Directed by Phil Nibbelink, Ralph Zondag, Dick Zondag, and Simon Wells
Written by John Patrick Shanley, Flint Dille, and Sherri Stoner (based on the picture book by Hudson Talbott)
If you have never seen We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story, as I had not before I screened it yesterday, it can still sort of feel like you have. I'm not even going to check to see if one of the mid-aughts nostalgia critics—probably the actual Nostalgia Critic—reviewed this all those years ago, because I'm sure I don't need to. It is like the platonic ideal of a movie made for that kind of performer, where you can literally just describe what happens in its plot while shrieking and gesticulating and showing clips, perhaps occasionally putting on some comedic hats between cuts, and you have nonetheless committed a legitimate act of film criticism. As a story, it is just one insane thing after another, told in the most insane manner I think you could choose, never insane in ways that bolster the insanity of anything else, and almost always insane-bad, except for the one single time where it's insane-good, right at the end, because being insane-bad all the way through would be, by this point, exactly what you'd be expecting it to do, and any kind of narrative cohesion is this film's antichrist. Anyway, while I was watching it, it could seem like I was remembering certain things; when I saw it happen, I'm almost certain that I did have a previous actual memory of knowing about the villain's insane-good ending, which I believe is kind of famous even if nothing else about the movie is. So I must've been exposed to it somehow, even if this did nothing whatsoever to domesticate it for me.
But it's also a film of historical significance: We're Back! was the very first animated feature, not made at Walt Disney, to be produced entirely in a digital ink-and-paint system. This turns out to be one of the most perversely insane-bad things about it, and we'll come back to it, but this movie looks horrible, almost impossibly horrible for a $20 million cartoon in 1993, and in no small part because of its technological basis—it's early days here, and has ever since remained one of the worst examples of how digital ink-and-paint could be misused.
It is hard to blame anyone for overlooking even the literal images flashing in front of their eyes, though, when the nonsense narrative is this belligerent. Part of the problem, of course, is what this film is: an adaptation of Hudson Talbott's 1987 children's picture book about dinosaurs, itself a follow-up to a joke calendar about dinosaurs, and I wouldn't be surprised if the joke calendar had roughly equivalent story content. I would not even like to call Talbott's book "good" or "bad": there's so little to its 40 pages that I'm not sure it's capable of being judged, except if I'd purchased it I would've felt ripped off. There's a cute dolled-up Far Sidedness to Talbott's painted art, at least, and while it's effective at making dopey dinosaurs (the cartoon resembles it very little), it's still pretty unspecial; there's very little else, at most just a faint sense of irony that can make you chuckle. Somehow it attracted the interest of numerous parties, including Ron Clements and John Musker, who sadly just had to go make Aladdin instead.
All of the narrative concepts of Talbott's book wind up in the movie, though if this were it, we'd have a seven minute movie, so when Universal purchased the rights for no less a personage than Steven Spielberg (whose six year old son had fallen in love with it), obviously liberties were going to be taken. Here its troubles began, so that I'm reasonably sure it's the single worst thing with Spielberg's name on it to be made in the 20th century. (And I've seen Something Evil.) It's a coincidence that it was finally released the same year as Jurassic Park and marketed as a more truly-small-child-friendly alternative, but of course Spielberg's interest in dinos was preexisting, attested to by 1988's The Land Before Time, the film that led to his acrimonious split with Don Bluth, so by the time we get to We're Back!, it was under the auspices of Spielberg's own animation house, Amblimation, as its second feature. After five years of production, however, it had cycled through at least three screenwriters—including Flint Dille and Sherri Stoner, though only John Patrick Shanley is credited—which doesn't sound nearly as bad as cycling through four directors, starting with Simon Wells and Phil Nibbelink, who were kicked over to another Amblimation film (a never-made adaptation of Cats) in favor of brothers Ralph and Dick Zondag, until such time as Nibbelink was put back in charge, with Wells pitching in where needed. (In these latter days Wells seems mystified and embarrassed that his directorial credit is still on the film, which is the only correct reaction to have.) Whether or not the Zondags were out of their depth and had only been good at selling their dino-enthusiasm to Spielberg—they'd both been animators on The Land Before Time, while after jumping ship to Disney, Ralph wound up co-directing (can you guess?) Dinosaur—it really comes down to Shanley, to whom Spielberg had made the, honestly, extremely stupid error of providing a contractual assurance that not one word of his screenplay could be changed without his permission. And as that screenplay is an utter clusterfuck of ideas poorly-presented, that's what we got.
So we start with a gambit that I'll concede does its job of being "intriguing." On a golf course lives a young bird who's having a hard time of it with his siblings, in such a way that 71 minutes later, the script will insist it's "paid off" on this, in terms of how the movie's story has enlightened this bird about the importance of family, even though I don't see how it's addressed his specific situation; I mention it only because I suspect this small, rankling problem will have been completely overshadowed by the time it becomes relevant. Anyway, who shows up but a most-unusual golfer, Rex (John Goodman)—a tyrannosaurus rex—attired in the incongruous costume of a man of his sport, but, upon encountering this wee baby bird, Rex is moved to explain how he got here.
