Before there was “Jurassic Park” there was “Dinosaurs!” starring Fred Savage. I kid you not. Before the instant Spielberg classic became the go-to film for dinosaur action, most little kids grew up with this stop-motion documentary featuring that generation’s favorite child actor. Though dated in pretty much every way you can imagine (factually, visually and musically), “Dinosaurs!” must have done something right, as they still show it at the dinosaur exibit of the Smithsonian.
Phillip (Fred Savage) has a problem: his school report is due tomorrow but he hasn’t a clue what to write about. After a bizarre musical dream sequence which was most likely the result of substance abuse, Phillip awakens to the answer: Dinosaurs! However, he doesn’t know anything about them except that they were big, scary and are all dead. But have no fear, Phillip is apparently a very special young boy who not only receives rock n roll visions but also has an omniscient narrator ready to explain everything to him and write him his report.
Growing up before 1994, this video was pretty much a staple of every dinosaur-hungry child’s diet. They saw it at least once, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if it holds some sort of Blockbusters rental record of some kind. Personally, I had a copy on BetaMAX and wore it out into a pile of dust. Rewatching it recently, “Dinosaurs!” is a product of its time: seriously dated and hard to take seriously in this day and age of special effects epics such as “Jurassic Park” and factually accurate documentaries such as “Walking with Dinosaurs”. Never-the-less, whether current paleontological findings have rendered the science of this film completely without merit or not, it’s still one of the best sources of cheesy 80’s nostalgia you are ever likely to come across.
The film starts out with young Phillip having a dream sequence set to a cheesy rock song called “Mesozoic Mind”. Basically, an 80’s rock band made up of dinosaurs share the basics of a few of the more well-known species with the audience (Apatosaurus glided past, tall as any tree). Believe it or not, there’s an actual website dedicated to this song and you can even watch a video of it there. While so goofy and cheesy your brain may fossilize inside your skull, “Mesozoic Mind” is actually kind of catchy…in an “oh god I can’t get this god damn song outta my head!” sort of way.
Fred Savage’s magical journey through the mysterious history of dinosaurs is rather short and only really teaches you the basics about fossils and constantly stresses the fact that we know next to nothing about Dinosaurs (well, that’s how it was in 1987, anyway). Being probably the least visually exciting, this portion of the film is the bit most people tend not to remember. I recall finding the middle section boring and usually went to get a glass of Kool-Aid Purplesaurus Rex while it was playing.
The climax of the film is Phillip’s actual report on dinosaurs to the class. In reality, it’s a stop-motion sequence which was animated in 1980 by Will Vinton (the creator of the California Raisens) and then tacked on to the end of the movie for the 1987 release. The brightly colored and cartoonish claymation is fun to watch and likely the source of my unbridled love for all things stop-motion (sorry, Gumby). Here is where the movie mostly shows its age, not solely in the special effects but with the flat out inaccurate history lesson on dinosaurs. Granted, not all of it is misinformation, but paleontology has made so many leaps and bounds since 1980 that the information presented in the film is really obsolete. But who cares? Claymation is fun. And those purple triceratops moo like barnyard cows.
This movie isn’t so easy to find anymore, as most video stores that still have a VHS section likely threw their’s out from over-use some years ago. Still, if you’re ever at the Smithsonian you might want to take the time to sit and watch the thing. It’s so bad it’s good.
Grade: N (for “Nostalgia”)