Allison Miller Joins 'Terra Nova'

Allison_Miller_BostonLegalAllison Miller (KINGS, BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE) has been added to the cast of Steven Spielbeg’s Fox Network prehistoric time-travel adventure series TERRA NOVA.
Miller is only the second actor to be announced for the show. She joins Jason O’Mara, who has the lead role of Jim Shannon, a father who moves with his family from 2149 to 85 Million years in the past, refugees from a dismal future Earth.
Allison Miller has been cast as Skye, a Terra Nova colonist who will take newcomer Shannon’s son under her wing in the dinosaur-populated land.
The series has been delayed to Fall 2011, from an intial mid-seasom premeire.  However, the pilot — to be directed by Alex Graves (FRINGE), is set to air in May of 2011.
Part of the reason that the series debut has been delayed is due to the need to have more time to work on the special effects.
See Variety for the full article.

Terra Nova Delayed to Fall 2011

 terranova_LogoThe Fox Network has announced it’s delaying the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur series TERRA NOVA until the fall of 2011, rather than staring mid-season 2010-11. They plan to run the pilot/TV movie in May of 2011.
As previously reported, Emmy Award winner Alex Graves (FRINGE) will direct the pilot, and the press release announces that Emmy Award-winning executive producer and director Jon Cassar (24) has joined the series as an executive producer and “series director”.
jason_omaraThe release also confirms that Jason O’Mara (RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION) has been cast in the leading role of Jim Shannon, the father of the Shannon family

“TERRA NOVA, an epic family adventure 85 million years in the making, follows an ordinary family embarking on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a massive experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149 the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped, overcrowded and overpolluted. Knowing there is no way to reverse the damage to the planet, a coalition of scientists has managed to open up a fracture in the space-time continuum, creating a portal to prehistoric Earth. This doorway leads to an amazing world, one that allows for a last-ditch effort to save the human race…possibly changing the future by correcting the mistakes of the past.
The series centers on the Shannon family as they join the tenth pilgrimage of settlers to TERRA NOVA, the first colony of humans in this second chance for civilization. JIM SHANNON (O’Mara), a devoted father with a checkered past, guides his family – wife ELISABETH and children JOSH and MADDY – through this new land of limitless beauty, mystery and terror. In addition to blue skies, rolling rivers and lush vegetation, TERRA NOVA offers new opportunities and fresh beginnings to its recent arrivals, but the Shannons have brought with them a familial secret that may threaten their citizenship in this utopia. These adventurers soon discover that this healthy, vibrant world is not as idyllic as it initially appears. The areas surrounding TERRA NOVA are filled with dangerous dinosaurs and other prehistoric threats, as well as external forces that may be intent on destroying this new world before it begins.
TERRA NOVA is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, DreamWorks Television, Kapital Entertainment and Chernin Entertainment. Steven Spielberg, Peter Chernin, Brannon Braga, David Fury, Jon Cassar, Aaron Kaplan, Katherine Pope, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Craig Silverstein and Kelly Marcel serve as executive producers.

Is it just me, or does the idea of mucking around in the far past sound like an insanely dangerous and irresponsible way to deal with a current problem?

The Dinosaurs of 1960: A 50th Anniversary Photo Retrospective

THE LOST WORLD (1960)
Covered in phony fins, this monitor lizard is suspended by wires to give it an upright posture in THE LOST WORLD (1960)

1960 was not necessarily the Year of the Dinosaur, but it did feature a pair of science fiction films that clearly delineate two different approaches Hollywood used during this era to portray the ravenous reptiles on screen: DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD. Neither film is a milestone in its presentation of carnivorous carnosaurs, but each has its own goofy charm for those with an appreciation for the sort of old-fashioned special effects used in the days before computer-generated imagery – in this case, stop-motion puppets and live-action lizards.
THE LOST WORLD (1925)
The silent version of THE LOST WORLD (1925)

By 1960, both techniques had been well established. The use of stop-motion to depict prehistoric beasts on screen dated back to the silent era, when Willis O’Brien pioneered the technique on short subjects like GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1915) and the feature-length THE LOST WORLD (1925), the first adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, about a expedition to a plateau where evolution has hit a stand-still, allowing the supposedly extinct animals to continue living into the 20th Century. O’Brien went on to perfect the technique in KING KONG and SON OF KONG (both 1933). However, because of the time and expense (stop-motion involves shooting miniature armatures one frame at a time, adjusting the armature between frames to create the illusion of movement), stop-motion was never widely adopted, and only a relative handful of films utilized it to depict dinosaurs: THE LOST CONTINENT (1951),  THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956), and THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956).
Victor Mature and Carol Landis fend off an iguana posing as a dinosaur in this prehistoric epic.
Victor Mature and Carol Landis fend off an iguana posing as a dinosaur in the prehistoric epic, ONE MILLION B.C.

