Vintage Dinosaur Art: Jurassic Park toy collector cards

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Brian Franczak was one of the best palaeoartists around in the early ’90s, and I still feel (as I did a couple of years ago) that we don’t feature his work here quite enough. Happily, then, an opportunity presents itself in the 30th anniversary of That Movie. You know the one: Unix systems, expensive ice cream, disappointingly flimsy road signs. All that stuff. I didn’t fancy writing yet another article praising that movie to the skies for how groundbreaking and influential it was, assessing its mixed contributions to the popular perception of dinosaurs, etc. etc. But what to talk about, if not all that?

Ah, well, why not artwork commissioned for the legendary original Jurassic Park action figure line, featuring wonderful little dinosaur action scenes by Franczak? A chance to celebrate JP and Franczak together – perfect.

JP Tyrannosaurus by Brian Franczak

Franczak has sadly left us (and do read Darren Naish’s article on him if you haven’t already), but his legacy continues to inspire, not least in the form of these small collector cards that were better than they had any right to be. Granted, it was clear at the time that Kenner wanted their JP toy dinosaurs to be as impressive in their realm as the movie versions were in theirs; for a kid used to small dinosaur figures with fudged details, the enormous red T. rex released in 1993 was nothing short of incredible. And extremely desirable, of course.

That said, the collector cards were really just a little extra thrown into the package. Kenner would have been forgiven for hiring any old remotely competent illustrator, and yet they commissioned Franczak. For his part, Franczak put in some sterling work, especially in giving the pieces an ‘action movie’ feel. It’s all in the composition and framing, executed brilliantly within the confines of the format. Just check out the low angle in the above piece, emphasising the tyrannosaur’s intimidatingly massive size, and the way the animal’s focus has immediately turned to the Explorer in front of the fence. It’s highly evocative of the film…

Young Tyrannosaurus rex by Brian Franczak

…which could be considered somewhat surprising, as so many of these cards bear little relation to the movie at all. One can easily imagine why – the toys were necessarily developed while the film was still in production, and so often deviate from it in terms of the animals’ appearances and especially their colours. Elements from the book are also brought in, like the brick red colouration of the adult T. rex, and the presence of a juvenile T. rex, as seen in the above piece. In the collector cards the tyrannosaurs’ heads are much closer to the real-life animal than the JP version we all know, as are other details of their anatomy, where visible; check out the protruding pelvic bones on the juvenile.

The above illustration might just be my favourite of the bunch for its evocative setting and sense of drama and tension. The viewer is placed right at human-eye-height as the dinosaur approaches them and the two humans in the scene, getting too close for comfort. The T. rex is also drawn from a tricky perspective, and it’s executed very well. If anything, the fact that that the T. rex appears closer to the animal as seen in the best contemporary palaeoart, rather than the JP beast, excites the imagination even more.

JP Velociraptor by Brian Franczak

When it comes to the theropods that were altered the most for the movie, Franczak naturally makes way for some of the necessary changes (that he knew of), but his versions still tack closer to the real animal (be it Velociraptor or Deinonychus, in this case) as it was understood at the time. His Velociraptor (as seen here and in another card in which a pack of them scramble up a wall after a fleeing man) has a longer, lower skull than the film version. In the late ’80s, artists like Greg Paul were already giving Deinonychus a lower skull than the more allosaur-like noggin of previous reconstructions, and Franczak reflects that.

As a kid, though, I was always puzzled as to where the above scene was supposed to be taking place. The maintenance shed, perhaps? Most likely, it’s just a generic industrial-looking corridor. Again, nice use of a dramatic low angle.

JP Dilophosaurus by Brian Franczak

Jurassic Park‘s Dilophosaurus famously deviated from reality by, you know, having a massive lizardy neck frill and gobbing venom at people it didn’t like. Said attributes must have been decided upon early in the film’s development as they both feature in the toy line, but – curiously – the animals retain their real-life size relative to the human action figures. The same is true in Franczak’s artwork, where Dilophosaurus is always depicted as being at least as tall as a person. In the above piece, both the frill and spitting are evident; it accompanied the electronic Dino-Screams figure that had a clip-on frill accessory, so that makes sense. The framing of the creature is superb – it completely dominates the composition – as is the kid-pleasing bloody wound on the stricken man. You’ll note, though, that the subnarial gap that the animal possessed in real life is much more evident here than in the movie.

