THE INITIAL RELEASE (1993)
For a Steven Spielberg-associated film, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story was released in one of the least appealing periods for non-Disney animations in history. Coming out November of 1993, We’re Back landed right in the middle of Aladdin and The Lion King, and right at the tail of Disney’s re-assertion as the dominant force in family animated-entertainment. Produced by Spielberg’s own animation studio, the short-lived Amblimation, A Dinosaur’s Story grossly under-performed at the box office, failing to break $10 million on the back of An American Tail, a film which seen a very healthy $65 million. This trend would continue with 1995’s Balto, which seen just over 10 million dollars and forced the studio’s closure in 1997.
We’re Back had quite a myriad concoction of makers involved, too. The directors include Simon Wells, who would go on to be involved in Prince of Egypt, and Phil Nibbelink, the animation director on the Casper film. The oddest crew-member though, at least in my opinion, is the screenplay writer, John Patrick Shanley. Shanley’s work includes Alive, a tale of mountain survival post-plane crash, Joe Versus The Volcano, an early Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, and the ’95 action film Congo. Looking back, he’s not quite the first name that would have come to mind for an animated dinosaur film, but there we are.
Despite the stacked odds and strange filming team, it didn’t stop Universal working with Amblimation for the release. Universal worked extensively with the studio as well as animation guru Don Bluth, essentially attempting to monopolize the animation market outside of Disney with the animated films as well TV shows based on An American Tail and Land Before Time. While its likely We’re Back would have been slated for a series, its poor performance solidified that it simply wasn’t an option – a sad reality that has seen many of the series’ and films fade into an obscurity only salvaged by nostalgia.
MY FULL EXPERIENCE (1995 – 2014)
Much like The Pagemaster, this is a film that has perforated much of my formative childhood years. I remember seeing it on television quite early, a memory which now correlates to an altogether grim reality for the picture post-box office beating. I do remember a playing in my first class when I was still living in the Irish mid-lands, before my 7th birthday, and I remember enjoying the film quite a lot. John Goodman’s infectious performance as Rex, the principle dinosaur and chief voice of narration. Him and the motley crew of talking pre-historic lizards, who also include Charles Fleischer of Roger Rabbit fame, were an effectively loveable team, keeping the humor strong and the plot moving along. They complimented Louie and Cecilia very well, the voice of the latter by the Lisa Simpson herself Yeardley Smith, and all in all it was a charming way of keeping me interested for an hour while the world ticked on around me. Sure enough, I ran the lifesblood out of lead single, ‘Roll Back The Rock (To The Dawn Of Time)’, fairly quickly too.
Sadly, this review through rose-rinted memories is a little wide of the reality of a viewing today. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story is made up of the same older looking animation of Land Before Time and An American Tail, but lacks the immediate warmth that those films maintain. Rex introduces himself to us quickly in the opening scenes, playing golf and acting altogether human. He explains that he was once a regular sharptooth, but circumstances led to him wanting the quiet life, and so he goes giving us that story. There are few things in this world more comforting than John Goodman’s voice coming out of a friendly dinosaur, and this is proof of that. Oftentimes his performance maintains investment, here it creates it, with that voice perking enthusiasm for the upcoming tale. A true rarity is his kind of ability.
We see Rex stomping around as a vicious predator, before being enlisted by the alien creature Vorb (Jay Leno) for the ‘brain grain’ – an intelligence increasing nutrient snack for dinosaur’s brains. Rex joins other brain grainers Dweeb the parasaurolophus, Voog the triceratops and Elsa the pteradactyl with his new-found abilities of articulation and basic cognitive thought. Before too long, Captain Neweyes enters to tell them of his mission; to allow children of the modern age to witness dinosaurs in real-life. Now, while this is a noble cause, especially for one of the early nineties, the means by which his childhood surveys are completed is a bit… sketchy, to say the least. The sequence involves him revealing that he has been spying on children, in their rooms, and listening to them. Presumably continuously. Now, in the light of this being a children’s film, there’s obvious allowances for sever fantasy, but this is creepy in the extreme, at least to me eyes now some 20 years after first viewing.
But alas, this is still early days, both literally and figuratively, in the film. Neweyes informs of his insane brother Professor Screweyes and the importance of avoiding him whence they reach the modern age, but to find Dr. Juliet Bleeb of the National History Museum, and off they pop to Maine River 1993. This is where Louie comes into the picture as an altogether too grunge for his youngster whose sailing his way to freedom, fried egg sandwiches in tow. Louie’s planning to join the circus, but gets side-tracked when the dinosaurs cross his path, as you would, and joins them instead. Cue a nice ride on a pterodactyl and his finding of Cecelia. At this point, the film is bathing in cliché that really weighs down the narrative. When it comes to animated features, regularities are expected because the appeal is wide and ultimately the message must be suitable to grasp for a younger audience and be one that is (hopefully) positive. However, only using cliché creates a drab sense of going through the motions that drags the characters down and makes the duration feel more lengthy and cumbersome. We’re Back! Suffers from this heavily before the big song and dance that thankfully replenishes the high.
‘Roll Back The Rock (To The Dawn Of Time)’ is still a rockin’ tune, and John Goodman should do a blues-tinged solo album while he’s still here. Someone get on that. Get on Kickstarter, fairly certain he’ll break the scale with the demand for such a thing. But I digress. As a center-piece, it works, and saves the film from free-falling into total blandness. Louie and Cecelia are initially caught in the parade of boogie, but then escape to central park to join ol’ Screweyes’ circus. Naturally, the dinosaurs follow suit eventually, and it comes down to the dinosaurs or the kids who get committed to the eccentric festival. The dinosaurs are chosen, and get ‘Brain Drain’-ed this time, and become wild and out of control. Louie and Cecelia are left out in the cold, only to plan to sneak in later.
The end sequence is something that manages quite the feat – in a film where dinosaurs are made talk and a young boy and girl literally buzz off without so much as a second notice at their parental characters, the fact that a newly rabid dinosaur is convinced to love again is the most unbelievable, contrived part of the narrative. Hinging on the pure love of innocence is completely fine, but stretching it to a now freshly murderous, meant to be totally regular dinosaur is just, well it’s one step too far, if you ask me. Which you have by proxy. Because you’re reading this. So HAH! I guess… Anyway, Screweyes is defeated by a murder of crows devouring him (they MURDERed him!) and then Louie and Cecelia kiss before boarding a re-appeared Capt. Neweyes to go to the future. Not making this up. They pull a switcheroo with the children and the dinosaurs. Two kids are kidnapped by a time traveling scientists while now-sentient dinosaurs live happily ever after in the museum. And they’re all now in consensual relationships. Yeah.
If you have a spare hour, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story is good fun on a rainy Sunday. Not something too memorable, but the song will be stuck in your head for days. And John Goodman, so there’s that.