Oh, the cozy amber-tinted memories of youth. A simpler time of simpler tastes. As the cynical, crushing weight of adulthood often sends us nostalgically yearning to revisit the things we once held dear, we tend to find that those special things are not quite how we left them. Like a favorite climbing tree’s branches that we once had to leap for, now boringly coming up waist-high, the films we adored as children and tweens typically do not measure up the same now. Sometimes old favorites are best left to our memory. Yet now and then they miraculously hold up, or even prove to have hidden subtext we never realized. They say you can’t go home again, but I think it is high time that I tried.
The Artifact: Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985)
What Is It: Theatrical feature film.
The Memory: As I mentioned in the previous Childhood’s End, The Land Before Time, I don’t think a greater universal truth has ever been so succinctly expressed as the one in this graph:
Since revisting Land Before Time, the dinosaur joys of my youth have been on my brain. I’ve thought about the bizarre Jim Henson Studios Honeymooners sitcom riff, Dinosaurs. I’ve thought about Claymation god Will Vinton’s short Dinosaur. I’ve thought about Jurrasic Park. I’ve even thought about the schlockriffic Carnosaur. But these are all things I’ve come into contact with again since those fuzzy-memory days of yore. But there is one dino film that has haunted the recesses my mind for two decades now…
Motherfuckin’ Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.
My memories of this film are beyond fuzzy. They are just flashes of images. I see a full-grown Brontosaurus rampaging through a village. I see a Brontosaurus walking across a river. I see the titular baby Brontosaurus. Most of all though I see the VHS cover for the movie (above) which drew me to the film as a lad. Could this glorious image be true? A movie about people petting a tiny Brontosaurus?!?! I remember that the film is about a couple who discover the dinosaurs in the jungle. If I close my eyes and try to envision the actors who play the couple, my brain feeds me Jeff Bridges and Linda Hamilton, which I know isn’t right. That’s just a weird mash-up of the couples from King Kong (1976) and King Kong Lives. Oddly enough, I can’t really remember if I liked the film or not. I mainly remember being irritated with how long it takes until we finally see the dinosaurs in the film. But damn, that VHS cover never left my memory.
How Long Has It Been: Over 20 years.
The Reality: Before we even get into the film itself — for all these years I had been thinking the film was simply called Baby. That is not a great name for a dinosaur movie, which is probably why they tacked on the Secret of the Lost Legend. But that just makes things worse. It’s a terrible title for anything. For one thing, “lost legend” doesn’t make tons of sense as a combination of words. Then add “secret” to the mix and you’ve got one heinously ambiguous sentence right there. Might as well have gone for broke and called it Baby: Secret Forgotten Mystery of the Fabled Lost Legendary Legend.
Okay. This movie. So the two stars of the film are golden boy William Katt and personality disorder poster child Sean Young. The story is such: Sean Young is a noob paleontologist working in the jungles of war-torn Africa under the tutelage of the always amazing Patrick McGoohan. Katt is her husband, a sports writer, tagging along for support. The film opens with McGoohan chasing a man through a parade in a crowded city street, eventually catching and killing the chump. The reason for this murder we can infer is because McGoohan wanted the folder of photographs the guy had, in particular an out-of-focus shot of what looks like a Brontosaurus (or as scientists want us to call it, an Apatosaurus). Katt and Young are all set to return to America, where Katt has just been assigned the sport’s desk for a newspaper, when the Red Cross shows up trying to figure out what sort of animal a group of villagers ate, as they are now all sick and dying. A paleontologist seems unlikely to be of any help but Young becomes intrigued when the Red Cross presents her with a bone that matches that of a bone she had just dug up and believed belonged to a Brontosaurus (though McGoohan lied to her and said it was a giraffe vertebra). Long story short, Katt and Young find a mama, papa, and baby Brontosaurus living in the jungle. Eventually McGoohan shows up, captures mama, kills papa, and begins looking for baby, while Katt and Young try to protect the little fella.
This movie is so fucking weird. And not in a Lynchian way or anything particularly exciting like that, but rather in a head-scratching why’d-they-make-it-like-this way. I have no idea what kind of movie director Bill L. Norton was trying to make here. Most blatantly it seems like a straight up kids film. I mean, it’s called Baby and it’s about a baby dinosaur and they chose to advertise it with a photo of Young and Katt petting a baby dinosaur like a dog. Kids movie. And at times it can’t be considered anything other than a kids movie. There are lots of scenes of Baby frolicking innocently in the jungle, playing with butterflies, etc, and a silly scene of Katt trying to put a tracking device on it while they are swimming. But the movie is also wildly inappropriate for children.