The first known use of modern reptiles to replicate dinosaurs on screen had occurred in ONE MILLION B.C. (1940),* which saved time and money by simply gluing fins and horns onto monitor lizards, baby alligators, and iguanas. Of course, the results resembled dinosaurs only in terms of being reptiles with scales, teeth, and claws. As if this were not bad enough, the treatment of the animals is clearly inhumane (a death by avalanche is depicted by dropping a load of rocks onto an iguana; the big dino-fight set piece features the monitor lizard and the alligator biting and clawing each other – for real). According to Denis Gifford in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, this all-too-real carnage raised the ire of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leading to a ban on similar scenes. Consequently, later low-budget dinosaur films either used men in dino-suits (e.g., 1957’s THE LAND UNKNOWN) or recycled ONE MILLION B.C.’s footage: PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1950), TWO LOST WORLDS (1950), UNTAMED WOMEN (1952), ROBOT MONSTER (1953), and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (1958). Nevertheless, at least a few subsequent films shot new footage of made-up lizards as dinosaurs: UNKNOWN ISLAND (1948), KING DINOSAUR (1955), and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).
Dinosaurus (1960) Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaurus
DINOSAURUS!

This, then, is the historical backdrop against which DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD painted their pictures of prehistoric life surviving into the modern world. The former picture is an attempt by the team behind THE BLOB (1957) – producer Jack H. Harris and director Irvin S. Yeaworth – to upscale with a bigger-budget production, shot in widescreen and released by a major distributor (Universal Pictures). The story involves a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex accidentally brought to life on an isolated island resort.  Hired to provide the special effects was the team of Tim Baar, Wah Chang, and Gene Warren, with uncredited help from model builder Marcel Delgado (who had worked on KING KONG) and several stop-motion animators.
The advantage of stop-motion over costumed lizards or men in suits is that the miniature model can be far more anatomically correct in terms of proportions and resemblance to actual dinosaurs. The advantage of stop-motion over mechanical models is that the frame-by-frame shooting process allows careful positioning of the puppets, which helps imbue the creatures with life-like movements. The disadvantage is that miniature models can be hard to detail correctly; also the fact that the models are not actually moving when each frame is exposed creates a perfectly clear image, lacking motion blur, which results in a staccato, stroboscopic look, especially when the creatures are supposed to move quickly.
Dinosaurus (1960) tyrannosaurus rex versus steam shovel
T-Rex vs Modern Technology in DINOSAURUS!

Unfortunately, the dinosaurs in DINOSAURS fall victim to these disadvantages. The creatures are convincingly terrifying to youngsters, but older viewers will most likely find them quaint in their execution. Nevertheless, fans of the stop-motion process will find them interesting, and some of the action is imaginative, such as the final-reel confrontation between the T-Rex and a steam shovel.
The 1960 version of THE LOST WORLD is an attempt by producer Irwin Allen (LOST IN SPACE) to remake the 1925 silent classic with sound and color, featuring an all-star cast: Michael Rennie from DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), David Hedison from THE FLY (1958), and Claude Rains from THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), along with Jill St. John along for sex appeal. Although Willis O’Brien, from the original film version of THE LOST WORLD, is credited as an effects technician, stop-motion was eschewed for cost reasons, with L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr. optically enlarging monitor lizards made up to resemble (allegedly) their prehistoric ancestors.
The Lost World (1960) finned monitor lizard dinosaur
A monitor lizard in THE LOST WORLD (1960)

The advantage of real lizards is that they are clearly alive, and they move very convincingly: their tongues flick; their claws grasp, and their bodies flop about, without the artificially precise stylization inherent in stop-motion. The disadvantage is that they are obviously not dinosaurs. The addition of fins and horns does little to create a resemblance to Stegosaurus or Triceratops, and Professor Challenger, the film’s alleged expert in paleontology, comes across as a bit of a fool as he identifies each new hybrid monstrosities by name, suggesting for example that one belly-crawling beast is a Brontosaurs, a creature structured more like a suspension bridge.
The Lost World (1960) alligator and monitor lizard
Another live-action death battle in THE LOST WORLD (1960)

The other big problem with the live-action approach to special effects is that, once again, we are presented with a real-life tussle between two wild animals. Fans of cockfighting may not have much problem with this, but more enlightened viewers are likely to shake their heads in wonder that only five decades ago, Hollywood filmmakers still thought that watching animals harm each other on screen was an innocent evening’s entertainment. (To be fair, one should note that even today, the prospect of witnessing animal atrocities draw eyeballs to YouTube videos of animals devouring each other. But at least in cases like these, the action has not been staged for the camera.)
The Lost World (1960) iguana with horns
Another iguana tries to pass for a prehistoric life form in THE LOST WORLD (1960).

