Saturday, June 20, 2009

Happy Birthday, John Goodman!

I didn't know it was John Goodman's birthday, but let me tell you about the horrible sequence of events that led up to my discovering it.

There's this forum I post at, a place of wonder and bedazzlement, where gentlemen scholars discuss Aristotle and Kant. In one of our weaker moments, we were discussing the end credits to mostly 80s cartoons. Since this was so much below our usual level of conversation, we started to include intros as well. Such as this one:

Fellow poster Andy mentioned that Denver vaguely pissed him off as a kid because his species was ill-defined.

This brought me to remember We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg (as was wont to happen with cartoons in the early 90s) and released Christmas '93, mere months after another Spielberg-related dinosaur movie the name of which escapes me right now. I got this on VHS in '94 or '95. Never caught it in theaters. I watched it quite often. I mean, it did have dinosaurs in it and all. There were some things that bugged me about it even as a kid, though. Let me recount the basic plot:

A little birdie, tired of getting teased by his older brothers, wants to run off to join the circus. His mama warns him not to get in over his head, since he's not too great at flying, but he takes the leap anyway. Luckily, he doesn't crash to the ground, but instead lands on the top of a tyrannosaur's 9-iron. Astonished at the sight of a talking, golf-playing T-Rex, the birdie wants to find out what's up. Running away to the circus, eh? Well, Rex -- for such is his name -- knew a boy who wanted to run away to the circus as well. Won't you listen to his story? Might as well! See, Rex used to be a mean old dumb tyrannosaur who ate other dinosaurs. Pretty standard T-Rex behavior, you might say. But one day a SPACESHIP FROM THE FUTURE picked him up, and its benevolent commander Captain Neweyes fed him some IQ-enhancing Brain Grain cereal. The retired inventor wants to do some good for the world in his autumn years, and since he is from a time where every species of every planet (see his Jay Leno voiced comic relief alien assistant Vorb) gets along, he'd like spread a little happiness in the less illuminated age of the late 20th century. See, the captain has a radio that picks up on wishes. Since children apparently wish the loudest, Neweyes decides to grant one rather ubiquitous wish among the kids of the 90s: to see a real live dinosaur. So he's arranged that the four dinosaurs he's picked up meet Dr. Bleeb at the NY Natural History Museum for a rather extraordinary exhibition. But they should beware Cpt. Neweyes' evil brother Professor Screweyes, who was driven mad by the loss of his eye. Of course, the four wacky dinosaurs miss their appointment with the extremely near-sighted Dr. Bleeb and, lost in the Big Apple, team up with runaways Louie and Cecilia. The former of which intends to join the circus, bringing us to the apparent point of this story.

Before seeing this movie for myself, I remember Spielberg talking about it in some promotional material. "Ever kid loves a dinosaur," the Beard said, "but Jurassic Park may have been too scary for them. So that's why I wanted to tell a dinosaur story for everyone to enjoy."

Well, that was pretty cool, I thought. Even if I was 8 when I saw Jurassic Park. Sure, I was pretty scared in parts when I first saw it, but that's part of the thrill with dinosaurs, right? But it's cool for Spiel to want to give everyone the pleasure of dinosaurs. It's only years later that I understand what a fucking shark the Beard was (or at least Amblin Entertainment). Yeah, the dinosaur craze swept the nation with Jurassic Park! Shit, it didn't quite catch everyone. PG-13's a bitch. Quick, make something G-rated!

That bastion of reliability IMDb told me Jay Leno did the voice work for his little alien character three years prior to release. And granted, upon revisiting it (YouTube has the whole thing) it looks to good to be a quickie cranked out to cash in on Jurassic Park. Except for the primitive CGI buildings during the flying scenes. You remember the 90s Amazing Spider-Man cartoon with the opening credits featuring him swinging by some reeaaally shitty CGI skyscrapers? It's not quite that ugly, but it really sticks out in an otherwise slick-looking movie.

During my digging for this article I also found out, as mentioned before, that this was based on a 1987 children's book.

The artwork suggested something slightly more mischievous than the overly family friendly animated movie and after some more digging I found a pretty crucial difference in the plot:

The dinosaurs are used as test subjects for a future BUSINESSMAN who wants to sell an IQ-enhancing cereal and then dumped unceremoniously in New York.

Whoa, quite a difference there, huh? No kids, no circus, no evil brother, no wish radio. In fact, this mirrors another similar change made to Jurassic Park. In the book, park owner John Hammond is a greedy businessman. In the movie, he's a dreamer, a Walt Disney-like grandfather. Oh, Steve! It was pretty minor in Jurassic Park. Here, it pretty much destroys the movie. As a kid it was already kinda grating to see the movie treat the normal, badass versions of dinosaurs as "bad" or somehow undesirable. But hey, you're a kid, it's dinosaurs, you're not gonna complain. Hell, I told myself I liked The Lost World for years.

