sun 14/07/2024

Rex Appeal, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Rex Appeal, BBC Four

Rex Appeal, BBC Four

Sometimes less is more when it comes to believable dinosaurs

Stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen lovingly attends to his triceratops

Dinosaurs. Even just seeing that word takes me back to a letter my seven-year-old self wrote to Blue Peter humbly begging them for “More dinosaws pleez”. Back then, a sighting of these lumbering beasts on TV or at the movies was a rare and thrilling thing. But ever since Jurassic Park (and the fact they can be conjured up with relative CGI ease) we’ve been overrun by the things.

The BBC alone have recently given us a Horizon special, a guide to their mythology, and even a programme on how to assemble one yourself should you stumble upon its bones in your back garden.

Out of all this new dino telly, the programme I felt most ambivalent about was Planet Dinosaur. While it was exciting to hear about how many new species have been discovered in the past two decades alone (including two that are bigger than every schoolboy’s favourite, T Rex), as soon as they appeared on screen in all their gnarled cold-eyed glory, there was a sense of something missing. While one had to admire every perfectly rendered bump, blemish and crease of their skin, the fact is these CGI monsters no longer impress us as they once did.

We now just see the geometric armature beneath that skin, rather than the magic of the illusion. So, Rex Appeal – a history of the dinosaur in the movies - came as a timely reminder that sometimes less is more, even when you thought that - within the world of special effects - more has always got to add up to more. For example, what an unalloyed joy it was to see again the smiling sort-of brontosaurus that in 1914 starred in one of the first animation films (Gertie the Dinosaur). Then in 1925 there was that poor old T Rex getting its jaws viscerally snapped apart by (we were told) that stand-in for the feared African-American man, King Kong. King Kong (1933) was of course the first movie to use stop-motion animation, a technique that then went on to keep dinosaurs lumbering across our screens for the next 60 years.

My childhood self fell under the spell of dinosaurs during the late 1960s when Ray Harryhausen ruled the Earth. This documentary pointed out just how good Harryhausen was at imbuing his creations with character and pathos, sometimes with just a swish of the tail or a clumsy scratch of the head. In fact sometimes he was so good at his job that audiences would empathise with the dinosaur rather than the sexy cave people they anachronistically shared a world with in One Million Years BC (pictured below).

Even at their creakiest and most risible, dinosaur films are a reminder that we’ve not always been the boss around these parts

But the history of dinosaurs in the movies was effectively the history of special effects in the movies, which was also the history of the suspension of disbelief in the movies. So when the public stopped being convinced by beasts of clay, metal and paint, dinosaurs were put into retirement for a decade or so. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that our mouths would once again drop open at the sight of a cretaceous giant. Spielberg cunningly gave us Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s reaction shots before showing us that magnificent CGI brontosaurus craning for those vertiginously high branches for food. Thus we were them, and they were us, and movie-goers fell in love with dinosaurs all over again.

There was only one small irritant with Rex Appeal: the occasional popping up of redundant talking heads; chirpy souls shoe-horned in to raise their TV profiles and annoy the crap out of us with their tedious statements of the obvious. Here’s one such inane sound bite: “There’s a screaming noise that you hear that tells you that’s probably a dinosaur.” A screaming noise? Surely it’s more of a… let’s not even go there. Presumably the producer initially couldn’t decide whether to make Your Hundred Best Dinosaur Moments or a serious documentary about how, over the past century, the cinema has used the dinosaur to reflect some of the social and political concerns of the time. Fortunately, for most of this otherwise enjoyable hour, he opted for the latter.

But whatever subtexts media studies lecturers and their ilk want to attach to these films (and there’s an awful lot of metaphor- and symbol-spotting going on in Rex Appeal), I believe it was awe rather than fear that kept audiences coming back for more. As a child I lived to see those big-as-a-house museum skeletons sheathed once again in muscle and flesh, stalking the landscape, striking down spear-wielding Bee Gees look-alikes and their fur-bikinied women folk. Because even at their creakiest and most risible, dinosaur films are a reminder that we’ve not always been the boss around these parts.

The history of dinosaurs in the movies was effectively the history of special effects, which was also the history of the suspension of disbelief

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