Modern viewers, accustomed to the glossy digital dinosaurs in films like JURASSIC PARK (1993) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008) will likely be disappointed by the old-fashioned effects in DINOSAURS and THE LOST WORLD. Even fans with a nostalgic fondness for classic films will prefer the superior work seen in the previous version THE LOST WORLD and in the subsequent remake of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (featuring Ray Harryhausen’s dynamated dinosaurs, upstaged by Raquel Welch in a fur bikini).  Nevertheless, the 1960 versions of DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD provide a marvelous snap-shot of Hollywood’s efforts to recreate extinct life forms in the era before special effects became the province of computer operators.
FOOTNOTE:

  • As Mark Leeper points out in comments below, THE SECRET OF THE LOCH (1934) used a live iguana to portray the Loch Ness Monster. Whether Nessie is a dinosaur is at least open to debate, but the film definitely deserves credit for using live-action lizard technique before ONE MILLION B.C. Although the film itself is rather slow and dated, the composite effects used to place the monster in the same scene with the actor (during a dive beneath the loch’s surface) are very effective. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that, instead of swimming, the monster crawls on the loch’s bed – without, rather miraculously, raising any swirling silt to muddy the water.

Below, check out more images from DINOSAURS and THE LOST WORLD.

Dinosaurus (1960) T-Rex versus steam shovel Dinosaurus (1960) T Rex above the tree tops Dinosaurus (1960) T-Rex on the prowl The Lost World (1960) hunter Ed Malone (Michael Rennie) bags big game The Lost World (1960) another view of the Iguanosaurus The Lost World (1960): A pair of humans stays out of sight while a lizard - ahem - "dinosaur" wanders past.
[serialposts]

'Primeval' Season 4 (& 5?) Cast

Digital Spy reports that Season Four (or Series 4, as the British say) of PRIMEVAL has been completed, and that production of Season Five has begun.
Don’t get too excited, Season 4 is seven episodes, and Season 5 will be six episodes, for a grand total of thirteen.

These new seasons will feature a mixture of old and new members of the Anomaly Research Centre’s team. One might say they’re survivors and replacements of the time anomaly investigating group, as characters have a tendency to get killed off, erased from the timeline, or stranded in the past/future. primeval_s_4_cast
From left to right, the picture shows returning cast members have Abby (Hannah Spearritt) and Connor (Andrew-Lee Potts), newcomer Matt (Ciarán McMenamin), returning Captain Becker (Ben Mansfield) and new recruit Jess (Ruth Kearney).
(Click pic to for larger version)
The ITV-produced show will now be showing on ITV1 and UKTV’s new entertainment pay TV channel WATCH, with the premieres of seasons four and five split between the two.
PRIMEVAL has, ironically enough, been shown in the US on BBC AMERICA— commercial ITV and the public-funded BBC being long-time rivals.
The once-cancelled PRIMEVAL was actually saved by a new production deal in which BBC America and BBC Worldwide became production partners with ITV, Impossible Pictures and German broadcaster ProSieben.
Alex_Siddig
Perhaps to add more American interest, Alexander Siddig (DEEP SPACE NINE) will be joining the cast as a scientist named Philip Burton, an individual with a proprietary interest in the ARC.
BBC America plans to broadcast the two mini-seasons in 2011.

Rifftrax: Planet of the Dinosaurs

click to purchase
click to purchase

Rifftrax performs a genuine public service for those stop-motion and/or dinosaur fans who were curious but trepidatious about viewing this uber-lame 1978 sci-fi flick. Originally recorded as a down-loadable podcast that could be synched up with a conventional DVD or VOD presentation of the film, the Rifftrax crew’s alternate soundtrack was released on DVD by Legends Films back in January, and there truly is no other way to enjoy PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (well, except perhaps for getting stoned and watching the film with a bunch of friends, but this is much cheaper and less hazardous to your health).