Andy's remark on Denver made me think of this movie and write something about how lame it was a kid. Then, I started thinking about how the movie portrayed the natural, feral state of dinosaurs as somehow undesirable. In the third act, I remembered, the evil professor devolved the dinosaurs back to their old selves to show off in his circus of horrors. The child protagonists were absolutely terrified. Even the herbivore dinosaurs were portrayed as slobbering, roaring monsters the moment they're not goofy cartoon characters anymore. And remember, these were just animals plucked out of their natural habitat to basically get reverse-lobotomized for the entertainment of the children of the 1990s. What the hell's the movie trying to say with that? Things aren't nice until they're made fit for mass consumption?

Hell, I don't mind a movie that features cute or humanized dinosaurs. This movie just tells us that that's the only way a dinosaur can be cool. Imagine if a crack team of (probably Japanese) geneticists devised a way to make hedgehogs and foxes look like Sonic and Tails and then proudly proclaimed this is the real way foxes and hedgehogs should be. So I watched the entire thing on YouTube because I was wondering how the hell they got a T-Rex to eat cereal. Does the Captain douse it in blood? Does he wrap it in a steak? Stick in a cow's butt and let it wander around prehistoric times?

Well, if you're curious: Rex is on the hunt when a spaceship knocks him in the head. It lands and Jay Leno alien flies out. It starts talking about the Rex being selected randomly to test a new product (a remnant of the original book's premise). The dinosaur, of course, doesn't understand a thing the alien says and just snaps at this pesky little fly. Leno manages to get back in the ship, as the hatch closes around the tyrannosaur's neck. Around its neck. Then, two robot arms just JAM THE FUCKING CEREAL DOWN HIS THROAT UNTIL HE TURNS DOCILE. His look even gradually changes from Jurassic Park style T-Rex to the cartoony one you see on the poster.

Rex, now voiced by our birthday boy John Goodman, is allowed on board where he meets the other three dinosaurs selected for this peace mission: a triceratops named Woog, a parasaurolophus named Dweeb (voiced by Roger Rabbit himself, Charles Fleischer) and a pterodactyl (in name only, she looks more like a rhamphorynchus with a pteranodon crest, but sounds like the UKs favorite butt of the 70s/80s Felicity Kendal) named Elsa who inexplicably wants to fuck Rex. In the ship's conveniently dinosaur-sized chill out room, the three others introduce Rex to a new and awesome type of food: hot dogs.

Whoa whoa whoa, hold up. Hot dogs? So... professor Neweyes captured four dinosaurs to show to children of our then-present. He devised a cereal to make them intelligent and friendly. But he didn't bother to make them all vegetarians? Hell, Dweeb and Woog are supposed to be herbivores! I was waiting throughout this scene for the professor to mention that they were veggie dogs or something, but nothing! Goddamn, did nobody think this movie through! And let's not forget that this reinforces the movie's (or my tin foil hat version of it) message of "There's scary stuff out there, kids, but it's cool once treated for mass consumption!" I mean, hunting and killing things is bad, but it's A-OK to eat hot dogs? Best case scenario means you're eating a cow there, Rex, buddy!

Captain Neweyes explains his plan and takes them to the Wish Radio. The children's wishes pop out as bubbles displaying looped holograms of the kids making wishes. The children are hilariously ethnically diverse, too: there's even a lil' sheik! At first, the wishes are pretty diverse too, but one wish soon becomes prevalent -- that of seeing a real dinosaur. Before that one overwhelms the others though, there's a few in the style of "I wish my sister was nicer to me". I just imagined Neweyes sifting through the children's wishes, hearing that girl asking for a better life and going LOL BORING IMA SCROUNGE UP SUM DINASORES!

When the dinosaurs miss the appointment with Dr. Bleeb (holy shit this movie is horrible with names) I can't blame them either. The Captain literally just opens the floor under them and expects them to pull a Temple of Doom with a raft. Come on man, they just barely learned English and how to eat hot dogs five minutes ago!

They meet Louie, a runaway headed for the circus, because his mom "hugs and kisses him, even in public!" Way to make your kid protagonist sympathetic, movie. The little girl, Cecilia, is pretty much neglected by her yuppie parents, so she's got a little more reason to join this ragtag group. Cecilia is voiced by Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson. Smith makes no effort to do another voice whatsoever.

In the movie's big musical number the dinosaurs walk with the Macy's parade. "Look mommy, real dinosaws!" "Dey're jus roebuts, honey." What, as if robots that advanced and gigantic wouldn't be damn impressive, especially in '93? When the song is over, they are somehow revealed to be real and immediately chased by NY's finest. Like, with guns and everything. They're even told that they're under arrest a few times. This movie's been pretty stupid so far, so I can't tell if it's supposed to be a joke or not.

