The earliest memory I have of on-screen dinosaurs is the animated episode in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) that depicts the formation of Earth and the age of giant reptiles. What other generations in the history of the world, has been given such resources to aid in imagining the progression of life on this planet? What was most memorable for me in this brief segment of Fantasia, was the moment when these huge lizards sensed that their world was descending into fire and ice. It was time for them to embark on a desperate migration that will end only in extinction.
In the Movie Archive above, there is a set of titles that fit in the category of Lost Land Films. Generally, this action movie genre finds a group of adventurers (usually with one fine looking female), passing through some sort of portal into a land where dinosaurs continue to thrive. The monstrous reptiles are typically impervious to gunfire, but things work out for the humans in the end. For further absurdity, see the “Cave Babe” sub-genre in Cave Countries. The best that can be said for these historical travesties is that they raise the crucial question of what we would do if we had to face down the ancient dragons of the long lost past. In the current decades, this terrifying fantasy has been captured best in the work of Stephen Spielberg and the Jurassic Park franchise.
The ice ages, which followed at some length after the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, have only been recommended to contemporary interest through animations. If a lovable oaf of a mammoth, or mastodon, voiced by Ray Romano, helps to solidify in our minds that the mammals reigned on Earth after the reptiles receded, then the job is done. The best natural history museums have done a far better job at depicting encounters of humans and giant mammals than the movies have managed.
To stop and recapitulate, the movies have given us vivid pictures of the beginnings of life on this planet; the time of the dinosaurs, lasting over 200 million years, and the rise of the mammals, leading to the debut of hominids. Giant mammals lasted until the last days of the ice ages and the melting of frozen peaks into nourishing rivers. It was in this time that Homo sapiens crawled out of their caves, forsook their nomadic ways, and began to make an industry of raising crops and herding animals. Only elephants and whales are left to remind us of the giants of the past. Human history from this time forward is but a hangnail on the hand of time.
Animated Dinosaur Movies
This was the only “serious art” animation that Disney ever produced (except for the Fantasia sequel in 2000). It contains the best evocation on the big screen of the world of dinosaurs as it was lived by the beasts themselves. The sequence depicting Earth’s origins up through the extinction of the giant reptiles is but one part of a diverse anthology of virtuosic animations set to classical music pieces. This one very appropriately uses Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I think I saw it on television in the 1950s, probably on the The World of Disney. It paralleled my youthful fascination with dinosaurs spurred by editions of Life magazine that came to my family mailbox in those years.
Imagined human encounters with dinosaurs will come later on this site. According to the most reliable science at the turning of the new millennium, there is a gap of over 60 million years between the extinction of the dinosaurs vividly depicted in the animations and the start of the human journey about six million years ago. The Disney people wanted to continue their story through the rise of the mammals and the discovery of fire by humans but were deterred by objections from the Creationists. This seems odd to me. Would anybody on the other side have seriously objected if Hollywood made a movie about how God Created the Heavens and the Earth?
The Land Before Time (1988) – Spielberg
Both Spielberg and George Lucas were in involved in producing this Don Bluth animation. They followed the standard Disney model by turning their reptilian creatures into talking animals centering on a little fella of the Apatosaurus family (also known as Brontosaurus) with a cutey-pie voice, called Littlefoot. They were also inspired by the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia to include an overture that established the rise of life from primordial waters, and the division of dinosaurs into “leaf-eaters” and predators called “sharp-tooths.” It quickly devolves into frolicking Teletubbie-style baby animal antics, necessary to hold the attention of children. Conversely, there is an early version of the death-of-a-parent motif that came to dominate animated features at the turning of the millennium. Littlefoot’s mother is attacked by a T-Rex and dies of her wounds, aggravated by a violent earthquake, while her child whimpers at her side. Littlefoot and friends move on across a parched landscape in search of fresh water, green leaves, and safety from ever-present predators.
Dinosaur (2000) – Animation
This big budget Disney/Lucasfilm production got a cover story on Newsweek for state of the art animation in the new millennium. Though it is significantly less than lifelike, there is a high level of believability to be had from this form. Some boys we know expressed the consensus opinion, “The animation was great, but the story stunk.” The plot is concerned with the efforts of the dinosaurs to get to a green nesting ground after a meteor has devastated their environment. The film is marred mostly by inane smart-alec dialogue. Despite recent reports on the causes of extinction, they make it to a happy ending in dinosaur Eden.
Originally produced as Dinosaur Revolution and shown on the Discovery Channel, this film has an unfinished quality. It is a series of animated vignettes about life among the dinosaurs. Part of the time, it successfully represents these creatures and other times it verges and being a cute cartoon. It concludes with the meteor strike off the Yucatán coast, 65 million years ago. Werner Herzog narrates.
Animated Ice Age Mammal Movies
After the large dinosaurs entered a period of precipitous extinction some 65 million years ago, there followed the slow rise of the previously overshadowed mammals. The ice ages crept upon the once tropical habitats of giant reptiles and the mammals survived by virtue of warm blood and thick fur. For generations, there was no movie that illuminated this time until, early in the new millennium came, the Ice Age franchise. Until this, wooly mammals were known primarily to those families who looked beyond the dinosaurs in the natural history museums. Now there is a lovable mammoth with a voice in our culture (Ray Romano’s). And there is some sort of obnoxious squirrel that sets the scene for each of these films. In fairness, it should be said that there have been the occasional movies with cave-dwelling humans thrusting spears at terrified mammoths, but there has been nothing of note from the animals’ point of view – until now. And these animals talk.
Ice Age (2002) – Animation
In the thick of the Ice Age of 20,000 years ago, we meet a diverse group of migrating mammals. Foremost among them is a mammoth named Manfred (Ray Romano) and a sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo). The scene shifts to a human village, with a group of saber tooth tigers brooding on vengeance from the rocks above. Their plan is to kidnap a baby in revenge for violence done to the tigers by the humans. They attack at dawn and the mother runs off with the baby, leaping into a stream. One of the tigers, called Diego (Dennis Leary), is instructed by his chief to bring the baby back alive.
There are some sobering deaths, including a painful memory evoked by cave paintings of the slaying of Manfred’s parents by human hunters. Manfred and Sid find the baby just as the mother is swept away to her death in the stream. They resolve to get the baby back to the human group, but they are menaced by the tigers. Diego throws in with the mammoth and the sloth and they bond around the care of the baby. In the end, they succeed in returning the child to his father. The characters, human and animal, have a plastic look that defeats their empathy quotient. The film does its best to tug at the heart, but it is difficult to get past the artificiality. This is a 20th Century Fox film, with no connection to Pixar, Disney, or Dreamworks. See Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), and Ice Age: Collision Course (2016).
Dreamtime Related Posts:
- Giant Creatures
- Lost Land Movies
- Dinosaur & Mammal Myths in Movies (Animated)
- Movie Dreamtime: Talking Animals
- Movies: Was It All a Dream?