THE FILM

PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS tells the “Gilligan’s Island” tale of a crew in outer space whose ship overheats, forcing a crash landing on a planet inhabited (to the character’s surprise if not to ours) by prehistoric beasts that uncannily resemble dinosaurs from Earth. In fact, the resemblance is so uncanny that they even have our fictional dinosaurs: in a nod to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, the rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS shows up in a cameo, just long enough to get killed by a T-Rex.
With little hope of a rescue ship arriving anytime soon, the characters in PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS embark on a “Swiss Family Robinson” struggle for survival, high-lighted by the notably lackluster dramatic conflict between the ineffectual, wimpy captain (who wants to hide from the dinosaurs) and a beefy, macho crewman, who believes that homo sapiens should be the dominant life form on this planet, regardless of how outmatched they seem to be by the local predators.
Although set in the future, PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS is pure 1970s camp, with hairstyles and jump-suits that evoke unpleasant memories of the horrible disco era. Along with the coifs and costumes, the characters have inherited some startling incompetence problems: they are literally introduced to us as they are crashing their ship, which sets the tone for everything that follows, as their stupidity results in the crew members being picked off one by one. If there is a rock to trip on, it will not go untripped on, and if a laser is dropped, you know someone will run back for it, just in time to become dino chow.
In a special piece of retro-weirdness, the first two victims are women who show too much skin: a radio operator who strips off her clothes to dive into a lake (she is conveniently wearing a swimsuit underneath) and the corporate vice-president’s secretary-girlfriend, whose bare midriff is the only respite during the numerous, lengthy dialogue and walking scenes that separate the few minutes of dinosaur action. Yet strangely, the man who strips off his shirt to dive into the lake with the female  radio operator survives to  go shirtless throughout the rest of the film and never pays the price for his semi-nudity.
With characters like these, it is no surprise that your only sympathy will be with the dinosaurs – most of whom, sadly, die bloody deaths. In fact, you will end up rooting for rampaging reptiles to eat the human idiots, especially after their first big achievement is ganging up to take out a small, harmless, bird-like dino – after which they whoop it up as if they have just successfully stormed the beaches at Normandy.
Achieved with stop-motion effects in the style of Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien (KING KONG), these dinosaurs may not be the greatest, but they are fun to watch in a nostalgic kind of way. The process shots that combine live-action with special effects are washed out, but the dinosaur models are fairly well designed and detailed. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in particular is a fearsome antagonist, and the effects crew (which includes the familiar names of Doug Beswick and Jim Danforth, among others) pull off some nice shots. My favorite is a clever low-angle of the T-Rex emerging from its lair, with the camera tilting up not quite fast enough to keep the dinosaur fully in frame – nicely simulating the lock of a live-action cameraman trying to follow a fast-moving subject.

RIFFTRAX

In a time before home video had killed off the theatrical market for low-budget movies, filmmakers in the 1970s were still churning out drek that they expected to reach the big screen, at least in a drive in – an assumption that proved false in this case: PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS received no theatrical release, in spite of the fact that it had – well, you know, dinosaurs. This is a testament to how weak the dialogue, direction, and performances are; the film has a vague air of “Let’s make a movie” around it, as if some people had access to enough cash to hire a special effects crew and simply decided to throw together some kind of film to tie the dinosaur scenes together.
Watching every frame of its padded running time in a theatre would have been a true endurance test. Home video, with the fast-forward and chapter-stop buttons, offered some relief – and a chance to get to the only scenes worth seeing. But PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS finally found its place in the world when the Rifftrax crew (former MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 stars Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) recorded their caustic commentary track, which mercilessly mocks the on-screen ineptitude.
In general, I have not been a huge fan of this particular trio’s work; although Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett are always funny, their batting average (during the final years of MST3K on Sci-Fi Channel, in the handful of FILM CREW DVDs, and now on Rifftrax) has been a bit lower than during the heyday of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER when it was on Comedy Central. Fortunately, something about PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS brings out the best in them, and they deliver consistently high-quality comedy throughout. Best of all, their efforts here seem effortless: they are seldom stretching for a joke; instead, they capitalize upon the plentiful opportunities for derision, turning a nearly unwatchable film into a must-see viewing experience.
The Rifftrax DVD features a rather worn-out print of PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS – which is a virtue in a way, because it preserves the 1970s aura. There are chapter stops, but they are not listed on the menu, which offers  only two options: view the film with the riff-track or view it with the original soundtrack (should you want to hear the uninterrupted dialogue for some masochistic reason). There are no bonus features.

Kevin Murphy discusses Rifftrax in general, including PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS, in this interview.

PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1978). Directed by James K. Shea. Written by Ralph Lucas from a story by Jim Aupperle. Cast: James Whitworth, Pamela Bottaro, Louie Lawless, Harvey Shain, Charlotte Speer, Chuck Pennington. Derna Wylde, Max Thayer, Mary Appleseth.

