters, but Louie snaps them out of it with The Power of Love. Which makes no sense, as Screweyes just removed the effects of the Brain Grain, so how did the effect just pop back in? It’s not like he had a hypnotic block on them or anything.

"Blood contract, huh? Seems legit."

Anyway, then Screweyes is eaten alive by some crows that have been lurking around the place since the beginning. Really. On screen and everything. He has a monologue about the nature of fear and loneliness, and then they swarm him and when they fly away, only his screw eye (oh yeah, he has a literal one of those) is left.

And it’s that last bit that gives me the most pause, because Screweyes was meant to be voiced by John Malkovich. Malkovich left the film in a bit of a huff, and has since described it as a work of real creative vision that was ruined by executive hacks who wanted to sell toys, and I can’t tell if he’s right. I mean, there is a lot in here that smacks of studio jackassery, like some wacky chase sequences and a lot of jokes about how the triceratops loves hot dogs, but the other stuff... I just don’t know if I can imagine it being really good. I mean, a lot of it - most of it, even - is winningly strange, at least. There’s one bit, where Professor Screweyes is tuning his nightmare radio, that’s really slow and methodical and creepy, and I can kind of see the movie it almost was... But I can also see an aimless movie more concerned with being spooky and weird than actually telling a coherent story. Like if Ralph Bakshi made a dinosaur movie. It would look great, it would have a lot of great moments, but the odds of it hanging together coherently as a story would be nothing.

The hell is even happening.

While we’re on the topic, though, the voices are... Weird. Not bad, actually. Not one of them is bad, they’re just really, really weird. For example, John Goodman is the T-rex, our hero. And if you’re thinking John Goodman as a T-rex sounds like really good casting, I agree. This is rather tempered by the fact that he’s doing a Bing Crosby impression the whole time. Except when he’s singing the film’s one song. Or when he apparently forgets. No one else notable in the dinosaur gang other than former Roger Rabbit star Charles Fleischer, but the supporting cast is where things get really interesting. A lot of them aren’t actors, for instance. The three that put together this terrible dinosaur plan are a TV chef, a late night host, and a freaking news anchor. But it works. Julia Child is wacky and motherly as Dr. Bleeb, Jay Leno is energetic and manic as the alien guy, and Walter Cronkite exudes concern and love as Neweyes. Louie the idiot is played by some kid who played a recurring character on GhostWriter, and Larry King shows up playing himself, as he was required by law to do in all movies released between 1982 and 1998. Ken Mars does his usual admirable job as Screweyes, wisely deciding to not even attempt a Malkovich voice. But the weirdest part is Yeardley Smith as Cecilia Nuthatch. I am not ready to hear Lisa Simpson talking like a dreamy, ditzy rich girl making weird, semi-sexual advances on Louie. (No joke, the level of sexual tension they are trying to convey between the lead children is REALLY inappropriate and uncomfortable.)

Hey kid, wanna buy an O?

That’s really all there is to say. See this if you want to analyze a really insane movie, but trust me, there are WAY better dinosaur movies to show your kids. Just... Just not Dinosaur.


* Did every kid’s movie from this time period have some sort of insane Rube Goldberg contraption to make a simple task complicated and tedious? I see a lot of those in kids’ movies, and I think they’re meant to say “WOW, COOL”, when the entire joke of Rube Goldberg was “That’s stupid”. It’s missing the dang point. At least the one in Casper was possibly deadly.

* Best line in the movie, courtesy of Screweyes! “Don’t even think about it! You’re civilized now, and I’ve got a contract! You’re going to follow it like the chumps you are!”

* At one point, Cecilia Nuthatch is crying and saying “Let no bad happen”. Did she turn into a caveman for a second, or was that a placeholder line that got left in? Anyway, that’s what makes Neweyes show up to save the day. He heard “Let no bad happen” on the wish radio. It’s so dumb.

* If you were wondering what I meant by inappropriate sexual tension between kids, consider this ACTUAL DIALOGUE.

(Cecilia kisses Louie on the lips)
Louie: Don't do that!
Cecilia: Why not?
Louie: It's embarrassing! You kiss me and everything! It's not manly, that's what it is!
Cecilia: You know, you're right!
Louie: I am!
Cecilia: Why, yes! If anybody's kissing anybody, you should be kissing me.
Louie: I should?
Cecilia: Most definitely!

These people are like ten! At the oldest!

"We gotta have a little somethin' for daddy..."

* Speaking of weird sex stuff, the pterodactyl has the hots for the T-rex, and uses laying eggs as a metaphor for arousal. That’s probably what actually made Malkovich quit.

* Oh, hey, I made it all the way through the review without mentioning the INSANELY unfunny clown voiced by Martin Short, whose every antic is a grim reminder of the fact that clowns are, to a man, unfunny try-hards.
There's also some nonsense frame story with a bird. It's terrible. I forgot about it until I was looking up screencaps.

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