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Hipster Holy Grail: Adventures in Dinosaur City (1991)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover a hidden treasure. Sometimes I don't. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

A strange movie that elicits some strange reactions, Adventures in Dinosaur City is basically one part nostalgia, one part irony, and one part frustration.  The result is a little bit too cheesy to recommend, but it's not without its value.  You probably don't want to go digging this one up unless you either grew up with it or you're looking for a varsity-level bad movie.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Timmy (Omri Katz) is a teenager (ostensibly) who hangs out with his friends Mick and Jamie.  It's not entirely clear what their relationships are in a larger context - like if they're the outcasts at school or popular kids or what.  Mainly you only gather three basic facts:

1) Timmy is the "leader," and basically a proto-Dreamworks character with a lot of ill-defined 'tude.

2) Mick and Jamie have a mutual unrequited love thing going on.

3) They're all mega-fans of a TV show called Dinosaurs.

What is Dinosaurs?  Well... it's fully animated, I'll tell you that.

It appears to feature dinosaurs named Rex, Tops, and Forry, who live in Dinosaur City and occasionally go on adventures to fight a different dinosaur named Mr. Big.  Whenever they successfully fight, they do their signature move: a weird double fist-pump arm-swinging dance move thing.  It's really, really embarrassing to watch.  One of those things that might work in a cartoon, but doesn't translate to real life when the kids do it.

Anyway, Dinosaurs is kind of a mystery to me.  There's very little revealed about the show except that it's a cartoon about dinosaurs and the kids like it.  But even their affinity for it is a mystery, because they never actually watch the show in the entire movie.  We see two scenes of them starting to watch, but both times they turn off the TV right as the opening credits sequence ends.  What kind of kid watches only the opening credits sequence, much less gathers two of their friends to watch it with them?

Oh, by the way, Timmy's parents are inventors and have created this new technology in their garage workshop to send things into television sets, and after discovering that their equipment works, they leave it all running and immediately hop in their car to go to a press conference.  That's important.

Timmy is warned not to go into the garage while they're gone, but he ignores them because there's a big TV in there.  So the kids sneak in to watch Dinosaurs on the big screen, then accidentally get sucked into their fictional world.

Here's where the movie immediately nose-dives in quality.

Up to this point it's pretty silly, but it's kinda fun and the pieces of animation we get to see are serviceable, if cheap.  The movie's peppy and colorful and has some charm to go with its low budget.  But once they go into Dinosaur City, the movie does a bait-and-switch and gives you dinosaur puppets.

Look, I don't hate puppets, but they're inferior to cartoons.  Cartoons are bright, whimsical, and fantastical.  A cartoon can get smushed against a wall and end up fine afterward.  But puppets are elaborate costumes - interesting costumes that require a lot of talent to operator - but costumes nonetheless.  They're flatter and duller and subject to the laws of our universe.

I understand that the movie's monetary and technical limitations might have made it unfeasible to do green-screen interactions with cartoons, but if that's the case, why not just use puppets for the TV show from the beginning?  If you're going to show me cartoons up front, you can't pull the rug out and be like, "Ha!  Surprise puppet movie!"  That's not cool.

The movie treats the reveal of the puppets with a lot of undeserved pomp and awe, as if we should be amazed to see these new characters.  The kids certainly act that way.  But it's kind of anemic.  Actually, a lot of things in this movie are like that - the actors are really trying to sell the tension and grandeur of Dinosaur City, but other than their reaction shots, you kinda would never know there was a plot conflict going on.

Here's a good example of what I mean.  When the kids first get sucked into Dinosaur City, they bump into Forry, one of the good guys, who's trying to figure out how to fix the power plant that supplies energy to the whole city.  The plant is generating energy just fine, but it's starting to overheat and the MacGuffin energy cube they use to cool it down has been stolen by Mr. Big.  (Yeah, they're capable of nuclear fission... what of it?)

Timmy decides he wants to help them get the energy cube back (because he's bored - no exaggeration, that's his whole inner conflict the whole movie), so Forry directs the kids to the door and points off in the distance at a terrifying tower where Mr. Big lives.  The kids all stare in shock, and then we cut to this.  (The tower is the thing in the very center.  I added an arrow to help you out.)

The disconnect between what we see and the characters' enthusiasm ends up being the worst part of the movie, which proceeds to send the kids on a progressively more confusing quest to save the day.  Eventually Jamie and Mick affirm their crushes on each other and kiss, and each of the kids has some kind of character growth, so it's clear the filmmakers knew at least something about putting a story together.  But the finer details - what's happening right now and why should we care - are often overlooked.

I could tell you about the setpieces.  I could tell you about the time they go to a night club and see a shitty musical number.  I could tell you about the evil cavemen characters.  I could tell you about the part where they go hang out at Forry's tree house and Timmy has a moment of self-reflection where he realizes that endangering his friends' lives for the sake of "an adventure" is kind of a shitty thing to do.

But none of it ever really connects.  It puts AiDC in a terrible position of being a kinda crappy movie that's not wild enough to deserve lot of attention.  It's one thing to see a story told poorly with a lot of laughable effects and dialogue.  It's another thing to see a story told poorly and give it a shrug.

The Part About Fictional TV Shows

I need to harp on the fictional show in this movie a little more.  It's done so poorly.

Stephanie made a good point while we were watching this (Yes, this is how we spend our evenings).  Jamie is basically Tina Belcher.  She's a nerd who quietly lusts after one of her best friends and who spends a lot of her free time writing fan fiction about a geeky TV show.

