100 Film Favorites – #65: We’re Back!: A Dinosaur’s Story
(Phil Nibbelink & Simon Wells, 1993)
In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment produced two dinosaur movies. One was an epic in which dinosaurs are reintroduced to the modern world, and terrifying action sequences alternate with tender moments of survival and enduring humanity. The other was Jurassic Park.
I have to admit, there was a delay before I posted this one on the original Brian Terrill Movie Night page. I chalk it up to indecision. I rewatched the film I originally had slated for #65, and realized I didn’t like it quite as much as I remembered (it’ll still get honorable mention at the end of the Countdown). Then, I rewatched THIS one, and realized it doesn’t actually make any sense. But it made a major impression on me as a small child, and I still really like elements of the film, so here we are.
We’re Back!, based on a 1987 children’s book of the same name, stars Rex (voiced by John Goodman), a loquacious Tyrannosaurus. The film opens with Rex narrating his life story: He was once a regular old T-Rex, roaming the valleys of the Cretaceous period. One day while hunting, Rex is captured by a huge, time-traveling airship. The ship’s pilot, Captain Neweyes, force-feeds the dino large quantities of his innovative new breakfast cereal, “Brain Grain,” which vastly amplifies the intelligence of anyone who consumes it. Neweyes explains that he has come “from the far future,” an era when mankind lives peacefully and has solved most of its major problems. Now, the good Captain, assisted by a wacky alien sidekick voiced by Jay Leno, has been zooming around prehistory snatching up dinosaurs in his time-ship and stuffing them into sentience.
Well, because that’s what the children are wishing for! Captain Neweyes has invented a “Wish Radio,” a magical/scienterriffic receiver which can hear people’s hopes and aspirations (especially those of children, because “they wish the loudest”). One wish in particular is coming through loud and clear: The children of 1993 want to see “real dinosaurs.” And Captain Neweyes is going to make that dream come true…for some reason. In retrospect, Neweyes has one of the most baffling motivations and/or backstories of any “hero” character on this list. Try to follow his logic: You live in a distant future in which all conflicts are primarily resolved. This “peaceful” monotony gradually leads to boredom. You decide that you will design a time machine to depart your own era and help the people of the past solve their problems. Sounds good so far. So, magical future man, which of humanity’s sufferings would you like to alleviate first? AIDS? Genocide? Starvation?
What’s that? You say there’s a serious shortage of living dinosaurs in the early 1990s? Oh. Better start with that, then. Surely, the cries of dinosaur-deprived 90s children are the loudest lamentations humankind has ever raised.
But I digress. Along with Rex, Neweyes has “educated” three other dinosaurs, including a triceratops, a parasaurolophus, and a pterodactyl. The Captain and his erudite dinos travel to New York City, in 1993, where Neweyes has arranged for his passengers to appear in exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. But instead of dropping them off at the museum, or even anywhere near it, the Captain jettisons the dinosaurs from his airship in parachutes over the opposite end of Manhattan.
Rex lands in a lake, and is pulled to safety by a boy named Louie, who has run away from home to join the circus and escape the smothering attention of his parents. Louie and the dinosaurs decide to trek across New York together. Along the way they meet a girl named Cecilia, whom Louie also talks into running away (to get back at her wealthy socialite parents for neglecting her). Wandering through Central Park at night, the group encounters the one element of the film which makes it Countdown-worthy, and solidly so: Professor Screweyes’ Eccentric Circus.
“Professor Screweyes” is Captain Neweyes’ brother, who turned evil when a crow pecked out one of his eyes in his youth (this juicy little bit of exposition was actually cut from the film, though the footage still exists). Instead of a normal prosthetic eye, the Professor has a large screw filling the socket instead. Screweyes is captivated by the power of fear, and has designed an entertainment enterprise around it: a fear circus, intended to scare its audience, rather than make them laugh or thrill them. This is a really cool idea. At least I think so.
Professor Screweyes tricks the children into signing over their souls to enter the circus (there is no explanation as to how he has this power), and the dinosaurs offer themselves up to Screweyes instead. The Prof feeds the dinos “Brain Drain,” a drug of his own design which restores them to their old, animalistic selves. He debuts them as “monsters” in his horror circus, controlling Rex via screw-powered hypnosis. When a crow causes an electrical short, it breaks Screweyes’ hypnotic hold, and the tyrannosaurus nearly eats him. However, Louie and Cecilia run up onstage and embrace the dinosaurs. The children’s kindness brings the dinos to their senses, and they regain their intelligence and ability to speak. Remember kids, all you need to do to tame vicious animals is give them a big hug!
Neweyes crashes through the roof of the circus tent in his time-ship, saying he heard Cecilia’s bizarrely-worded wish to “let no bad happen” on his Wish Radio. Louie, Cecilia, and the dinosaurs climb on board, but Screweyes opts to stay at the circus. After the ship departs, Screweyes stands alone and remarks, in a terrified whisper,
“When I am all alone, and I have no one to scare…I get very frightened myself…”
After which, his flock of pet crows descend and immediately EAT HIM ALIVE. I cannot make this movie up. Meanwhile, Captain Neweyes drops the dinosaurs off at the Museum of Natural History…proving he could have done it to begin with and made the entire plot unnecessary. The dinosaurs impress a lot of children and live happily ever after as citizens of 1990s New York. We are told in a sentence that Louie and Cecilia reunited with their parents and instantly solved all their problems, I guess, somehow. The film returns to the frame story, in which Rex is telling his life story to a baby bird eager to “leave the nest.” The moral of the story, it seems, is never leave home…at least not to join the circus…because it might turn out to be a fear circus run my some kind of magical soul-stealer with weird prostheses. So yeah, best to just stay at home.
There are even more unanswered questions in this film: If Screweyes is Neweyes’ brother, is Screweyes also from the future? If so, why did he ALSO decide to settle in 1993? Does Screweyes also have access to a time machine? If he’s from the future, but resides in 1993, he would have to have one, right? If so, why didn’t he just gather feral dinosaurs himself? Where did Screweyes get his magical hypno-eye? Did he find it while time-traveling?
This movie is an animated headache, but in the best way possible. Name another kid’s movie featuring terror circuses, mind-altering cereal, and people being devoured by crows. I dare you.
Also, the song “Roll Back the Rock (to the Dawn of Time),” sung by John Goodman (and covered by Little Richard in the credits) in the scene where the dinosaurs masquerade as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, is incredibly catchy:
So turn off your brain and watch We’re Back!
But if you DO try to think it through, some bad might happen.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.