Vintage Dinosaur VHS: Dinosaurs (the Official Natural History Museum video)

Film review

Some years back – well, in 2019, but 2019 feels like a very long time ago now – I reviewed the Eyewitness Dinosaur video, released on VHS in 1994. While I happened to own that one back in the day, Dave Hone (for it was he) recently drew my attention to another early ’90s dinosaur-related video that had, somehow, escaped my childhood gaze. (My parents probably didn’t let me hang around for long enough in the Natural History Museum gift shop.) And it’s truly a thing of wonder. Thanks to intrepid YouTubers – in this case, UK Nostalgia Kid – we can enjoy its shonky CGI, wooden acting, and dizzying turntable model shots complete with authentic wobbly sound and beautiful, fuzzy VHS video quality, all without stealing any long-obsolete home entertainment hardware from the nearest museum. Warning: do not attempt to adjust the tracking on your smartphone.

The video follows the museum-based adventures of Keri (Kris Burn), a schoolboy visiting the Natural History Museum in London with his class. However, while Keri’s teacher drones on endlessly, Keri seems to start daydreaming – a nearby window shatters and we are transported to an eye-searing prehistoric vista of smeared low-resolution textures, entirely dead trees, and crude, low-polygon dinosaurs modeled after contemporary Carnegie Collection toys. Suddenly, while suitably early ’90s epic (entirely synthesised) orchestral music plays, a tyrannosaur chases down a hadrosaur, appearing to glide over the ground while making constant, bland blaarggarraawwrarg noises.

Blarggarawwarargh

The hadrosaur falls, the tyrannosaur closes in, and the camera zooms straight into its mouth for some reason. Keri awakes from his apparent daydream, and it’s suddenly nighttime. A thunderstorm rages outside, and an understandably rather startled Keri runs around the museum while flailing his arms and coming face-to-face with lots of angry-looking dead and/or sculpted animals. Keri isn’t entirely alone, though, for he soon blunders into a man in Victorian costume who introduces himself as Professor Sir Richard Owen (Christopher Whittingham). Or, his ghost, or something like that. Keri asks Owen where he is, Owen tells him, and Keri mentions that he’s due to visit on a school trip…tomorrow. So, this is a flashback? To a dream from the night before? Or perhaps when Keri broke into the museum once? It’s not entirely clear.

Thankfully, while Owen might be a ghost (or something like that), he isn’t the sort to be doomed to roam the corridors of the NHM for all eternity, rattling his chains and suffering the anguish of his statue being shoved into a dark, remote corner, while Darwin takes the spotlight on the grand staircase. Oh no – immortality has turned Owen into a rather more kindly and avuncular figure than he was (by all accounts) in life, and it’s also allowed him to keep up to speed with dinosaur science; perhaps he’d been haunting Paul Barrett while no one was looking. And so, Owen offers to take Keri on an exclusive tour of the NHM’s (then rather new) dinosaur gallery, while filling him in on dinosaur evolution, anatomy, and behaviour along the way. Although the NHM’s dinosaur gallery isn’t especially large, Owen prefers to teleport around rather than walk, which confuses Keri for far, far longer than it really ought to.

“PROFESSOR? PROFESSOR!?”

In addition to teleportation, Owen is able to magically conjure up spectacular 3D imagery of the long-lost past. By which I mean, very crude early ’90s CG with Pulfrich effect 3D [thanks to Joel Brackenbury on Facebook for pointing out the correct term]. What with this being bleeding-edge technology at the time, the film makers are really keen to show off just how fully 3D their dinosaur models are, to the point of rotating the camera around them in the same direction, again and again, at an alarming speed. It’s enough to make one quite dizzy. Of course, it’s all too easy to have a chuckle at this stuff now, but back in 1993 this would have been pretty difficult to pull off, especially on a non-Hollywood budget, and I’m sure a lot of kids at the time were suitably impressed anyway. (Unless they’d just been to see Jurassic Park.)

A decent variety of animals are rendered in CG form, including Tyrannosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Triceratops, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus. Some creatures fare better than others – the Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus and Stegosaurus aren’t too shabby, but the theropods really suffer from having such stiff bodies and the Parasaurolophus has the most hilarious running animation of the bunch, sticking its arms out straight in front of itself like it’s imitating Superman in the playground.

“WHEEEEEEEE”

As Owen takes us around the dinosaur gallery, we do get a decent look at various mounted skeletons, most (if not all) of which are still there today (albeit often hard to see now the overhead walkway has been closed off). Keri also gets to step over the barriers and get really close to some of the mounts, as well as handle a number of specimens, which would have made me extremely envious as a child. (OK, it still does.) The pair are even able to walk right inside the now-lost Deinonychus diorama, in which a pack of animatronic dromaeosaurs are seen feeding on Tenontosaurus (what else? As George Clooney might have asked if he had endorsed ornithopod flesh rather than wee coffee capsules). This superbly atmospheric scene was replaced with a robot Tyrannosaurus some time ago, and while the (almost) dead Tenontosaurus can no longer be seen, the Deinonychus models have been given feathery outfits and inserted elsewhere in the gallery. Often looking a little worse for wear, they should probably just be put out of their misery.

Older, static models from the museum also feature, and are given the same treatment as the CG beasts. Undoubtedly highly impressive works of art, they nevertheless provide a reminder that there was a time when someone working at the NHM was quite convinced that a tyrannosaur’s ear should be inserted into its temporal fenestra. (There’s even a life size model T. rex head with such a peculiar ear, the mouth of which is put to good use here for some fun cheesy transitions.) In terms of 2D palaeoart, we’re naturally treated to plenty of John Sibbick – mostly the work he produced especially for the NHM, of course, but also a handful of Normanpedia pieces. Owen takes the opportunity to point out that there’s still an awful lot about dinosaur life appearance – including their colours – that we can’t be sure of, but we can still make informed guesses.

In fact, the tone of the whole thing is quite commendable – pointing out how we know what we know in a succinct fashion, holding up the real (or, cast) fossils to provide evidence, and finding no fault in a bit of informed speculation. There’s a decent balance, and the science remains impeccably accurate (for 1993) throughout, as one might expect given the NHM’s involvement. They don’t just slap their logo on any old thing, you know. (Kindly ignore their current dinosaur toy line.) It’s a really rather pleasing jaunt back to the ’90s, and culminates in the revelation that birds are dinosaurs living today, and so dinosaurs aren’t extinct after all. As well it should.

Well…that’s not quite how it ends. Rather – following a repeat of that stunning T. rex chase sequence (hey, I bet it was expensive) – we return to Keri on his school trip, impressing nobody with his newfound knowledge of Richard Owen. As his class walks away, they pass Owen’s statue, which appears to briefly smile at Keri. Awww, how lovely – Owen’s never seemed so cuddly. Nor will he ever again, I don’t doubt. The credits roll over footage of a model of a sleeping Psittacosaurus, soothing music plays, and children can be quietly heard debating whether or not the dinosaur is real (seemingly on a loop, which is a bit surreal). And so, back to the present…

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Vincent
    May 10, 2022 at 10:56 am

    “Dinosaurs went extinct because they were blind and bonked into trees” is my main takeaway here.

    • Reply
      jprocto
      May 11, 2022 at 8:22 am

      Killed by kranium-tree damage. Or the k-t impact, for short.

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