This naturally invites the comparison to the fictional show within Bob's Burgers, The Equestranauts.  The comparison is not good.  In a single 22-minute episode of Bob's Burgers, they're able to build up more fanfare, back story, and flavor for the Equestranauts universe than AiDC is able to create for Dinosaurs in its 90 minute runtime.  Even after the kids have a full-on adventure, I still don't know what their stupid TV show is about.

Is it a comedy?  An action?  A bit of both?  Is it serialized story-telling, or is it episodic?  Are there crossovers into other universes?  Do the dinosaurs have any special powers or talents?  Who's the fan favorite?  How many seasons did it run?  What's the tone like?  Is it spastic or more laid-back?  Is it meant for teenagers or more for elementary school kids?  If you are an adult, would you be embarrassed to watch it?

It's not that I need to know a whole lot about the show in order for the movie to work, but I need enough to care about the actual conflict that's going on.  Contrast this movie with another "kids get sucked into a television show" movie that's flawed, but at least competently made: Pleasantville.  With very little setup, you know exactly what kind of show Pleasantville is.  So when the characters start going on some strange journeys that end up being thinly-veiled metaphors for racism and '60s counter-culture, you're able to follow it even if you don't like it.

What's really incredible about this is that it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to get across the tone of a show.  You can use pop cultural shorthand to communicate that message.  The Equestranauts echoes My Little Pony and anime.  Pleasantville echoes Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show.  That's more than enough to get you going.

Dinosaurs doesn't really echo anything.  At most you get hints of The Flintstones and maybe a bit of G.I. Joe, but that just makes it even more confusing.  Compound this with the fact that AiDC was released right around the same time as the debut of an actual puppet-based dinosaur TV show, and you're really screwed.

The Part About Movie Inventors

I really glossed over Timmy's parents earlier.  They don't figure into the movie a whole lot, but that's probably for the best.  They invite too many questions that won't get answered.  Such as, "Why are you looking into the technology to go into a television show?"

It's a really strange premise, because that actually is explicitly what these particular inventors are trying to do - go into their TV.  That means the kids' misadventures are caused by the invention working exactly as intended.  Contrast this with something like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which Wayne Szalinski is trying to create an enlargement ray and it malfunctions.  An enlargement ray has inherent value and legitimate uses.  What the hell good is a "zaps you into TV" ray except as a contrived plot point?

But really the reason I wanted to point out Timmy's parents is because they're home-grown inventors, and that's an archetype that seems to have fallen out of fashion.  Remember when almost every kids' show and family movie had an inventor in it?  If you went by pop culture, you'd think Americans were exclusively architects, police officers, and inventors.

I'm curious why, of all the tropes, inventors have been shunned.  Part of me wants to attribute this to a growing cynicism in our culture and a disbelief in the American Dream.  The inventor character, after all, is America distilled to its purest form: an individual with a good idea spends their own money and effort building a thing on their own property and becomes rich.  It's self-sufficiency, bootstraps, and entrepreneurial spirit rolled into one.  Have we grown disgusted with this due to the global recession?

And if so, does that mean we can expect a new wave of inventors when the economy picks up again?  Will there be a new generation of Doc Browns and Randall Peltzers?  Will they likewise invent insane technologies that should revolutionize everything but really just amount to teaching a white suburban kid a valuable life lesson?

I've got no answers here, but I appreciate the time capsule like quality of AiDC, which introduces Timmy's parents and leaves them again with equal amounts of gleeful, anarchic aplomb.  They're absurd plot devices that we're supposed to buy into without a second thought, and the amazing thing is that, for about twenty years in our film history, this approach worked.

The Part About Sex in Kids' Movies

There's a lot of uncomfortable moments in this film, and they all come from sex.  It's not the sex itself that bothers me, exactly.  It's more the dishonesty.

This is one of those movies that's bizarrely conservative.  You know that creepy, hypocritical kind of religious / political obsession with keeping things "clean" that also doesn't have a problem with child beauty pageants?  It's just dripping throughout AiDC.  It partially sanitizes its sexual content, but only by not addressing it directly - so there are still characters making catcalls or pushing up their boobs, but they're just kind of doing it, apparently pretending that any kind of actual sex acts don't exist.

For example, Jamie is supposed to be no more than fourteen years old - possible even younger - and yet characters drool over her.  Residents of Dinosaur City whistle and whoop and tell her to dress sexier.  This is played up for laughs instead of horror.

Even Forry, the lovable goofball dinosaur who hangs out with the kids for most of the adventure, gets in on the act and says "hubba hubba!" anytime he sees a woman.  (Okay, twice.  There's two woman in the movie.  Technically one woman and one girl.)

Isn't that kinda weird, guys?  Remember when that was a thing that kids' movies could get away with?  And anybody born in the '70s and '80s pretty much grew up with that all over the place? And nobody thought to themselves, "Hmm, having this animated turtle hit on a school girl and pretending that what he's doing is asking for a kiss instead of trying to finger her in the back of his Action Van (available now for only $19.99) might not be the best way to raise our kids?"

As much as I might get nostalgic for inventor characters, I'm totally fine with leaving pervy, pseudo-pedophilic undertones laying dead in a ditch.  We don't need to bring that back.

Where You Can Watch

As of this review's publication, you can watch AiDC on Youtube, but you'll have to accept viewing it in 9 minute chunks with some not-so-great audio quality.

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