Jim Henson Productions/Michael Jacobs Productions (1991), Buena Vista Home Entertainment (May 2, 2006), 4 discs, 672 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Not Rated in US, Rated PG in Canada, Retail: $39.99
A traditional, mighty megalosaurus finds himself at odds with his growing, liberated family in an ever-evolving dinosaur society.
The Sweatbox Review:
Some would say that Jim Henson productions has not managed to produce anything approaching the quality of The Muppet Show since the death of Jim Henson in 1990. Phooey, I say. While I will be the first to say that Kermit’s Swamp Years was excruciating to watch, and Muppets From Space was woefully disappointing, the Henson company has managed to pull off an occasional masterpiece even without Jim there to guide them in person. The Muppet Christmas Carol, for example, is an underappreciated gem, and then there is the television show Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs came out of an idea by Jim Henson to use his Creature Shop to create a sitcom populated by those large, prehistoric beasts. He died before the project could be seen to fruition, but producer Michael Jacobs was brought in to work with the Henson crew to help them proceed with development. The result was a brash satire on our times, as reflected by characters that had ostensibly lived millions of years ago. The show hence worked on the same two levels noted in the best cartoons— visual treats and funny antics for kids, with biting social commentary and more sophisticated gags for adults.
The show aired on ABC beginning in 1991. It was a modest hit for the network, and to this day it enjoys a fan following that appreciates the show’s sharp writing and masterful puppetry & skilful animatronics. The full-body dinosaur suits were about as sophisticated as anything the Creature Shop made for the Star Wars films or The Dark Crystal, complete with blinking eyes, multiple facial expressions, and swinging tails. The characters were surprisingly agile and expressive, and even seeing it all these years later, the costumes do much to sell the reality of the show; but— as with any piece of storytelling— it’s all about characters and their story.
The main characters in this show are the Sinclair family, with a dynamic familiar to anyone who has watched a sitcom or grown up in a real family. Earl is the patriarch, a “megalosaurus” with traditional dinosaur values and complete faith in the traditions of his society. Fran is his wife, who both loves Earl and challenges him with her greater acceptance of progress. Son Robbie is, in Earl’s eyes at least, an unpredictable radical— constantly challenging the very traditions that Earl clings to with such devotion. Charlene is Earl’s ‘tween daughter, somewhat superficial and self-involved yet with a sweet heart. And then there’s the baby; there will be more on him in a moment. The family unit is rounded out by Ethyl, Earl’s mother-in-law, who has never quite warmed up to the lunkhead her daughter married. Outside his family, Earl’s closest acquaintances are his blue collar co-workers at the Wesayso Corporation, especially his best friend Roy, a somewhat dim but likeable T-Rex. Although Roy normally sides with Earl, he is a little quicker to come around to someone else’s thinking, making Earl almost always the sole, frustrated defender of his opinions.
The first disc includes all five episodes from the brief first season. The premiere episode, The Mighty Megalosaurus, introduces us to the Sinclair family, including the latest addition, Baby Sinclair. The baby was positioned immediately to be the source of the show’s best catch-phrases, such as, “I’m the baby, gotta love me,” or his unflattering name for his dad, “Not The Mama.” The baby’s indifference to his father serves up plenty of laughs, but also leads to a number of sweet moments each time Earl manages to make a connection with the newborn.
The next few episodes further define the dynamics of the Sinclair family and Earl’s relationship with his co-workers. The Mating Dance explores Earl’s inept reaction to Fran’s emotional needs, Hurling Day sees Earl gleefullylooking forward to tossing his mother-in-law over a cliff in order to end her life, High Noon has Earl forced to accept a challenge for Fran’s affections, and The Howling explores the dinosaur custom of males howling at the moon to release pent-up aggression (which Robbie naturally rebels against).
Already in this handful of episodes, the hallmarks of the show are in place. Dark humor abounds, as the merits of killing mothers-in-law are debated, and Earl faces being eaten by a romantic rival. As well, the satire is anything but subtle, and points are made in a heavy-handed way that became typical of the show. Despite the lack of finesse in the scripting, I would not judge the show as being poorly written at all; instead, the style of the writing is one of directness, befitting the primal nature of the show. The writers never shied away from making their points with a hammer, apparently feeling that the show worked best when it played broadly.
The second disc gives us the first few episodes of Season Two, beginning with one of my favorites, The Golden Child, wherein Baby sprouts a golden horn and is removed from the Sinclair home by zealots, forcing Earl to evaluate his love for his son. Family Challenge sees the Sinclairs compete on a game show as a way to spend time together (though Earl, not unlike Fred Flintstone, has ulterior motives). I Never Ate For My Father uses Robbie’s vegetarian leanings as a metaphor for the generation gap, though it is easy to read the episode as an allegory for gay or drug issues. Charlene’s Tale has Charlene lamenting her lack of development in early adolescence, obviously using a tail as a substitute for a girl’s chest. Endangered Species is another great one, as Earl and Robbie are at odds yet again, this time over whether to eat the last two of a species in a tale of environmental responsibility over gluttony. Employee Of The Month brings us more interaction with Earl and his boss Mr. Richfield. When Food Goes Bad gives us the fun premise of the Sinclair kids defending themselves against denizens of the refrigerator, in an episode that could only ever appear on Dinosaurs. Career Opportunities, where Robbie is forced to accept a job as a tree-pusher, does a nice job of examining society’s expectations for us, and what can happen when one is judged by others to be good at one thing in particular to the detriment of recognizing other talents.
