Theodore Rex

The Good Dinosaur is the rare dinosaur movie that has managed to stir hopeful expectations among film critics (its troubled production history aside). The project’s reputation is buoyed by its prestigious studio, Pixar, and by its 20-year distance from Hollywood’s last dino craze. There was a stretch, peaking in the mid-’90s, when “just add mega-lizards” was the go-to move for desperate entertainment marketers. That era created a curious layer in the pop-cultural fossil record, a stratum littered with mediocre ideas that got produced simply because they featured a stegosaurus or two.

1. Theodore Rex (1996)

According to the people involved in making the misbegotten science-fiction/buddy-cop picture Theodore Rex, there was actually a moment during the development process when this could’ve been a cool project. The Last Starfighter screenwriter Jonathan Betuel created a dark, weird concept: a genre mash-up ripped from the pages of Heavy Metal or 2000 A.D. But during the years it took to raise money for production, the practical realities of making a movie about a police detective partnered up with a flatulent dinosaur overwhelmed Betuel. Sitting in the feature-directing chair for only the second time, he compromised his vision to satisfy the financiers, shaving away the movie’s hard edge to make it more kid-friendly. Meanwhile, the producers went through a nasty public arbitration battle with their star, Whoopi Goldberg—who claimed she’d never officially agreed to do the gig—and the effects team realized that while they’d been developing elaborate reptilian costumes and puppetry, Hollywood studios were embracing CGI. (Here’s how long Theodore Rex was in the works: Goldberg reportedly made her verbal commitment a year before Jurassic Park came out.) So not only were the filmmakers stuck with a premise that was always going to come across as a little silly—a talking dino who wears clothes and solve crimes!—but they were also committed to having it look crude, moronic, and butt-ugly. The results were so dire that the main backer and distributor, New Line, was too embarrassed give the film even a token theatrical release, preferring to bury it on home video—though it lives on in the dim memories of anyone who was around in the 1990s and now occasionally mutters, “Wait, wasn’t there a movie once with Whoopi Goldberg and a farting T. rex?” [Noel Murray]

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2. Dinosaurs (1991-94)

In theory, giving the Jim Henson company a primetime sitcom to make a show about dinosaurs living like a typical American family—only set in 60 million B.C.—could work perfectly well. The combination of person-in-suit and puppet characters (including a baby dino controlled and voiced by Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash), intended as a satire of contemporary working-class life, is full of potential. Unfortunately, that potential rarely showed itself, as the series’ efforts at social messages and cultural criticism were mired in a rut of hack premises, clumsy jokes, and mainstream pandering that devolved to the point of forced catchphrases. (“Gotta love me”? No, we don’t.) Even one of the weirdest and bleakest finales of a “family programming” show of all time can’t rescue this noble misfire. Sometimes, going extinct is for the best. [Alex McCown]

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3. Dinosaucers (1987)

Anthropomorphic dinosaurs from outer space must have seemed like a no-brainer after the popularity of the Dinobots on Transformers, but Dinosaucers never quite took off despite possessing all the elements for a successful merchandizing campaign. The formula was simple enough. Rival dinosaur factions come to Earth. Good dinosaurs deputize kids (the “Secret Scouts”) to be part of their tribe. Bad dinosaurs live in a lair beneath an active volcano. Each Dinosaucer rides around in its own toy-ready personal conveyance. Throw in a catchy theme song. Give each the ability to “dinovolve” into their prehistoric state. Sell toys and retire to St. Kitts. Hey, sometimes even a sure thing can miss. [Drew Toal]

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4. Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend (1985)

Cheesy, tonally confusing, and saddled with an oddly redundant title, Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend at least has some cool-looking dinosaurs going for it, as long as you view them from a distance. When a paleontologist and his wife (William Katt and Sean Young, respectively) discover a family of Central African Mokèlé-mbèmbé—the region’s sauropodal equivalent to the Loch Ness Monster—their jaws go slack with wonder. And why not? The animatronics are built to full scale, and director Bill L. Norton doesn’t skimp on showing the dinos as they plod mightily through the jungle. But as the camera zooms in, the magic dissipates. Maybe it’s the eyes: fixed, stoned, and, in the case of the titular baby bronto, green with slit pupils like a cat. Or maybe the problem is the skin, which has the texture and color of a kitchen garbage bag, crumpling up whenever the reptiles move. Granted, it’s admirable that the production team isn’t shy about their larger-than-life practical effects, but a little more restraint would have made the characters’ awe—not to mention the dinosaurs themselves—a lot less silly. [Dan Caffrey]

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5. The Land Before Time III: The Time Of The Great Giving (1995)

