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Dinosaurs Keep Sinking Teeth Into Movies

July 24, 2001|MALCOLM JOHNSON | HARTFORD COURANT

Jurassic Park III" ends with an oddly lyrical shot of pteranodons, perhaps the most fearsome dinosaurs in the film, winging off like so many giant seabirds into the sunset. The human characters, who have recently escaped from the depredations of the flying marauders, wonder whether the creatures are looking for a new home. "Jurassic Park IV" may already be in the works.

Near the close of the special-effects-crammed film by Joe Johnston, whose previous directorial assignments include "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," a small boy is watching Barney on television when an important call comes in for his paleontologist mom, who must save the day. The glimpse of the jolly, dancing purple dino insinuates a brief allusion to another side of the phenomenon: the popularity of long-dead monsters with the diaper set.

Dinosaurs have occupied the minds of moviemakers since Winsor MacKay's Gertie sashayed across the screen in a 1909 black-and-white cartoon short.

Probably the most impressive early attempts at realism came in the 1924 silent version of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World," for which Willis H. O'Brien provided the stop-action creatures. Less than a decade later, O'Brien achieved true immortality with "King Kong," in which the giant ape did battle with dinosaurs.

Ray Harryhausen followed in O'Brien's footsteps, but applied his "Superdynamation" techniques to many creatures other than dinosaurs. But the greatest exhibition of the terrors of dinosaurs in the golden age of Hollywood came in 1940, with Walt Disney's distortion of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in "Fantasia."

The "Jurassic Park" cycle, begun in 1993 with Steven Spielberg's masterly if flawed adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel about the hazards of cloning for fun and profit, launched a new era in films about the giants that once roamed the Earth. But the popularization of dinosaurs for children had already begun with Don Bluth's 1988 "The Land Before Time," which spawned a series of sequels, as well as stuffed toy versions of the various dino kids.

In the '90s, dinosaurs became a big business. Small wonder Crichton invented a theme park where genetically engineered leviathans would entertain tourists. Besides the sweet dolls inspired by Bluth cartoon characters, toy manufacturers produced more paleontologically correct play pals, as well as multicolored stuffed pets.

Dinosaurs became a craze, and it was not uncommon for preschoolers to spout off polysyllabic scientific names of such thunder lizards as velociraptors. Robert T. Bakker's 1996 novel "Raptor Red" was a tale told by a dinosaur.

Disney jumped into the phenomenon with "Dinosaur," combining computerized images and real landscapes, and though the picture was not a runaway smash, it showed how digital animation was advancing. Suddenly, dinosaurs proliferated, on the Imax screen (with a huge T. rex head protruding from the exterior of the Sony Lincoln Square theater on upper Broadway) and Discovery television specials such as the recent "When Dinosaurs Roamed America" and "Walking With Dinosaurs."

Digital animation also sought to state the case for more recent giants, the woolly mammoths. Everyone loves an elephant, after all, and to prove it, the animated "Ice Age," with Ray Romano voicing the moody mammoth Manfred, is coming next spring.

Through it all, of course, Barney does his little ditties and skipping dances. He even enjoyed a feature film of his own, and performed live at Radio City Music Hall.

In the new millennium, antediluvian life reigns, bigger than ever, as scientists make new discoveries about creatures that now seem to have had feathers, as the ancestors of robins and pink flamingos.

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