The third disc brings another eight episodes from the second season. Unmarried… With Children sees Earl once again in trouble with Fran, and he risks losing her when their marriage license expires and he fails the renewal test. Next, Robbie and his friend Spike discuss How To Pick Up Girls. It seems like my favorite episodes center on Earl and the baby, and Switched At Birth is no exception, telling as it does a heart-warming story of Earl’s learning to accept his son when it appears that he and Fran brought home the wrong egg. Refrigerator Day gleefully mocks our fixation with food. Earl learns What “Sexual Harris” Meant after he gets Fran’s friend Monica a job as a tree pusher. In Fran Live, Fran is excited when she gets a new job but Earl must learn to cope with a working wife, since he finds it tough to balance his wife’s needs with his own selfishness. Power Erupts looks disapprovingly at multinationals, particularly energy companies, as Robbie’s discovery of a free energy source threatens countless executives. The Clip Show is your typical budget-saving episode, here using the framing device of a modern archaeologist.
A New Leaf is a typically obvious but very funny satire of drug issues. The Last Temptation Of Ethyl gives us one dinosaur’s afterlife experience. Nuts To War, Parts 1 And 2 is a terrific send-up of war (and epic miniseries), with more than a few echoes of the first Gulf War. Earl competes against his scary triceratops boss Mr. Richfield for the position of chief elder in And The Winner Is…. Charlene becomes a Slave To Fashion with a new coat with a mind of its own. Robbie becomes Leader Of The Pack when it is thought that he ate the former leader of a gang. The second season ends with a dandy, WESAYSO Knows Best, as Earl is replaced by Roy in the Sinclair family when they are selected as WESAYSO spokespeople.
Comparisons have been made between Dinosaurs and The Flintstones (similar setting, with joking supporting animals), as well as The Simpsons (broad satire and outrageous stories). This places Dinosaurs in good company to be sure, but it is a unique program in the history of television. Never before or since have animatronics been used so extensively in a weekly prime time TV series. The huge costumes do seem a little clunky at times, but they are still marvellous creations to behold. More importantly, I would be hard-pressed to think of a show I have ever found funnier. Henson’s idea to create a “normal sitcom” but with dinosaurs exceeded its mandate with witty writing and stories that were very unique to the show despite constantly lampooning our own society.
Is This Thing Loaded?
There are two main featurettes to enjoy, both found on the first disc. Pre-Hysterical Times: The Making Of Dinosaurs (13:24) interviews Brian Henson, Michael Jacobs, and performers and technicians on the evolution and creation of the show in a very solid piece. I love seeing them operate those animatronics! Next up is Creating Dinosaurs: The Sketches That Started It All (4:01), featuring designer Kirk Thatcher discussing how the characters’ looks were created.
In addition, there are numerous Dino-Eggs that lead to special clips, beginning with a 20-second introduction by Brian Henson on the first disc. Each disc is peppered with these eggs, which include words of wisdom from Earl, looks behind the scenes (like a close-up of Earl’s original maquette), and more. Some of the eggs are pretty obvious (the Brian Henson intro is the default choice when you start the disc), but others you will need to search for.
Sneak Peeks on Disc One include those for Pirates Of The Caribbean, Scrubs, Golden Girls, Leroy And Stitch, Shadows In The Sun/Everything You Want, and The Muppet Show and other Muppets DVDs.
Disney’s packaging of this set goes the extra mile with a unique design. While the overlapping discs in an open-book digipack have been seen with other sets, this one is set apart with a slipcover that opens vertically to reveal Baby Sinclair from a hatching egg. A typed introduction by the producers is found on the back of the digipack, as well as episode listings. A booklet with an episode guide would have been nice, but as it is this is an attractive package.
Ink And Paint:
The episodes are presented in their original 4:3 television ratio, looking good but not great. The prints used are clean, and there are no major problems with the transfers. They just look… okay. The images are a bit on the soft side, lacking in fine detail, but pretty much are on par with most TV-on-DVD sets for this vintage of show. (The first season episodes fair worst, often looking downright fuzzy.) These could have looked far worse, and in fact still appear better than they probably did when they first aired on cable or over the airwaves.
English is the only language offered as either an audio track or subtitles. The Stereo sound is adequate, but nothing spectacular. Panning effects are minimal, but at least everything is clear. I cannot recall any “wow” moments in terms of the audio in these episodes, but this is after all a sitcom.
The special effects and puppetry may not be as impressive nowadays, since we have become so accustomed to CGI effects, but one must still marvel at the skill of the puppeteers and technicians that brought these characters to life (aided, naturally, by a very good voice cast). This is a very special program, one that has no true equals in terms of what is managed to achieve week-to-week. Of course, the technical achievements alone would not be enough to recommend the program, but the sharp writing certainly seals the deal. Due to the use of anthropomorphic creatures that were far enough removed from humans, the dialog and situations were allowed to be outrageous and amazingly pointed. If you enjoy satirical cartoons like The Simpsons, there is really no reason to not give Dinosaurs a try. It’s got a large portion of that ol’ Henson magic, despite the passing of its creator. Every episode has a few memorable moments that seem fully unique to the show, and I’m so glad that Disney had enough faith in its popularity to release the series on DVD. It’s been a real pleasure seeing these again.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?