Talking Down to Children: a Look at Family-Friendly Dinosaur Cinema

Dinosaurs are awesome. From their initial scientific discovery back in 1824, dinosaurs have captivated human imagination. The idea of an entirely different ecosystem, filled with fantastic creatures, that lasted millions of years has rightly secured a place in our collective cultural imagination. Dinosaurs lived on Earth, they were real. Yet somehow their world was almost completely alien. It is only natural that such creatures occupy a place in cinema as well, one of the few ways dinosaurs can actually still “come to life.” Yet when they are reborn, just how glorious is it? This article will look at three of the more major family-oriented dinosaur films over the past thirty years. Cinema has presented the complex world of the dinosaurs as brutal, harsh, and in some cases completely childish.

1. The Land Before Time (1988)

Oh course if we’re talking kid-friendly dinosaurs, we gotta talk Littlefoot and The Land Before Time. Steven Spielberg came up for the idea of this film, and he and his collaborator George Lucas had an interesting idea: no talking. Like Fantasia, The Land Before Time was originally envisioned as a silent film with no strong plot to drive it forward. Instead, it would simply tell the story of five young dinosaurs growing up. An interesting idea but Universal felt the film needed more appeal. Dialogue was added to help the audience relate to the characters and the dinosaurs were anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) to make them relatable. Did this detract from the science of the film, of course. Yet I highlight Land Before Time as an example of pandering done right. Was the film made more kid-friendly: yes, but that did not stop it from portraying the tragic nature of survival:

Now obviously the science in The Land Before Time is woefully outdated today, but at the time this was really well done. The decision to make the film easier to follow did not cripple it, or take away from its educational aspects. Let’s move on:

2. Dinosaur (2000)

Ready for déjà vu? When Dinosaur was first conceived, it was going to be a harsh story set at the end of the dinosaur era, with no dialogue. Instead of Universal, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was the one to make the call to make the film lighter and to add dialogue. Did lightning strike twice, as with The Land Before Time? It did not. Sadly Dinosaur became a very generic story with ideas and plot basically carbon-copied from the Land Before Time. The Great Valley became the Nesting Grounds, Sharptooth became a Carnotaurus, Littlefoot’s band of friends got replaced with another band of less interesting friends… the movie thoroughly existed without braving anything new. What makes it worse is that the science was lacking this time around. Not trusting its saurian stars, Disney added present-day lemurs to the cast. Bizarre. The initial trailer revealing Dinosaur‘s visual splendor remains the highlight of this theatrical endeavor:

An intriguing idea that turned into just another movie. Still, it can get worse.

3.Walking With Dinosaurs (2013)

When Walking with Dinosaurs first debuted as a show in 1999, it was heralded as a state-of-the-art dinosaur experience. For any out there curious to learn about the world before our own, this show was a good start. Fast-forward fourteen years… and you’re better off going with the show. Walking with Dinosaurs 3D is as brainless as its name sounds. Starting off as (say it with me now) a film with no dialogue, Studio interference once again turned the tale kid-friendly. This time, however, it appears that production was further along. All the dialogue is merely “thoughts” meaning that there is no animation for the dinosaurs speaking. This was supposedly done to keep it accurate, but my title was inspired from this movie. Talk about taking out intelligence with the lame excuse of “it’s for kids.” Which kids, I wonder? I do not think of myself as a child prodigy, but if I saw this film at six… I am pretty sure I still would have found it dumb. Using a name that brings to mind intelligence (courtesy of the original series) Walking with Dinosaurs has maybe one or two nuggets of education within its short (but still too long) 88 minute run time. Couple with that, this was a film made in 2013. Our understanding of dinosaurs has changed drastically in the past twenty years and Walking with Dinosaurs reflects none of that.

There are cool visuals to be had. It is a pity that there are more poop jokes than facts, however. For the kids. You know... cause poop is more important.
There are cool visuals to be had. It is a pity that there are more poop jokes than facts. For the kids. You know… cause poop is more important.

There is a definite pattern here. It seems like no theatrical dinosaur movie will ever see the light of day without first being tailored down for audiences. Is this overly tragic: not really since the information can be found elsewhere. It is simply said that “for the children” is used as an excuse to make things dumber. Oh it is for the next generation? Yeah, they don’t need to know facts.

The other trouble is that the (currently known) world of dinosaurs is more fascinating than Hollywood makes it out to be. These creatures probably never even looked like the giant lizards we see on-screen, but that is how we still see them. Maybe the future will hold a smart dinosaur film that is “for adults”…

Then again, maybe not.

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