Dinosaur Senior

[Note: Required ID: film.com is located on the World Wide Web at http://film.com]We begin where we must, with the dictionary definition: terrible lizard. A dinosaur, that gargantuan prehistoric reptile inexplicably adored by children everywhere, is a terrible lizard. When Steven Spielberg's Lost World hits American box offices like a cyclone, all the many dinosaurs on board will be in prime working order, with scary teeth and fearsome talons and all the lifelike agility that only cutting edge technology can produce. They will be upstanding monsters who get to work on time and eat what's put on the table, including the bones and the skin and the hairy bits. Why shouldn't they, after all, when so much computer wizardry has been poured into their creation -- they're the most terrible lizards money can buy.That's perfectly fine -- sometimes you want a dinosaur that doesn't make you burst out laughing at first sight. But some of the most memorable movie dinosaurs are the low-rent, not-that-special effects dinosaurs, the lizards who couldn't quite achieve terribleness and settled instead for unsightliness, or embarrassingness, or just a sort of general bargain-basement tackiness. Overbaked lizards with bad hair and tails that fell off, shoddy lizards made out of papier mache, or rubber, or cheap plastic. Or purple styrofoam. (Parents take note: singing, shuffle-dancing Barney, that overweight PBS icon, will soon be a star of the big screen.) Anyway, the history of dinosaurs in the movies, until very recently, has been a history of low-tech gimmickry, some of it amazingly inept, but a lot of it perversely charming.The original 1925 Lost World, which shares hardly anything in common with Spielberg's Lost World, was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Sherlock Holmes. Its dinosaurs were created by Willis O'Brien, the man who would later bring the original King Kong (1933) to life. Lost World and Kong share a similar plot: an expedition to remote territory discovers a hidden prehistoric world. The dinosaurs in this movie are glimpsed in endearingly rudimentary stop-motion miniature and in bits and pieces. The rash explorers -- the hero of this movie is an intrepid chap named Professor Challenger, played by Wallace Beery -- decide to bring a brontosaurus back to London.Luckily there's no Empire State Building to climb, but poor Bronty takes a long swim in the Thames in his attempt to escape civilization. Having escaped a strafing with machine gun fire, he bobs along toward the Tower Bridge with just his head and a sliver of his back sticking up, looking very much like the Loch Ness Monster. Lost World was remade in 1960, with Michael Rennie (who had probably already reached his artistic peak with the 1951 Day The Earth Stood Still) and Fernando Lamas. The effects were not much improved; this time the dinosaurs battled a helicopter. The movie was directed by Irwin Allen.Between the original Lost World and the one that opens tomorrow, a whole slew of fascinating dinosaurs and quasi-dinosaurs have graced the screen. There are the smily-faced dinosaurs of Baby, and the large tramply dinosaurs of The Land That Time Forgot. There's the classic moth-eaten Stone Age monster of Buster Keaton's The Three Ages (technically probably more of a mastodon type than a dinosaur, but noteworthy nonetheless, what with his glued-on tusks.) There are the Space Age dinosaur-esque Goombas of Super Mario Brothers -- toetapping reptilian pinheads in natty little jackets. There are the engaging prehistoric specimens of Caveman, the '70s comedy that featured Ringo Starr. There are The Flintstones dinosaurs, most of whom serve as prehistoric appliances, creating a kind of Maytag species. Then there are the soppy New Age dinosaurs of recent animated features like The Land Before Time and A Dinosaur's Story.The '50s gave birth to a very cool strain of extremely low-budget dinosaurs, not least among them the title character of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which features animation by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. In this 1953 picture, a frozen Arctic dinosaur, a rhedosaurus, is thawed out by an atomic bomb blast and heads for New York City. (New York is a magnet for monsters.) The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms has its own charms, but it's probably most interesting as a precursor of one of the classic cheapie series in sci-fi history.One of the most popular monsters in the movie world has a little known past. True fans can tell you that Godzilla -- or Gojira, as he was originally known -- is technically a dinosaur. The first Godzilla movie, which was released in 1954 (in a Japanese version and an Americanized version which included clunky post-production footage of Raymond Burr), explained the monster's fascinating sociopolitical origins. Godzilla was slumbering away on a remote island in the Pacific in the waning years of World War II when, like the creature in Beast, nearby tests of the atomic bomb awakened him. He was angry. He had radioactive breath. He swam to Japan, where he destroyed everything in his path.Godzilla, in his day, was pretty much the Muhammad Ali of the dinosaur world -- he would fight anyone. In 22 screen appearances he fought The Thing, The Cosmic Monster, Monster Zero, The Giant Moth, Megalon, The Fire Monster, The Three-headed Monster, and so on. Like Ali, Godzilla was sometimes a good monster and sometimes a bad monster. In Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, he was a sort of one-dinosaur pollution-battling Environmental Protection Agency. In Godzilla vs the Sea Monster he was also a do-gooder, and wound up fighting his most oxymoronic opponent, a gigantic shrimp. Sometimes the Big G was 400 feet tall, sometimes 200 feet tall. But in the real Godzilla movies, the movies churned out by Toho Films starting in the '50s, he always had that irresistibly junky look, like he just rolled out of a gumball machine.A new Godzilla, starring Matthew Broderick, is set for release exactly a year from now. It's currently filming in New York. The people who made Independence Day are making it, and the budget is reportedly in the neighborhood of $100 million. Who knows, it might be good. But the real Godzilla, the original Godzilla, wouldn't be comfortable around that kind of money. He always traveled on a budget. This new guy sounds like he probably has a suite at the Plaza, and a personal trainer, and all kinds of fancy animatronic innards. I'd personally prefer the old Gumby-style Godzilla, but these days, I guess, he belongs to a lost world.


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