Monday, April 30, 2007

Dinosaurs: The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

There are two types of “nostalgic” TV show DVD releases; the first type of show provides an instant hit of nostalgia then quickly gets old, leaving the viewer wondering what they ever saw in the program initially. These are the “it’s dumb but it has a soft spot in my heart because I liked it when I was a kid” shows. But then there are programs like Dinosaurs that, while still providing that initial, strong hit of nostalgia, go on to reveal themselves to still be entertaining and worth watching today.

Dinosaurs ran on the ABC network for four seasons in the early 1990s. The elaborate brainchild of Jim Henson, it showcased “live” anthropomorphic dinosaurs living a caricature of our modern suburban lifestyle. Part The Simpsons, part The Flintstones and part The Muppet Show, Dinosaurs took familiar elements and fused them together into a family sitcom that was unlike anything anyone had seen before or since.

Fortunately, because of the show’s clever writing and amazing puppeteering performances, Dinosaurs remains just as funny, witty and enjoyable today as it was over a decade ago. Viewers who remember watching the show as a kid (like me) may even be pleasantly surprised that the show is actually better than they remember.

Seasons three and four of the show arrive on DVD this week and the four-disc set is stuffed with 36 half-hour episodes (7 of which never aired as part of the network line-up and only saw the light of day later on in syndication on The Disney Channel), two funny and insightful audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes features.

In addition to episodes where the dinosaur Sinclair family deals with “issues” such as potty training and monsters under the baby’s bed, the series frequently attempted to satirize more far-reaching concerns. Like The Simpsons, many of the storylines on Dinosaurs served as a kind of social commentary, caricaturing overzealous corporations, environmental irresponsibility and ineffectual couch potato members of society. In “Life in the Faust Lane,” dopey father Earl sells his soul to acquire a mug from a home shopping channel, an item he never knew he needed until the TV told him his life wouldn’t be complete without it. In “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” the elders of dinosaur society attempt to combat the growing uncertainty dinosaurs are having about their existence by trying to get them to unquestioningly worship a potato. In the series finale, “Changing Nature,” the dinosaurs wind up bringing about the ice age (and with it their own eventual extinction) due to their gross mishandling of the environment.

Exploring subject matter seldom seen on network TV in its day, Dinosaurs went after hot topics as fervently as a hungry carnivore hunting its prey. And the show wasn’t afraid to bite the hand that fed it (the Walt Disney Company), either. In “Variations on a Theme Park,” the show savagely tears apart the perception of theme parks as good places for families to bond. In “Network Genius,” Earl chides greedy corporate network executives, all the while standing directly in front of a clearly displayed ABC logo.

While it’s nice to get some clever social commentary with one’s entertainment, Dinosaurs handles its “lessons” with varying degrees of success. At times the show can get downright preachy, tireless trying to beat its point home with the bluntness of a sledgehammer. Understandably this is a show aimed mainly at kids so it won’t be as subtle as a more adult-centric show, but even as a youngster I can remember rolling my eyes in anticipation of the coming “lessons” from time to time.

Another small annoyance in the show is caused by its own elaborateness. Unlike in an animated series where new characters can be imagined and conjured up at will, the complexities of the dinosaur puppets and frequent need of the scripts to call upon groups of dinosaurs that aren’t just family members demand that the same “other” dinosaur costumes get used over and over again to represent different, unique characters. One long-nosed dinosaur portrays a female neighbor in one episode and a male neighbor in the very next. The brown turtle-like dinosaur costume seems to get the most play of all the “extras,” to the point where he shows up twice as two different characters in the very same episode! Watch only two episodes of Dinosaurs and, trust me, you’ll already see how rampant the reuse of these dinosaur costumes gets.

Those minor quibbles aside, the show holds up remarkably well after so many years. Perhaps it’s the overabundance of CG creatures and special effects we’ve seen since Dinosaurs was first on the air that enables these giant, elaborate puppets to still remain as amazing to behold as they were a decade-and-a-half ago. The clever writing and genuine humor helps maintain a freshness that overcomes the occasional catch-phrase spouting of Baby Sinclair (don’t forget, this took place during the reign of Urkel on ABC).

If you can get past the preachiness of some of the episodes and obligatory reuse of secondary dinosaur “performers,” you’re sure to find that Dinosaurs remains a great family comedy, suitable for all ages and capable of being enjoyed by all as well. Finding a show like that on today’s television sets is about as rare as seeing a live dinosaur still wandering around, so grab this set before it goes extinct.


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