Pop-up dinosaur books are always fun (if rare, although I’ve managed to get my hands on a few in the past) – there’s nothing quite like a satisfyingly well-executed bit of paper engineering. What we have here is something in the same vein, but with a rather entertaining twist. In Dinosaur Park, beautifully painted backdrops have pop-out foregrounds that form something of a stage – an empty stage. That’s because the papercraft members of the cast are all waiting in a wallet in the back of the book, and it’s up to the reader to extract them, pop them out into shape, and pose them in the various fanciful palaeo-environments. For as the book explains, “it’s your DINOSAUR PARK and so it’s up to you to decide what happens!”. Well, I’m in.
Thanks to Yasmin Foster for sending me this one! A Christmas present for her back in 1998. Bless.
The cover gives us a decent idea of what to expect – bright colours, engaging and detail-packed illustrations, and reconstructions that are more charming than strictly scientifically informed. Don’t get me wrong – artist Anne Sharp does a wonderful job here, but while it does at least pretend to be educational, this book is far more about being visually appealing than palaeontologically sound. Even so, that cover art is pretty fantastic – a great composition with various animals staring out at the viewer from among lush vegetation, not least a suitably leering Rexy, his toothy maw threatening to leave the page and bite the tips of your fingers off. There’s a volcano exploding, raptor-things begging for a dental examination, and a Diplodocus looking regal. It’s all good stuff.
Rexy reappears on the back cover, which also shows us what we should be doing with the “fully assembled 3-D dinosaur models”. They are fully assembled, although you do have to slot a few parts into one another in order for them to have any sort of depth. I’m not sure I did it right – the results didn’t look half as appealing as the photos featured in the book. Then again, my models were clearly played with quite a bit by someone else over 20 years ago, and being so old, I don’t want to risk damaging them. I’m also just cack-handed.
There are four pop-out scenes, split evenly between the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Each one features a beautifully painted backdrop crammed with tiny details, which is good fun to explore on its own (indeed, the book encourages this). Sharp ensures that each scene is suitably layered in order to lend a real sense of depth to them. They aren’t an endless cavalcade of clichés either – while there’s certainly a stegosaur battling an allosaur in the above scene, there’s also an Ornitholestes having a quiet snooze and a Diplodocus herd (cleverly made to appear extra-enormous by way of perspective) just milling around by the water. There’s also a nicely camouflaged group of, er, Lesothosaurus resting together close to the Stegosaurus. Yes, this book does have a tendency to mix animals from thousands of miles and tens of millions of years apart with merry abandon, and I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, Lesothosaurus was still ‘from the Jurassic’, but the anachronism seems a bit pointless – why not just shove Dryosaurus in there? This sort of thing only gets worse in the Cretaceous scenes, and while errors like this in a book aimed at young children don’t bother me all that much these days, it would have driven 10-year-old me up the wall at the time.
Never mind. As you can see, I’ve chosen to populate the first Jurassic stage with the 3D Stegosaurus, resplendent among the lovely lush foliage of the scene. I’ve also thrown in some of the ‘supporting cast’ of 2D standees, all of which are rather out of scale, but oh well. That’s Allosaurus on the left (maybe it’s a juvenile?), Compsognathus in the middle (where else will it go? The Cretaceous?) and Ornitholestes and Lesothosaurus over on the right.
The next scene continues the adventures of the Jurassic dinosaurs, as an Allosaurus menaces an isolated young Diplodocus in front of a suitably threatening stormy sky. Inspired by the high drama of the backdrop, I thought I’d have my 3D Diplodocus rearing up to confront its puny theropod aggressor, AMNH-stylee (yes, I know it’s Barosaurus there). I even took an epic-looking low-down shot, to emphasise the sauropod’s height, see.
Marvellous. Again, you’ll note some of the lovely background details, including a decent variety of fauna and flora. There’s even a plesiosaur cutely waving hello from the sea. Pay no heed to the Dinosaurs in the Wild Dakotaraptor, he just intruded on the shot.