The Lost Worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the most important works in the history of cinefantastique is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Although not as widely read as it deserves to be, the novel has had a huge impact that lives on to this day, thanks to the many science fiction film and television adaptations, beginning with the 1925 silent version, which established the template for the many prehistoric monster movies that followed, including 1933’s KING KONG and 1997’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. If you have ever seen a movie about explorers discovering an extinct species in some newly discovered land and/or bringing it back to civilization, where it escapes and goes on a rampage, you have Doyle – and the 1925 THE LOST WORLD – to thank.
Published in 1912, Doyle’s The Lost World arrived too late to accurately be labeled “Victorian,” but it has much in common with the Victorian-era science fiction literature of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, not to mention the adventure stories of H. Rider Hagard. As with Verne, the story is a sort of travelogue adventure to a mysterious land (in this case a plateau in South America, cut off from the forces of evolution that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs throughout the rest of the world). As with Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle uses the story to raise the issue of human evolution (at one point, the physical appearance of the books’ protagonist is pointedly compared to that of the leader of a tribe of ape-men, implying that the gulf separating modern man from his primitive ancestors is not so great after all). As for Haggard, he has pioneered the “lost civilization” adventure story with King Solomon’s Mines in 1885, but but Doyle went him one better by populating his lost world with dinosaurs. (To be fair, Verne had previously used the idea of prehistoric animals surviving into modern times in Journey to the Center of the Earth).
The great thing about The Lost Word – besides dinosaurs, of course – is that the adventure story is told with wit and humor. Arthur Conan Doyle improves over the work of both Verne and Wells, whose vivid imaginations concocted some amazing adventures but sometimes fell flat in terms of style and/or characterization. Doyle, on the other hand, was the creator of Sherlock Holmes: he knew the value of eccentric, acerbic characters; and in the person of the book’s protagonist, Professor Challenger, the author almost outdoes the intellectual arrogance of the more famous detective, creating a personality at once temperamental, admirable, and even humorous. Equally clever is the handling of the book’s narrator, Edward Malone, an Irish journalist who is understandably terrified of each new danger that presents itself – but who refuses to reveal his fear to his English compatriots, forcing himself to swallow his fear and face each new threat with a brave face that belies his inner turmoil.
In fact, the characterizations and dialogue of the first few chapters are so delightful that a reader is immediately hooked, long before the expedition has set sail for the Amazon – a rare example when the opening expository section of a story is as entertaining as the exciting adventure that follows. An early highlight is Malone’s attempt to finagle an interview with the reclusive, abusive Challenger, whose wife warns the reporter about the dire consequences of rousing her husband’s temper (“Get quickly out of the room if he seems inclined to be violent… If you find him dangerous – really dangerous – ring the bell and hold him off until I come”). The scene turns into a hilarious brawl with Challenger and Malone rolling out the door and into the street, where a policeman offers to arrest the professor until Malone admits he was at fault, his honesty having the side effect of earning Challenger’s respect
Once on route, the story of The Lost World does somewhat bog down in a familiar pattern of Jules Verne-like descriptions of every inch of territory charted on the way to finding the dinosaurs that are the book’s real selling point. There is also an inexplicable plot twist, with Challenger first sending the expedition off without him, then suddenly showing up to take over after Malone and company have reached South America. Why the subterfuge was necessary, is never explained.
Fortunately, once the plateau has been reached, the adventure is fast-paced and exciting, with plenty of action and adventure at every turn, involving both dinosaurs and a tribe of primitive men (who are condescendingly described as being relatively high up the evolutionary ladder – though obviously not nearly so high as the British explorers). The presentation of the prehistoric reptiles is certainly eccentric enough to be memorable: one two-legged predator is described as hopping like a kangaroo, which might not be scientifically accurate but which at least suggests a dynamic active form of life in keeping with our modern conception of dinosaurs (as opposed to the lethargic beasts often depicted in scientific theory of the past).
The Lost Worldis dated and flawed in some ways but remains entertaining as a sort of boy’s adventure story that can be enjoyed by adults, too. Malone’s motivation for joining the dangerous expedition is to impress a woman, but by the time he gets back she has left him for someone else. Instead of a heart-breaking moment, this is portrayed as a revelation of the fickle nature of women, prompting Malone to realize that the truly lasting and important bonds are between men who risk their lives side by side. It’s the perfect ending for a pre-adolescent boy too young to have developed an interest in girls yet.

A split screen effect combines live human actors with stop-motion dinosaurs in ths publicity still.
A split screen effect combines live human actors with stop-motion dinosaurs in ths publicity still.

