September 13, 2011
There have been plenty of dinosaur movies over the years, but there have been almost as many that died before they were ever completed. The original version of Dinosaur—a bloody, silent drama directed by Paul Verhoven and Phil Tippett—that I wrote about last week was just one of many possible films that were never fully realized. Thanks to the detective work of dino-cinema aficionado Mark Berry in The Dinosaur Filmography, though, we can pick over the graveyard of incomplete projects. The following is my list of the top five dinosaur films we’ll never get to see.
In 1930, stop-motion special effects master Willis O’Brien was working on a new rendition of the classic “lost world” storyline that would have presented dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures on the big screen as audiences had never seen them before. Called Creation, the movie was meant to tell the story of an American family and a Chilean submarine crew trapped together inside the caldera of an inactive volcano that was home to dinosaurs and bizarre archaic mammals. O’Brien’s dinosaurian stars were not going to be just window dressing—extensive sequences featuring prehistoric animals were planned, but this didn’t fly well with a new producer at RKO Radio Pictures, Merian C. Cooper. Too many long scenes of dinosaurs walking around, not enough action. The movie was cancelled—only a few snippets of test footage, such as the clip posted above, remain—but Cooper was so impressed with O’Brien’s technical skill that he put the artist to work on another film: King Kong. (And, a few years later, stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen planned to tell the story of life on earth in a film called Evolution, an homage to the scrapped film of his hero. Unfortunately, Harryhausen’s project was never finished, either.)
2) The Natural History Project
Don’t let the bland working title of The Natural History Project fool you—the movie had the potential to be great. In the early 1980′s Lisa Henson, daughter of puppeteer extraordinaire Jim Henson, had the idea to make a film about a young hadrosaur and the story of the dinosaur’s journey from childhood to adulthood. (The outline sounds quite similar to what paleontologist Jack Horner and artist Douglas Henderson created in their book Maia: A Dinosaur Grows Up.) Top paleo-artist William Stout was brought in to help with the character designs, and the combination of Stout’s art with Henson’s puppetry would have undoubtedly been fantastic. Sadly, though, Warner Bros. studio soon learned about another dinosaur film called The Land Before Time, and The Natural History Project was dumped.
3) Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls
Just look at the title. Do I need to say anything more? Well, I suppose I do. Set to be created by Hammer Films—the UK movie company well known for its horror films and creature features such as When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth—the movie would have focused on a group of WWI soldiers who manage to escape a German POW camp and wind up stranded on an island filled with prehistoric animals and early humans. Despite the title and an early poster, only one brief confrontation between a pterosaur and a zeppelin was planned, and even that never came to be as no contractual agreement to make the movie was ever reached. Elements of the storyline were later recycled into another failed dinosaur film, The Primevals.
4) Dinosaurs Attack!
As a young, card-collecting dinosaur geek, I loved the Dinosaurs Attack! series. I probably shouldn’t have—the cards were exceedingly and gratuitously gory. (One of the stickers which came with the cards featured the hadrosaur Parasaurolophus eating a baby. Gross.) Still, the cards more or less envisioned the fights between dinosaurs and soldiers I played out in the sandbox, and shortly after the card set came out the concept was optioned for filming by producers Joe Dante and Mike Finnel. Instead of being an all-out bloodbath, though, the movie was planned as a satire in the style of films like Airplane!. The idea of a violent dinosaur satire was soon dumped. The news that Steven Spielberg was working on a film adaptation of Jurassic Park ultimately killed Dinosaurs Attack!—no one wanted to compete with that film. Perhaps it was for the best. Dinosaurs Attack! was planned as a tribute to the earlier Mars Attacks card series, and the comedic movie based upon the alien-invasion card series was an unfunny bucket of awful.
Time-traveling safaris to hunt dinosaurs are pretty common in science fiction literature, but there hasn’t been a successful attempt to bring the sub-sub-genre to the big screen. (Yes, there was the adaptation of A Sound of Thunder, but I did say “successful” didn’t I? As the Wikipedia entry for the film states, A Sound of Thunder received plenty of negative reviews for “poor special effects, uninvolved performances, scientific errors and Ben Kingsley‘s hair.”) One late 1970s project which seemed to have potential was Timegate—a film about a group of hunters who go back to the Cretaceous to shoot up some dinosaurs but are imperiled by the hidden agenda of one of their hunting companions. Not the most original story, granted, but the team set to create the film included effects specialists Jim Danforth and Phil Tippett, among others, and a prehistoric cast including Tyrannosaurus, Styracosaurus, Centrosaurus, Hypsilophodon and the giant crocodylian Deinosuchus was planned. Unlike some of the other projects I have mentioned, though, the project sank because of the desire to get bigger name actors and puff up the film’s budget from $1 million to $2 million. The changes never came through and the project died.
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