None of The Land Before Time’s 12 sequels (a 13th is slated for 2016) captures the grim prehistoric danger of the first film. While it’s easy to blame the decline in quality on a rushed, straight-to-video production process or the lack of involvement from original director Don Bluth, the true culprits are the songs. Lots and lots of stupid songs. Never mind the fact that the original wasn’t a musical—each entry in The Land Before Time IIXIII comes saddled with a fake book’s worth of hacky, usually motivational tunes. The worst ditty comes from the third installment, The Time Of The Great Giving. In “Standing Tough,” a triceratops dad, Topps, tries to mobilize other dinosaur parents to find water for their children after a rockslide cuts off their usual supply. The performance sounds like someone singing karaoke of a Bryan Adams outtake, and the song’s visuals are static and boring. As Topps huffs and puffs about the importance of being a hardass, the other dinos just watch idly in a circle, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at him, less “standing tough” than standing bored. [Dan Caffrey]

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6. The Last Dinosaur (1977)

The American TV movie/Japanese theatrical feature The Last Dinosaur doesn’t paint a great picture of Americans. When a wealthy American businessman (who clearly used his millions to purchase his terrific name, “Maston Thrust”) discovers a volcano-heated lost valley under the polar ice caps, of course he can’t wait to get up there and hunt a Tyrannosaurus for sport. Long, sleepy confrontations ensue as the dino (a classic Japanese rubber-suit monster) and the Walter Palmer-esque hunter track each other across the wilds, both of them endangering the people Thrust has brought with him. Given that there are also pteranodons and triceratops running around the lost valley, it’s clear that T. rex isn’t actually the last dinosaur. Surprise! As a mournful song explains in the closing credits, Thrust is the real last dinosaur, a hairy-chested he-man throwback who has met every boring challenge of the tame modern world. He must return to prehistory to find a battle worthy of him—and a foe capable of squishing him with one foot. [Tasha Robinson]

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7. Carnosaur (1993)

In the ethically shaky realm of quick-turnaround blockbuster knockoffs, there’s always the danger of flying too close to the sun, copyright-infringement wise. (See The Hobbit vs. Age Of The Hobbits.) No such legal controversy greeted the notorious penny-pinching producer Roger Corman when he released this bloody, borderline nonsensical dinosaur thriller just before Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park hit theaters. Sure, it’s about science gone wrong, giant dinosaurs on a rampage, and, yes, it does star Diane Ladd, whose daughter Laura Dern was scheduled to star in that other dinosaur film. But Steven Whatshisname’s movie doesn’t have a mad scientist trying to make chickens lay bigger eggs by splicing them with ostriches, crocodiles, and, yes, dinosaurs. Nor does Jurassic Park’s mastermind, John Hammond, have a secret agenda to wipe out humanity by forcing human women to give chestburster-style birth to dinosaur babies. And Industrial Light & Magic’s computer wizardry couldn’t match the prehistoric thrills provided in Carnosaur by a single, mostly immobile 16-foot tall animatronic model, a guy in a dino suit, and a bunch of hand puppets. The case for Carnosaur rests. [Dennis Perkins]

8. Primal Rage (1994)

Primal Rage, Atari’s contribution to the mid-’90s flood of Mortal Kombat wannabes, had all the makings of a campy classic. Its premise is ridiculous in the best ways, involving all-powerful dinosaurs (and two giant apes) that awaken in the core of a post-apocalyptic Earth—or “Urth,” as it’s been renamed—and emerge to fight for land and the adoration of humanity’s scattered remains. The stop-motion dino-on-dino violence is charmingly awkward, as if Ray Harryhausen developed a game about giant monsters beating each other to death. But all of that potential was funneled into a repellently stiff fighting game where unleashing your dino’s coolest moves—fire-spitting, bites to the jugular, etc.—is nearly impossible, especially if you’re trying to mix them into attack combinations. What good is a teleporting dinosaur sorceress if you can only pull off her magic 10 percent of the time? Primal Rage is built to induce a primal rage-quit. [Matt Gerardi]

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9. Radical Rex (1994)

On the other end of the “Let’s just shoehorn dinosaurs into trendy video games” spectrum was Radical Rex, an amalgamation of ’90s pop-culture fads that stars a skateboarding cartoon T. rex. The horrors start on the title screen, where the reptilian hero mugs for the camera and spouts words that meet a mid-’90s marketing executive’s definition of “cool,” all while Rex’s embarrassing pseudo-hip-hop theme song plays. Players who forge past that dire intro find a game that’s little more than an uninspired spin on Sonic The Hedgehog, complete with aspirations to Sonic’s impatience and ’tude. Therein lies the worst thing about Radical Rex: He’s not even radical in any sense of the word. He’s an inept attempt to cash in on the ’90s “mascots with an edge” craze, a cutesy character who smiles and makes silly faces for the camera. How do you screw up something so hackneyed as “edge”? At least give the lizard a pair of sunglasses or something. [Matt Gerardi]