The first screen adaptation of Doyle’s novel is the 1925 silent film THE LOST WORLD, which is historically important as the first feature-length dinosaur movie. Although primitive by today’s standards, THE LOST WORLD is still entertaining as a showcase for Willis O’Brien’s old-fashioned stop-motion effects, and its story became the blue print for countless “lost world” films that would follow, including KING KONG (1933), which also featured O’Brien’s movie magic. The dinosaur action was greatly expanded for the film adaptation, with effects supervisor O’Brien filming scenes not in the novel or the screenplay. In effect the dinosaurs became the stars of the show, with the humans taking a back seat. This is especially true of the truncated version, the only one available for many decades, which deleted many of plot and character scenes that had originally been retained from the novel; restorations for laserdisc and DVD eventually revealed that the full-length film was reasonably faithful to its source, giving star Wallace Beery’s Professor Challenger at least a glimmer of the novel’s characterization.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s story had ended with Challenger bringing back a live specimen, a pterodactyl that escapes and flies home to its faraway land. One of the screenplay’s innovations was expanding this brief vignette into a third-act climax, replacing the relatively small flying reptile with an angry brontosaurs that breaks loose and runs amok in London. This sequence established what would become a cinematic tradition of unleashing  prehistoric monsters on modern cities; the plot device has been recycled in everything from the various versions of KING KONG to Steven Spielberg’s film THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. The JURASSIC PARK sequel was based on Michael Crichton’s novel The Lost World, which borrows not only its title but also an early scene from Doyle, in which a scientific lecture is interrupted by a renegade scientist who believes that dinosaurs have survived into the present day. One element that Crichton’s novel lacked was a T-Rex brought back to civilization; the addition of this sequence for the film underlines the lasting influence of the 1925 silent film.
Irwin Allens version of Doyles novel used lizards as dinosaurs.
Irwin Allen's version of Doyle's novel used lizards as dinosaurs.

Besides the homages and spin-offs, there have been several subsequent official adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The First of these wasthe disappointing 1960 Irwin Allen production, which not only substituted Claude Rains for Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger but also, unfortunately, substituted made-up lizards for stop-motion dinosaurs. Michael Rennie (Klatuu in the 1951 DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) is also on hand, and Jill St. John provides sex appeal, but not even the presence of Willis O’Brien on the effects team can compensate for the disappointment of the dinosaurs. (Ever the economical producer, producer Allen recycled this footage for the “Island of the Dinosaurs” episode of his television series, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.)
In 1992, disreputable producer Harry Allen Towers fashioned a surprisingly good version with John Rhys-Davies (LORD OF THE RINGS) as Professor Challenger. Despite phony-looking rubber-mechanical dinosaurs, the script and Rhys-Davies’ performance capture much of Challenger’s humor and temperament, which is often lost in other adaptations. David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) is on hand in the thankless role of Challenger’s scientific colleague, but he brings his usual professionalism to the performance. The film and its follow up RETURN TO THE LOST WORLD received theatrical distribution in Europe but were sold as a two-part mini-series for American television and video. With a bigger budget for some really good special effects, this could have been a great movie.
After author Michael Crichton used the title The Lost World for his 1995 sequel to Jurassic Park, leading to the Steven Spielberg film two years later, it was perhaps inevitable that eager filmmakers would go back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original book, which would allow them to fashion productions with the same title as a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster with no fear of legal action; after all, the novel they were adapting had prior claim to the title. Thus, we saw Patrick Bergin as a serious Professor Challenger in a competent but unremarkable version, directed by makeup effects man Bob Keen, which made its debut on U.S. television in 1998.
Cast of the LOST WORLD TV series, which ran for three years
Cast of the LOST WORLD TV series, which ran for three years

Shortly thereafter came the 1999 TV pilot, with the once-promising Richard Franklin (PSYCHO II) directing a no-name cast in a version of the tale that followed much of Doyle’s plot, with one notable change: instead of returning the characters to London as in the novel, the pilot ends with the expedition forced to remain in the lost world for the remainder of the series.  As with the 1925 film, the television pilot upped the ante with the dinosaur footage; the script also added some romantic entanglements between the explorers and the natives (who are much more attractive than Doyle’s primitives), presumably so that the modern characters would not feel too badly about being trapped in the lost world for the three seasons that the series ran, until its demise in 2002. John Landis, one of the show’s executive producers, had previously hoped to mount a feature film version of THE LOST WORLD at Universal Pictures, with Richard Matheson scripting a faithful adaptation of Doyle’s novel, starring Sean Connery as Challenger, but Universal abandoned the project in favor of Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK (1993).
Bob Hoskins stars as Professor Challenger in this BBC TV adaptation.
Bob Hoskins stars as Professor Challenger in this BBC TV adaptation.