Around 250 million years ago, judging by the inaccurate representation of Pangaea with a detached Antarctica (it's obviously the end-Cretaceous, but also who cares), Rex was a regular old stupid theropod, concerned only with eating other stupid animals, until the day that a spaceship from the future comes and Captain Neweyes (Walter Kronkite, why not) and his alien sidekick Vorb (Jay Leno, likewise) feed him a bunch of drugs. Now appropriately medicated, Rex achieves sapience, and is invited into their collection of uplifted dinos—Woog the triceratops (Rene La Vant), Elsa the pterodactyl (Felicity Kendal), and Dweeb the parasaurolophus (Charles Fleischer, and good luck saying that, children, because I can't; he was originally an apatosaur and my guess is they couldn't figure out how to incorporate an apatosaur's horizontality into the layout). Wikipedia claims they have personalities—that Rex is kind, Woog gluttonous, Dweeb half-witted—but they're all kind, and gluttonous, and effectively half-witted, so that means that the only dinosaur who even partway differentiates herself is Elsa, whose personality is that she's slutty (principally toward Rex), which will be the default state of this film's female characters, and as much as it's already bothering me that the pterosaur wants to screw the theropod, this isn't the most worrisome expression of this impulse. Well, with his dinos aboard, the captain spins up his psychic wish radio, and they listen to the wishes of a bunch of alarmingly ethnically-stereotyped children from "the middle future," i.e. 1993, and he notes how many of these geeks want to see dinosaurs, explaining that he gave his new pals intelligence so that they could choose whether they wanted to grant their wish. Rex and company affably agree, so Neweyes sends them to our world, parachuting them into the mouth of the Hudson River where they fail to make their rendezvous with the Natural History Museum's Dr. Bleeb (Julia Child, and again, why not). Instead, they drop right into the lap of one Louie (Joey Shea), an oceangoing Huckleberry Finn who is sailing his raft to New York to join the circus, but who most of all needs a friend.
This is only the first fifteen minutes, and it's already awe-inspiring in its overcomplicated, the-dinosaurs-aren't-the-only-ones-on-unprescribed-medication-here "YES AND" storytelling, and what I have not so far mentioned is that while essentially every single idea here is some variety of bad, the accumulation of them at such a high tempo is intoxicating, the kind of thing that makes you feel alive. It's not so much "so-bad-it's-good," but always so vividly bad it's impossible to get bored with it. But it doesn't feel pleasant, even so, and the flashback framing is probably part of that, when it confronts us directly with the desired endpoint—"an intelligent dinosaur, in 1993, makes friends with a small child"—and accordingly lets us feel the logical-illogic of every single clumsy step taken to get there.
At this point, the screenplay has translated nearly every last one of Talbott's concepts (albeit devoid of so much as a vestige of his dry humor, which made Talbott sad, and it makes me sad too, given the mind-melting mania needs to be cut with something). The kid is already original, and so is the villain, Professor Screweyes (Kenneth Mars), brother to Captain Neweyes and a fellow time traveler, but evil, and not merely marked as evil by his disfigurement, but explicitly driven to evil because of the loss of his eye—just the one eye!—so, leaving any other concerns aside, we have a federation of planets in the far-flung future that can travel through time and give dinosaurs human intelligence, but neither fix an eye nor have a society where a modest lack of depth perception won't drive you to commit acts of temporal crime. I mean, fuck it, it doesn't matter: on behalf of the villainy for this science fiction film, Screweyes is basically just Satan, somewhat managing to still somewhat fit in as long as he's just running a circus in 1993 and showing off his fear radio for the giggles. But then he finally just whips out the magic glowing floating slavery contract from The Little Mermaid, with the added nastiness of requiring signatures in blood, just drops of blood, that transmute mystically into the signatories' names. Which would be cool if this were a movie about a supernaturally evil circus, as would be the denouement to his antagonism (in the very end, he refuses his brother's offer of forgiveness, but admits in soliloquy that while he drew his power from fear he's the most fearful of all, whereupon a murder of crows surrounds him and devours him, tastefully enough for a G-rating, and horrifically enough because the only thing left is his metal screw eye; you would also be wrong to expect that any of this has been "set up" except in the most oblique and confusing way about four minutes before it happens). But this is not a movie where a supernaturally evil circus comfortably exists.