JP Triceratops by Brian Franczak

The herbivores receive no less dramatic a treatment here than the carnivores. Triceratops is depicted as dangerous and belligerent in its brief appearance in The Lost World (something I really wish could’ve been explored a bit more in other movies), but in Jurassic Park, it’s sick and virtually immobilised. Not so here, where rather than cooing and smiling all over the beast, Grant is forced to sprint for his freakin’ life as it comes crashing out of the undergrowth towards him. Great stuff. You’ll note that the Triceratops doesn’t particularly resemble either the movie or toy versions. If anything, it looks a lot better, with a properly chasmosaurine squared-off frill and vicious horns that don’t look like they’ve already been fossilised (as in the film).

JP Stegosaurus by Brian Franczak

Stegosaurus is also depicted in a scene of high drama, rearing up as Grant and Tim try and, er, subdue it with lassos. Why not – the animal wasn’t even in the first movie, so might as well go a bit nuts. It was in the toy line, of course, one of a number of animals added to the lineup to pad it out (we’ll get to some of the others in a minute); to be fair, it did also feature in the book. The toy was a rather odd take on the creature, with a Czerkas-like single row of alternating plates, only two tail spikes, and a head with teeth that went all the way around the mouth, the beak being absent. Franczak’s depiction is much, much better, with four spikes, an alternating double row of plates, and a beak. Love the dappled patterning on the plates and flanks, too. The animal would go on to appear in The Lost World, looking much more like this collector card than the toy, and again in Jurassic World, looking somehow more retro and tail-dragging than it did in 1997. Because we can’t have nice things.

JP Pteranodon by Brian Franczak

Pteranodon was another animal that featured in the first JP movie’s toy line, but wouldn’t appear in the films themselves until the sequel. The original JP toy Pteranodon was an absolutely hideous, wrinkly, monstrous thing that was probably the worst figure of the lot, comparing unfavourably with the Tyco Dino Riders/Smithsonian Pteranodon that was around at the same time. Franczak’s artwork, on the other hand, is much better, really only sharing a general colour scheme with the toy. It’s fuzzy and oddly cute, although also threateningly large, as is made clear by the shadow next to the human. Shame it’s about to be shot down.

JP Dimetrodon by Brian Franczak

Strictly speaking, Dimetrodon has also appeared in a Jurassic Park sequel, although I think we can all agree that it’s best we pretend Dominion doesn’t exist. Giant killer locusts! The original JP toy deviates significantly from the real animal for the sake of being a fun action figure, but Franczak’s artwork is, again, much more faithful to it, right down to the animal’s distinctive jawline. This was another of my favourites as a kid – I just loved that the kids had apparently accidentally stumbled upon this creature, which appears to be in the middle of turning around to face them, almost as surprised by the encounter as they are. Tim’s face and posture are also priceless, of course.

JP Coelophysis by Brian Franczak

And finally (because I’m not going to review all of them – there are plenty of websites out there that feature the whole set, like this one)…here’s an animal that hasn’t featured in any of the movies, namely Coelophysis. This really is a classic Franczak piece, right down to the animals appearing in standard lateral view and the really quite beautiful background (FALLEN LOGS! We do love our fallen logs around here). Again, the animals only really resemble their toy counterparts in terms of their colouration, but that’s definitely a good thing in this case, as the toys were a little crude (but poseable!).

I do have the rest of these, should anyone fancy a follow-up post – all except for the card that came with the other adult Dilophosaurus, that is (I guess I could nick someone else’s scan for that one). Note that a series of cards were also released with the metal die-cast figures, but those were illustrated by Lou Specker rather than Franczak, and have a much more pulpy, retro feel (while still being very well painted and often quite violent). For now, though, I’m quite content to leave it there. A very happy 30th to That Movie and all its fans!

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    paleocharley
    June 17, 2023 at 4:25 pm

    Great post as usual, Marc. I look forward to part 2.

    Regarding Dimetrodon: Setting aside the question whether or not mosquitoes were around in the Permian (there likely were SOME sort of blood-suckers that could serve the purpose), were there any PLANTS that could have produced something like Amber??

    BTW, I’m suffering Withdrawal without the monthly podcasts. When may we see those resumed?

    • Reply
      Marc Vincent
      June 21, 2023 at 8:22 am

      I’ve missed recording them, too. Happily we are recording another one tomorrow. Interview has already been done.

  • Reply
    josep_zacarias
    June 18, 2023 at 9:47 am

    I didn’t know Brian Franczak had passed away. The link to Naish’s article doesn’t seem to work for me, but I see he was suffering from dementia and died in 2020 at the age of 65. Really sad.
    Those cards look great, especially as it looks like the original illustrations were rather small compared to his usual work. Most dinosaurs look way better there than they did in the movie (especially the T. rex and Triceratops). Makes me wish the producers chose an actual paleoartist to design those dinos rather than “Crash” McCreery. But to be fair, his original designs also look better than the creatures we eventually saw in the movie.

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