More recently, the BBC presented a fairly faithful adaptation of THE LOST WORLD in 2001, which reached U.S. shores courtesy of A&E cable. In this version, Bob Hoskins takes over as Challenger, and JURASSIC PARK-style computer effects supply the dinosaurs. The premise behind this production seems to have been to do justice to Doyle, but the screenplay still tweaks many of the details, apparently in an attempt to render the production as a serious piece of science fiction, not merely a rousing adventure story. Hoskins is good (playing the professor as driven man whose personal life has been eclipsed by his work), and the film is decently entertaining, but it does overlook one excellent opportunity: Doyle’s book is dated by its Victorian view of dinosaurs (recollect that allosaurus-type predator chasing human prey by hopping like a kangaroo).
Today’s scientific view of dinosaurs is completely different, so it would have been interesting to portray Challenger and his colleagues starting off their old-fashioned paleontological theories and then radically revising after observing the living animals first-hand. Unfortunately, the script’s one nod in this direction is backwards: dialogue has the Victorian scientists expecting to see an Iguanodon walk upright; when they encounter one, it is on all fours. The truth is the complete reverse: scientists from Challenger’s era would have expected to see an Iguanodon on all fours, but later research revised the image of the creature as bi-pedal.
Of course, Conan Doyle will always be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes – a fact that would not have pleased him. If he is looking down on us from somewhere in literary heaven, he is probably grateful to see that at least one other of his literary efforts continues to inspire and influence filmmakers today. No doubt modern day dinosaur films will continue to flourish, thanks to the ever-improving innovations in the special effects field, but Doyle’s original novel really is a literary work worth reading for its own fine qualities, and as far as professor-scientist-explorer characters go, Professor Challenger stands head-and-shoulders above his competitors in the field.

Ice Age (2002) & Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) – Retrospective Animated Film Reviews

The ICE AGE films represent 20th Century Fox’s attempt to cash in on the lucrative computer-animated family fantasy film market. As such, they are reasonably successful in terms of box office, if occasionally problematic in terms of storytelling, relying on CGI sight gags and the voice cast to pull the movies over any narrative humps.
ICE AGE tells the story of an unlikely “herd” — a group of mismatched animals that band together and bond for the common good. The simple story runs a predictable course (even the savage saber-toothed tiger has a change of heart and turns into a good guy by the conclusion), but the film feels stitched together from separate bits and pieces (no surprise when you consider the number of writers who worked on the project).
In fact, the film feels as if it was made by people who excelled at short subjects but did not have a grasp of quite how to tell a feature-length story. Sometimes, the scenes feel like isolated set pieces used to show off the computer imagery, which isn’t always as stunning as intended.
Fortunately, the characters are reasonably endearing, and the gags are funny. For brief moments, the film even works up some real feeling, as when the film’s mammoth, Manny (Roy Romano), who is perhaps the last of his species, contemplates some glyphs that remind him of the death of his family at the hands of human hunters.
Not surprisingly, the highlight of the film turns out to be the character least integral to the “plot” — that is, Scrat, the inarticulate squirrel rat (whose grunts are vocalized by co-director Chris Wedge). After accidentally precipitating the titular ice age, the creature’s apparently eternal quest for a beloved chestnut, which is intercut throughout the movie, plays like a series of classic cartoon short subjects, the brief interludes generating as much laughter as the entire remainder of the film.
ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN is a considerable improvement over its predecessor. With the back story already established, and the herd of characters firmly in place, the script is unburdened with the baggage that weighed down ICE AGE and free to launch into a new story. As the title suggests, the problem is prehistoric global warming which threatens to flood that land when the ice melts. The story thus becomes a trek to safety — a safe linear narrative line that allows for the introduction of new characters and the occasional jaunt down some tangent for the sake of a good joke.
This time, Manny meets a female mammoth (voiced by Queen Latifah), who thinks she is a possum. A pair of water-dwelling predators replace Diego the saber-tooth as the continuing threat (one of these has a head that suspiciously resembles the pet crocodiles from Disney’s THE RESCUERS). And Sid the lisping sloth meets up with some others who worship him as a god — before trying to sacrifice him into a volcano!
Less episodic than ICE AGE, the sequel moves along more smoothly, and the new characters fit in well, including a rude pair of real possums who manage to shift from annoying to endearing without any hokey sentiment.
As before, the formula includes lots of anachronistic jokes (i.e., giving us an ice-age version of sights and sounds familiar to 21st century viewers), and there is an over-reliance on slapstick: the main storyline works best when the humor is verbal and character-oriented; the cartoony physical comedy should be reserved for Scat’s sequences.
The CGI is variable. Some scenes and backgrounds are astounding; at other times a flatness creeps in, betraying the computer origins. The animation sometimes comes up short when the characters are expected to emote — Diego, in particular, seems stiff and robotic whenever he’s not leaping or running. Fortunately, this is balanced by some good action. The predator attacks have nice JAWS-y feel to them, and there is wonderful underwater sequence near the end, with Manny trying to free his trapped girlfriend and fend off carnivorous attackers.
As before, Scat (again voiced by Chris Wedge, who this time did not direct) steals the show. Not only does he again precipitate the problem afflicting the rest of the cast (his quest for the acorn causes the first leak in the melting ice flow), he also undergoes a near-death experience that leads to his version of heaven, which (you guessed it) is filled with nuts. His quest — and his ingenuity and perseverance in the face of so many obstacles — is the stuff of great screen comedy, and it’s nice to see it sandwiched smoothly into the film as a whole. But one also wishes that the filmmakers would give the character more of a chance to stand on his own. He probably could not carry a feature film on his scrawny shoulders, but his scenes her prove once again that he could sustain a series of short subjects (such as the one that preceded 2004’s ROBOTS).
ICE AGE(2002). Directed by Chiris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha. Written by Michael Berg and Michale J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman, from a story by Wilson; additional story by James Bresnahan, Galen T. Chu, Doug Compton, Xeth Feinberg; Jeff Siergey, Mike Thurmeier. Voices: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Goran Fisnjic, Jack Black, Cedric the Entertainer, Stephen Root
ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN(2006). Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Written by Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow. Voices: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Queen Latifah, Will Arnett, Jay Leno