Insane insane insane, and completing our cast is Cecilia Nuthatch (Yeardley Smith), a girl Louie's age who hates her yuppie parents, and whom Louie encounters after being flown pterosaur-back around New York, and if you'll remember what I said about the film's female characters, Cecilia represents the inordinately discomfiting spectacle of Lisa Simpson being aggressively horny at Louie, astonishingly so for a prepubescent child, for much of the remaining forty-five minutes of the movie and in ways that, between Smith's suggestive performance and the animators' bedroom eyes on this ten year old, made my skin crawl entirely off my body. (The nadir is probably when the tyrannosaur makes a "ch-ch" aside to Louie to coax him into talking to her.) It also made me ponder whether Smith, presently the world's single most famous 59 year old prepubescent girl, ever had trouble dating, but no matter. Cecilia's ultimate function is to save the day and, uh, tie things up neatly—this is being extraordinarily generous—by uttering the desperate cry, "Let no bad happen!", a sentence that automatically destroys any drama that has been accidentally accrued, that obeys no rules of English fluency or how a distressed child would express disfluency, and that no human being has ever said, would ever say, or will ever say again except in mocking this movie. This is the most forceful expression of the Spielbergian emotional manipulation running through this story—does Louie, a resentful runaway, find a replacement for his father and mother in an impossible friend? oh, he does? wow—though I have never seen it at a more subterranean level. Rather than Spielberg's own sharper instincts actively guiding it, it feels like Shanley, or somebody, merely pandering to him by pretending to be him, and somehow it escaped his notice that it is the most insipid version conceivable of Spielbergian sentiment, Louie alternating between grating obnoxiousness and grating mewling, Cecilia alternating between squirmily seducing Louie and even-more-grating mewling, while the dinosaurs serve in loco parentis with emotions that exist solely because they have to, and because the movie tells you they are so. And contra the sci-fi/fantasy concepts, this isn't vividly bad, just lousy.
So to add to what I said up top, not only can you just recite this story in fine detail as a review, you can't help yourself. I'd go so far as to say only one scene in the film is even functional, a stretch of about six minutes where New Yorkers mistake the dinosaurs for robots, and it works not despite but because of Wells directing it as a "reshoot" after test audiences noted how ghastly the movie was; remarkably, it appears that it's a punch-up of a vignette in the book that's its sole flirtation with "having any plot at all," and the way it's described by Wells, Nibbelink, and Talbott, it's implied the Zondags, or Shanley, or Spielberg had somehow neglected to include what amounts to the source material's only actual scene. In Wells's hands, anyway, it became a musical number, featuring the film's theme song by Thomas Dolby and James Horner, "Roll Back the Rock (To the Dawn of Time)," and I'm not apt to call it "actually good," but it's one of the harrowingly infrequent times in this kid's cartoon where it's doing a diligent, competent job of what a kid's cartoon is supposed to do. It probably has the most impressive animation in the film—in that the links between characters, backgrounds, and effects animation are all tangible and appropriate, which is also harrowingly infrequent. But its musical staging is fine, and there's some coolness to the numerous moving parts of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (they're eagerly playing with the new digital prospects for transparency with all those parade balloons) held in a setting that actually manages to be "cartoon New York."
Which brings us to what I would usually find most interesting about a bad cartoon, how it's a bad cartoon, and We're Back! is a wretched cartoon, in no small part because the possibilities opened up by Sidley Wright and Associates' (somehow not a law firm) digital ink-and-paint system are being so violently exploited by inexperienced artists who clearly must have thought they were bringing good into the world. The goal, apparently, was to use the powers of digital paint to bring a vastly fuller dimensionality to the characters, and much like the introduction to this story is disorienting and stupid, so is our introduction to this animation, with the system's capabilities inflicted upon those birds with a complete absence of taste that results in the most uncanny alienage of their for-some-reason-constantly-backlit-and-toplit figures against the backdrops. Then there's the dinosaurs, who are slathered with "airbrushed" blobs of shadow pretty much constantly, sometimes in ways that work with more dramatic lighting conditions, but usually in complete disregard of "light" as a thing that defines shade at all, so they remain these mottled blobs that would probably look decent in stills, in another location, but look distractingly uncanny in motion, and often grotesque. (There is also the matter of their design, which distinguishes so much between their "Brain Grain" versions and their "natural" states that the "funny" parts where they transmogrify between them are stomach-churning body horror; but the abiding problem is that, modally, they look dumb and wimpy—those nostrils on Rex—to the extent that I doubt any kid would be excited to see these "real dinosaurs." In fact, they weren't: the movie bombed.)
There is also a great deal of enthusiasm in the ways they're allowed to integrate CGI and easy multiplane, notably during Louie and Elsa's flight, one beat of which is cool (they fly through an office building, which is likely the part least indebted to the new digital tools), though it's undermined by being surrounded by scenes where multiplaned CGI buildings loom up apocalyptically, like a premonition of Inception. But the thing that makes this movie really horrendous to behold isn't entirely a creature of its digital ink-and-paint, though it permits some of its worst sins in this category (and it often has some pretty unattractive line quality despite being digitally-inked, like there wasn't enough clean-up); but the worst is the backgrounds, which are inexpressibly ugly, especially for the first twenty minutes, slamming us from the Cretaceous Period's hellscape orange to a purple-pink Manhattan shoreline that would be more at home in a Blood Music adaptation. Many backdrops here are hazy mush, and have a monstrous tendency toward exactly-wrong single colors, but it's never worse than in this sickly evocation of "dawn," that even draws a little extra poison from the digital tools by way of the flawless reflection of this all-flaws vision of New York in the water below. I don't know if there was ever a potential version of this film where the style might have let you enjoy the madcap chaos of the narrative, but who knows, the wacky, tacky, over-ambitious constant movement of the layout is probably half the reason for this film's undeniable verve. So in the end the only saving grace is that it is such a unique and concentrated experience that it's hard to feel like it's truly wasted your time.