The film at times has a very overt Romancing the Stone vibe, particularly Katt and Young’s wacky interactions with an African pilot played by Phantom Menace‘s Hugh Quarshie. These section could easily make it an older-child safe family adventure film, but it often strays way too far into adult territory — such as this exchange between Katt and Quarshie that comes when Katt has been complaining about Young, Katt: “What would you do?” Quarshie: “If it were my wife, I’d whip the bitch.” My emblematic of this conflict is a lengthy scene in which Katt and Young are trying to have sex, but Baby keeps cockblocking them. The level of sexy times here (Young almost topless) is not very kid friendly, but the running gag of Baby interrupting them is so cutesy stupid that only children could conceivably find it funny. “Who is this scene aimed at?” was all I could think while watching it.
But okay, fine, it’s a family adventure film that isn’t super appropriate for children. This was the 1980’s. Par for the course. But then there is the adult thriller aspects of the film. I mean, we open with a murder taking place in a crowded African street. It’s like the opening to a spy movie. And McGoohan murders another guy later on (actually one of the movie’s cooler scenes). And lots of fools get killed with machine guns in the climax. But whatever. Kids like machine guns, I suppose. Worst of all, though, the movie deals very intimately with Africans too, both tribesmen living in the jungle and machine gun toting military lunatics. Sometimes in a racist sort of way, but more often than not in a fairly realistic way. No kid wants to see that shit!
But, even with all this, Baby could have been an outside-the-box classic if the movie were actually any good. Alas.
In my memory, we didn’t get to see the dinosaurs until like 2/3 into the movie. But we actually get to them 1/3 into the movie. You would assume that a movie about dinosaurs would get better once the creatures show up, but now, decades later, the pre-dinosaur stuff was actually my favorite aspect of the film. It is once we reach the dinosaurs the movie shits the bed and becomes a boring slog. The dinosaur FX are actually pretty great at times, and it took me a moment to figure out how they were pulling it off (puppets on miniature sets for the adults, no stop motion), but every scene featuring the prehistoric beasties is a lifeless chore.
It is strange that Norton went on to direct episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, because based on Baby I would say Norton has no grasp of the fantastical. He does some nice work with the various human interactions. McGoohan in particular is unsinkable, giving a fucking great and typically steely-eyed performance; I really liked his interactions with his effeminate worry-wart assistant. But whenever Norton has to deal with the dinosaur stuff the film becomes staid and inert. The first time Katt and Young encounter a dinosaur they are once again trying to fuck when they hear strange noises in the jungle and think they feel an earthquake. Then a dinosaur comes by and knocks over their tent and they see its backside disappearing into the trees. This sounds like a standard, suspenseful moment, but it plays like Jurassic Park dumbed down 100 times. Nothing about it feels scary or dangerous because Katt and Young barely seem to care. Even when they finally see the dinosaur it’s more like, “Huh. That’s odd.” This gets compounded by the first legit spotting of a dinosaur the following day, eating in and chilling in a pond. There is no sense of wonder here whatsoever. Even the score seems unimpressed by a living breathing dinosaur. Then things just keep downward spiraling. The movie has up until now treated everything very realistically. But Katt and Young befriend the dinosaur family within hours. As stupid as this is, it is made all the more insulting by the fact that they act like they’re slowly winning the dinosaurs’ trust, like Jane Goodall would. After giving the dinosaurs food once they are totes besties with the Brontosaurus family, now and forever.
I mentioned when talking about The Land Before Time that I think there is a difference between being cute and being cutesy. Cuteness just happens. A picture of a kitten is cute. Cutesy is when someone is trying to be cute. You talking baby talk to a kitten is cutesy. Baby isn’t cute. It is cutesy. Part of the problem is that Norton doesn’t sell it. But I think the bigger problem is that Baby just isn’t cute. While the Baby practical FX are quite good, the thing is kinda creepy looking too, with off-putting squinty yellow eyes. And the closer we get to the puppet, the less effective and believable it is. And it is mostly in close-ups that we’re supposed to find it cute. Just doesn’t work.
The movie does feature an African tribesman finding a machine gun, and despite never having handled a gun before, he immediately turns into a killing machine, winning numerous face-offs with trained soldiers. Unfortunately this delicious idiocy is too little and too late for Baby.
Paradise Lost or Magic Reborn: Paradise lost. If you have fond memories of this, leave it alone. Unless you really need some fresh McGoohan in your life (which is respectable).