My favourite scene of all is the above, the first to feature Cretaceous dinosaurs alongside other animals, such as a snake, insects and pterosaurs, including one that looks like it belongs back in the Jurassic. The whole thing just feels so brightly coloured and cheerful, in spite of any evil-looking lurking Velociraptor and corpse-devouring tyrannosaurs, that I can’t help but be charmed by it. There are also so many lovely little details, from the Oviraptor tending its nest, to the two perching birds (one of which has just caught an insect), to the spider hiding under a fern, to the pterosaur stopping for a drink. There’s even a baby tyrannosaur concealing itself among the bushes in the foreground.
Just look at that adorable snake. I want to tickle him under the chin. The only downside here is that showing relatively small animals in glorious close-up means that…
…their card counterparts end up looking incongruously tiny. While 1990s scaly maniraptorans are always fun, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about these (other than being anachronistic). They’re often shown with weirdly straight necks and boxy heads, but that’s about it. I imagine lack of reference material was a problem. One creature that receives a particularly strange treatment is Rexy himself – while abiding by contemporary depictions in being very active (and not a tail-dragger), he is nevertheless always shown adopting a peculiarly upright posture. I can’t help but wonder if it was just to be a bit more consistent with the 3D model (which is a tripod for stability’s sake).
All of the main cast get a full-page profile, so here’s Rexy’s. Sharp makes him appear suitably malevolent and cruel, squishing a tiny Oviraptor underfoot while his eyes glow in fiery orange-yellow hues of sheer hatred. His proportions aren’t too bad, all things considered – there are oddities here and there (like the missing first toes and slightly misshapen head), but really I’m just grateful that Sharp produced something truly original, rather than just copying (let’s face it) Sibbick. Those mottled greens are also quite attractive. That, and the skin texture on the belly, rather remind me of the original Carnegie Collection T. rex toys.
The 3D Rexy is a rather awkward-looking thing by comparison, a tripod with no neck and overly-long, flailing arms. But, hey, he’s quite lovable with it, and not all that bad for a dinosaur made from a minimal amount of thin card. Somehow, the fact that his ear’s in the wrong place (a bit like that model the NHM still uses all over the place) is more prominent on the card figure than on the drawing, at least for me. But then, I’m bothered by odd things like that.
Naturally, there’s fun to be had in introducing 3D Rexy to various scenes and posing him facing off against other dinosaurs. Here, he squares up to a pair of quite nicely painted Triceratops in the second Late Cretaceous scene, in which a volcano has just exploded and it’s all kicking off. The landscape’s barren, there are skeletons everywhere, the sky is turning red, and somewhere in the distance the Doom Slayer is crushing the obsidian pillars of the blood temples. It’s all rather atmospheric and gorgeous, and most of the reconstructions are actually pretty good for the time, with the exception of that perching Pteranodon that looks like Rodan. Check out the silhouette in the grass in the foreground – a nice touch.
Rexy can’t have everything his own way, however, and so 3D Triceratops comes storming in to give him what for. You can’t really see it from this angle, but I took a certain childish sadistic glee in making sure at least one of Triceratops‘ horns was inserted into a hole in Rexy, piercing his, er, flesh. It’s an allusion to a Bernard Robinson painting, honest. Perhaps by virtue of being a little boxy to begin with, the Triceratops is one of the best-looking of the models, with a lovely pebbly skin texture that actually turned out to be remarkably prescient.
Overall, I rather like this one – it features brightly coloured, detailed artwork and the concept is good fun. I can see a child getting plenty of enjoyment out of this (I mean, I got plenty of enjoyment out of it), and the ‘stages’ could be reused to create dioramas with plastic dinosaur toys. The scientific inaccuracies do let it down a bit (especially as they are often completely baffling) – it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to have been that bit more educational, as well as entertaining. Still, it’s a charming, intriguing thing and I’m very grateful to Yasmin for sending it to me.