The dinosaurs get separated from the kids, who end up at their circus destination in Central Park. Nobody told them it was a circus of HORRORS, however! And also run by PROFESSOR SCREWEYES (driven to evil due to the loss of his eye -- replaced by a screw)! Paraphrased:

"We wanna work for the circus!"
"Buzz off, kid, you don't know what you're saying."
"No, really."
"Really? Okay, sign this contract."
"It's blank."
"A pen?"
"Prick your finger."
"You wanna work for the circus, don't ya?"
"I guess!"

The contract then fills itself in after the BLOOD SIGNATURES have been made. Since Screweyes is from the future like his brother, I'm paying heed to that old Arthur C. Clarke quote saying "any technology advanced enough will appear as magic to primitive eyes". I mean, it would be pretty arbitrary to introduce actual magic with only about twenty minutes to go in this movie. The dinosaurs show up and tell Screweyes he's the one Neweyes (oh god) warned them about, and he better hand over those kids! No no, they're under contract now, Screweyes tells them. He promptly gives the kids Brain DRAIN, which turns them into monkeys. Brain Drain is, of course, Screweyes' counterpart to his brother's cereal. I loved how it was presented all sinister-like in pill-form so it looked more like EVIL DRUGS. It turns the children into monkeys, a pretty useless attraction for a circus of horrors, given how cute both Louie and Cecilia now look. They even have their old clothes still on!

Hell, the movie makes a big spiel about how Screweyes won't let Stubbs the clown (Martin Short, in an utterly baffling role) do his act for the crowd until he comes up with something that makes the old Prof laugh, and he never does. What the hell does he want cute monkeys for? He didn't know they were with dinosaurs, so when Rex proposes they'll take the children's place it's as much a surprise to him as to us.

Sure enough, he devolves the dinos back to their old form. They're all terrifying and shit, and Louie and Cecilia have Stubbs sneak them into the show. Cecilia constantly wonders WHY? WHY WOULD PEOPLE WANT TO BE SCARED? IT'S HORRIBLE! Goddammit movie, stop trying to prove my point. Screweyes does have a pretty impressive set-up going, even though it's more like a horror-themed Cirque du Soleil than anything actually scary. It's in this sequence that the movie tries to comfort its young viewers that it's all only make-believe. Zombie monks are shown to be guys flying through the air with masks on cables, we see the guy doing the pyrotechnics, the sound guy, etc. For a guy who's got technology so advanced it looks like magic, ol' Screweyes certainly isn't interested in pushing the envelopes of showmanship. Shit, our three good guys stealthily sneaking in are dressed as Disneyland mascot versions of Maleficent's little imps.

The dinosaurs get dragged on stage rather impressively: on a dais pulled by about twenty elephants. Inexplicably, the four dinosaurs are chained but not caged. Even more inexplicable is the fact that, feral once more, Rex hasn't killed any of his within-biting-range colleagues. Screweyes informs the audience he will now make the T-Rex do his bidding by mental suggestion! Maybe this was what Carl Denham had in mind when he put Kong on that scaffolding. It's a cool idea, in theory. Unfortunately, one of the omnipresent crows (what the fuck, I know) pecks at a button marked FLARES in the pyrotechnics control room and the bright lights break Screwy's mental hold over Rex. He's about to eat the one-eyed bastard when Louie shows up on stage and tearfully pleads Rex to "be a good guy". Of course this works, and love -- and a well-placed hug -- breaks the spell. But wait a minute... if Rex was returned to his natural state by the Brain Drain... does that mean you can just plead and cry to a T-Rex and make it friendly? No, silly. It works on ANY dinosaur! Louie and Cecilia hug each dinosaur in a montage, turning them all instantly back to their cartoon selves. The crowd goes nuts!

Neweyes shows up in his ship and tells off his brother. This gives Stubbs the balls to quit. He humiliates his boss with honking horns and other clowny stuff. The audience is in stitches. Stubbs drives off in his clown car and Neweyes and the gang take off as well. Lights fade.

"Brother no... don't leave me. When I am alone, I am so... scared of the dark."

The crows gang up on Screweyes and engulf him. For a split second, they form A GIANT CROW until they all fly off again, leaving only his screw-eye rolling on the floor. This is perhaps the most baffling Spielberg-related villain death since Dustin Hoffman in Hook. What confounds me even more is that, seconds before this death, hundreds of people were laughing at the antics of Stubbs getting his little triumph moment. They can't possibly ALL have left in that short time. If I, as a viewer, am completely flabbergasted by this event, imagine how a regular New Yorker who doesn't have all this time traveling background bullshit feels?

Anyways, the dinosaurs get brought to the museum, the kids returned to their parents, Dr. Bleeb runs what is no doubt he most profitable museum exhibit of all time and we all learn that if you hug a rainbow just right, lollipops come flying out.

I don't know what kind of lesson that little bird got from Rex' tale, but I'm 100% sure he's never visiting any circus again. I also realize that, in this universe, birds can talk. Unless Neweyes got REAAALLY generous with his Brain Grain.

John Goodman is 57 today.

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