Today we’re back following the Dollybutt Children and their great uncle Lancelot as they journey through the Age of Dinosaurs, meeting some unusual critters along the way, as written down by Gerald Durrell and illustrated by Graham Percy. Part one is here. We’ve arrived in the Jurassic now, which means… Sauropods!
Diplodocus are a case where the simplified, “broad strokes” approach to dinosaur depiction works reasonably well. After all, what is a sauropod but an animal that is skinny on one end, much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end? Turns out banana yellow is a pretty good look for them. Also: upright necks, score! The Diplodocus herd features quite heavily in the book; they befriend the heroes after the latter save one of the sauropods from a forest fire.
The most prominent nonhuman character in the book however is not a dinosaur, but a pterosaur named Albert, who functions as a comedy sidekick. A lesser author might have put Pterodactylus in this role, but Albert here is a Gnathosaurus, a very rarely-seen pterosaur in popular culture. It’s surprising and refreshing to see this obscure taxon get a starring role. It’s not a half bad storybook reconstruction of a generalized pterosaur, either. The remarkably forward-thinking depiction of fuzzy, healthy looking pterosaurs really pop in this book. Percy is really making use of the pterofuzz to make Albert look likeable and unthreatening.
“Likeable” and “unthreatening” are certainly not words generally used to describe Allosaurus, and it seems Percy mixed up his horned Jurassic theropods here. This angry dumpling of a dinosaur is obviously a very simplified Ceratosaurus. Also, like so many dinosaurs in this book, it is several sizes larger than it ought to be, but that doesn’t bother me so much. At least it’s not standing upright, which is more than I can say about a certain other giant theropod that appears a bit later.
The characters only hang out in the Jurassic for a short while; we all know the Cretaceous is where it’s at. Here, we get some misplaced wildlife again, though it’s not quite as egregious as in the Triassic. At least the animals – a mix of Hell Creek and Dinosaur Park taxa – are all from the same continent this time. The first Cretaceous critters we see are Pachycephalosaurus, in good old fashioned full frontal head-butting mode. The text explains that the winner gets the females, who are all standing by and swooning and cooing over every bone-crushing, life-threatening blow, the sadistic monsters.
Another major character in the story is the Scolosaurus, who is the book’s cover model. Though derivative and outdated, the Scolosaurus is probably my favourite creature design in the book. It has that Burianesque Scolosaurus-classic look, but it’s not a sprawling belly-dragger in the mold of Giovanni Caselli. Despite being trope-tastic, the lovingly detailed design means it does feel like a plausible creature. The text has a grand old time playing up the “walnut-sized brain” angle; he’s a slow-witted and very cowardly charcter who needs to overcome his fear of Tyrannosaurus rex in order to save the day.
Speaking of… yeah, I’m less impressed with Percy’s theropods. Sexy Rexy is mostly reduced to a shapeless blob with teeth and angry eyes, although I do like the colour scheme. Even more than the Allosaurus, the self-proclaimed King of Dinosaurs is portrayed in a very pre-Renaissance way, fat and upright, closer to Neave Parker than to Greg Paul. Funny how this most monstrous of the dinosaurs is also the most anthropomorpic one. As far as cartoon tyrannosaurs go, The Land Before Time did it better, one year earlier. That said, the composition of this spread is gorgeous, as all of Percy’s illustrations are. Even with the giant predator there, doesn’t this version of the Creataceous just look like a place you’d want to spend your vacation?
Things don’t end with Rexy, though. Humans Are The Real Monsters in the end. The heroes finally amass a large army of herbivourous dinosaurs to confront the villains, who at this point have been stealing many baby dinosaurs. And that’s a bad, bad thing to do. Lambeosaurus is portrayed as quite the drab grey creature, not quite the swamp-dwelling Gangly Dork Duckbill of the old days but not quite modern either. The ceratopsians are strangely unnamed, but are clearly meant to be Styracosaurus. Compared to the colourful dinosaurs found elsewhere, these are oddly dull as well – especially jarring since we love to give our ceratopsians and hadrosaurs extravagant colours these days. Ankylosaurus is also there.
The book contains an amusing epilogue where the “kid’s own adventure” hijinks continue. The kids bring Albert and an orphaned Diplodocus named Desdemona along to the present day, and present them to the world at the Royal Albert Hall. Among those they have to convince is a stodgy old skeptical scientist, called Porteus Pigglestrotter, who is ready to give the whole show a scathing review, but he gets his comeuppance when Albert shows up, and… what’s with the scientist hate all of a sudden? Did Gerald Durrell have a bone to pick with people from “the scientific establishment”? He certainly wouldn’t be the first… His portrayal of Scientistus scepticus remains one of the most unconvincing reconstructions of a living species in the book. Without exception, all scientists I know would be quite giddy to see a real dinosaur!
One more thing I wanted to show you: Both the inner covers feature this handy overview of all the animals featured in this book, complete with pronounciation guide.
And that’s The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure, a book that I loved to pieces as a kid, and is still a firm childhood favourite. I wish you all the best for 2020. I’m certainly happy I’ve gotten to write for this fine blog and look forward to contributing more in the new year!