Night at the Museum (2006) – Retrospective Fantasy Film Review

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This is a good example of Hollywood commercial calculation that actually pays off with a few entertainment dividends. You can almost imagine the ecstacy of the studio development meetings: it’s got a high concept (museum exhibits come to life); it’s got family values (it’s about a father trying to earn his son’s respect); it’s got romance (Dad’s divorced, so it’s okay he’s got his eye on the museum’s cute docent); it’s got something for every age demographic (including Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney for older viewers); and on top of all that, it’s got a message (museums are good, and learning about history is cool). It all seems very cold and calculated, the results of lots of careful number-crunching, and yet the film still turns out to be decently entertaining, thanks to lots of great special effects and a few good laughs.
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is a divorced dreamer whose attempts to start his own business have never taken off. Faced with potential eviction, which would mean moving farther away and potentially losing visitation with his son, he opts to take a job as a night watchman at the museum. To his considerable surprise, the museum exhibits – including President Tedd y Roosevelt – come to life at night. At first, Larry wants out, but his son thinks his new job is cool, so he decides to try to get a handle on the situation. Unfortunately, plot complications arise when the previous night-guards (who resent being replaced by Larry in an act of corporate downsizing) attempt to steal the Egyptian plaque whose magical powers are causing all the ruckus.
This is the kind of movie that works on its pleasant predictability. You just know that Larry will rise to the occasion; the years of business failure will melt away as he regains his son’s respect, and no doubt he’ll hook up with the pretty leading lady (Carloa Gugino, as history geek Rebecca). You don’t really want any genuinse suspense here, because that might frighten off timid viewers; the entertainment value is premised on the surmise that everything will work out all right, with at most a little temporary unpleasantness.
What keeps the film alive and kicking is the fact that the premise offers lots of opportunity for the special effects department to strut their stuff, creating some outrageous and original sight gags. The humor is not always as hysterical as intended, but the visuals do please the eye.
Perhaps the highlight of the film is showcased in the coming attractions trailer: the T-Rex skeleton that comes to life. At first resembling a fearsome predator, the reactivated reptile turns out to be more like a playful puppy dog, who only wants to enjoy a game of fetch (using one of his own ribs). It’s a good joke, but it works as more than just a funny concept. The computer-generated animation actually embues the petrified skeleton with some personality (quite a feat when there’s no skin or facial expressions), relying on body language: a lowered head, a wagging tail, a certain enthusiastic in its hips as it bounds after the tossed bone.
As for the rest of the film, it works on pretty much a gag-by-gag basis. Not all of the laughs are as funny as intended, but Stiller does manage to milk lots of comic frustration from his predicament. The odd attempt at pathos (one of the exhibits – a caveman – crumbles to dust when touched by the rays of the sun) seem out of place – a strained attempt to show Larry growing in his sense of responsibility over his new job; and the messages (including “can’t we all just get along?”) border on the trite.
Thankfully, the last-reel robbery stops the feel-good moments long enough to provide a reasonably rousing climax. And as self-congratulatory as it is, the film’s museum-friendly message has a pleasant ring at the end: evidence of the escaped exhibits, including T-REx footprints leading back to the entrance, lures a throng of curious crowds to the previously scarcely attended museum. Too bad no one seems to realize that selling tickets to the nightly resurrection of the dead exhibits would boost attendance through the roof.

DVD DETAILS

The 2007 debut of NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM on DVD consists of four versions: a Widescreen DVD (ASIN: B000NOKJCS), a Full Screen DVD (ASIN: B000NOKJCC), a Blu-Ray Disc (ASIN: B000NOKJBS), and a Two-Disc Special Edition DVD (ASIN: B000NOKJCM).
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006). Directed by Shawn Levy. Screenplay and screen story by Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, inspired by the book by Milan Trenc. Cast: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Jake Cherry, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson.