December 13, 2011
You Are Umasou must be one of the most adorable dinosaur films ever made. It’s also one of the strangest. Within the annals of dinosaur cinema, I can’t recall any other film in which a carnivore, raised by an herbivore, takes in and protects another herbivore, all rendered in anthropomorphic anime.
Based on Tatsuya Miyanishi picture book, You Are Umasou starts off just like Disney’s Dinosaur—with a lost egg floating downriver. A mother Maiasaura spots the wayward egg and cares for the developing baby back at her own nest. But it’s not a little ornithopod that hatches out. The egg held an infant tyrannosaur. Despite the pressures of her community to abandon the youngster, though, Mama Maiasaura stays true to her name and hides her adopted son—Heart—and raises him with his natural-born brother, Light.
The herbivore lifestyle doesn’t suit Heart. While Light comfortably masticates any plants he can find, Heart is finicky and prefers red berries (or lizard tails, when he can catch them). Eventually Heart discovers that he is a miniature Big Jaw—one of the terrible, monstrous carnivores that eat other dinosaurs. What he feared to be true is a reality. He will grow up to be a jagged-tooth monster. Frightened and ashamed, Heart leaves his family to make a life for himself as a loner without a true territory of his own. He grows to be faster, stronger and craftier than the other young tyrannosaurs in the grasslands, but he’s also an outcast from his family and the tyrannosaur community.
History then repeats itself. Heart comes across a tiny egg, like his mother did, and a baby ankylosaur pops out. “You are umasou” (“You look delicious”), he tells the little one, but the unflappable ankylosaur takes “Umasou” for its name. Confused and embarrassed, Heart decides to temporarily adopt the little dinosaur under the reasoning that he can fatten the ankylosaur up for a later meal. Yet Heart’s unconventional background gets the better of him. Instead of raising Umasou for the slaughter, he quickly teaches the teeny armored dinosaur to defend itself in a world teeming with other predators.
Heart and Umasou become inseparable. Umasou loves his adoptive father, and Heart can’t suppress his instinct to care for what he momentarily considered a crunchy morsel. But Heart remembers the difficulty of his own childhood, being raised as an herbivore when his nature was clearly different. He abandons Umasou to the outside world, and by the time he realizes his mistake Heart’s only way to save his child is to further ostracize himself from the other Big Jaws of the plains.
You Are Umasou isn’t so much a movie about dinosaurs as a movie with dinosaurs playing out a fable about identity, family and the tension between your obligation to yourself and those you care about. The same story could be told with a different cast. And the dinosaurs themselves are only so in a nominal sense—the tyrannosaurs look very Godzilla-like and tussle in martial arts style (a corny training montage lists a few of the moves employed), and there are a few imaginary dinosaurs sprinkled throughout. While the feathered maniraptorans that raid the nesting ground at the beginning of the film reflect our current understanding of those dinosaurs, most of the dinosaurs are highly anthropomorphized and act almost as human-dinosaur hybrids. There’s no point in scientifically analyzing every incorrect anatomical point. All the viewer needs to know is that they are in the world of dinosaurs.
There is at least one cute nod to the scientific, though. You Are Umasou‘s opening scenes are modeled on Jack Horner, James Gorman and Douglas Henderson’s picturebook Maia: A Dinosaur Grows Up. The animated film even references Egg Mountain—the Montana field site where Horner and his colleagues discovered the Maiasaura nesting grounds—although, in this case, the animators used the title to create a nearby volcano with a large, egg-shaped rock stuck inside.
You Are Umasou isn’t for everyone. Viewers need an affinity for anime and the various conventions of the animation style. Still, I was delighted to see this curious extrapolation of what happened 74 million years ago in western Montana. Bits and pieces of inspiration were borrowed from other sources, but I have never seen anything quite like it.
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