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10. Tammy And The T-Rex (1994)

The plot of Tammy And The T-Rex sounds fake: A comatose teen named Michael (Paul Walker) has his brain implanted into a robotic T. rex, who then goes on to seek revenge against the high school jerks who put him into a coma to begin with—not to mention the evil Dr. Wachenstein, who put Michael’s brain in the robo rex. Michael’s goal is to reunite with his girlfriend, Tammy (Denise Richards), who ultimately rescues the brain and goes in search of a new body. While the young leads of Tammy would go on to bigger and better things, the same can’t be said for Terry Kiser, whose mad scientist character orchestrates the most useless transplant in cinematic medical history. Kiser’s greatest role was already behind him, for he had already played the title role in Weekend At Bernie’s. [Molly Eichel]

11. Was (Not Was), “Walk The Dinosaur” (1987)

Don Was is a Grammy-winning producer known for his work with Bonnie Raitt (1989’s Nick Of Time) and for directing the Brian Wilson documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. He earned just as much respect for his ’80s band Was (Not Was), which dabbled in everything from disco funk to new wave rock. Unfortunately, for all of its talent, the band is remembered most for a goofy but misunderstood sub-Flintstones romp, “Walk The Dinosaur.” Musically, the single, which was originally released in 1987 and became a top-10 hit in ’89, sands down the experimental edges of Was (Not Was) into radio-ready soul funk. Meanwhile, the “Walk The Dinosaur” video—which features women in skimpy cavegirl outfits prancing around and doing a dance descended from the Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”—is prehistoric cheese. This aesthetic and sonic dumbing-down is pernicious, undermining a serious premise. The song is “about nuclear Armageddon,” guitarist David Jacobs said in 2004, adding, “It became a dance because of the video. They connected it with the girls in the little Pebbles and Bam-Bam outfits. All the sudden it became, like, ‘do the mashed potato’ or ‘the twist.’” Why ponder the potential destruction of the human race when a fluffy dance shtick is so much more palatable? [Annie Zaleski]

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12. Adventures In Dinosaur City (1991)

In a sad attempt to capitalize on the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Adventures In Dinosaur City follows a trio of teens who are sucked into their favorite TV show, which happens to be populated by talking dinosaurs. (The trailer even throws some shade at its half-shelled competitor.) It’s as corny and insane as you’d expect from a knockoff TMNT wannabe, pitting the teens and some dinosaur freedom fighters against a “Mr. Big” and his cavemen minions, the “Rockies.” Like a number of other entries on this list, the film embraces every desperate, corporate notion of ’90s “cool,” with wacky sidekicks, weird sexual innuendo, and inane catchphrases. (“Gimme claw!”) It just lacked logic and quality, with some of the worst animatronic and puppetry work this side of Theodore Rex. [Kevin Johnson]

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13. Caveman (1981)

Life in prehistoric times—“one zillion B.C.,” to be precise—was apparently kind of rough, according to the slapstick Ringo Starr comedy Caveman. The insects were the size of people’s heads, language mostly consisted of grunts and snarls, and goofy-looking rubber dinosaurs were everywhere, waiting to eat people. But Starr’s character, an ambitious up-and-coming Neanderthal named Atouk, pulls a Clan Of The Cave Bear routine and starts to learn things no one else knows—how to use fire, how to make music, and especially how to get the world’s chubbiest T. rex stoned off its reptilian ass by cramming its gullet full of prehistoric marijuana. Fortunately, the Tyrannosaurus gets the spins and falls off a cliff before it can get the munchies and make caveman life even more dangerous. The dino stop-motion in Caveman isn’t bad for such a cheap-looking movie, but the dinos themselves, with their buggy eyes and silly expressions, look like they’re high even when they haven’t been noshing on bud. [Tasha Robinson]

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14. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1993)

In an Inventory of terrifying childhood entertainments, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story was called out for an unsettling scene in which the villain Professor Screweyes is consumed by a pack of crows. It’s frightening, but it’s also the only memorable moment in We’re Back!, which is a loose hodgepodge of goofy ideas that begins at a low point: A T. rex eats space cereal that makes him super-smart and gives him the voice of John Goodman. The story only grows less grounded from there, with a musical number in the middle of a parade, extended prop comedy from a clown voiced by Martin Short, and a strange Great Gazoo-style sprite buzzing around the scene. This is also the film that reportedly soured John Malkovich on Hollywood entirely—he was set to voice Screweyes and left over creative difference with the animators, and since then he’s bashed the project unreservedly on the rare occasions he deigns to talk about it at all. [Les Chappell]

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