It’s been more than 40 years since Walt Disney let dinosaurs loose to thunder into the psyches of the young and impressionable. Now we have “Baby . . . Secret of the Lost Legend” (citywide) and frankly, you might be better off with a return trip to “Fantasia.”
It’s certainly not the fault of the actors, particularly Sean Young as a young paleontologist finishing her first field assignment in West Africa’s Ivory Coast and William Katt as her sportswriter husband. Under the direction of Bill Norton, they bring brightness and credibility to what must have been horrendously difficult physical demands: The two are frequently up to their necks in the most repellent water since Humphrey Bogart endured the leeches in “The African Queen.”
“Baby’s” problems are in other areas: a screenplay of far too loose a weave; the most casual acceptance--in a picture with children as its prime audience--of murder and mayhem on every side; a depiction of African tribesmen that at times seems almost pre-Stepin Fetchit, and the nearly insoluble problem of making a dinosaur just an adorable little kid. Only green.
The screenplay of Clifford and Ellen Green pits the good but inexperienced scientist (Young) against the celebrated but wicked one (Patrick McGoohan). The prize is the echoing celebrity that would come with the discovery of a family of dinosaurs. Each team has its back-ups: Katt is his wife’s aide and ally; McGoohan has a fussy assistant played by Julian Fellowes. There is also the vaguely Marxist Col. Nsogbu (Olu Jacobs), who might have wandered over from “The Gods Must Be Crazy”; a crazed bush pilot (Hugh Quarshie) and an endearing Kaleri chieftain (Kyalo Mativo) who comes to the aid of the young Americans.
And there are the dinosaurs, big and small (the work, primarily, of Ron Tantin and Isidoro Raponi). There are moments, particularly John Alcott’s lingering last look at them, when everything works and you are truly transported to a forest primeval, complete with brontosauri.
The good moments are enhanced by Baby, et al, in full voice, a mewling roar (created by Mark Mangini and George Budd of a group called Thunder Tracks), which seems just right.
There are other times when they seem to be nothing more than creations of rubber, wire, plastic and metal--or worse yet, Plasticine. Their body movements, worked from inside by what must have been a damp, humid quartet (Paula Crist, Richard Aguirre, Terri Girvin, Jerrol Gower) are wonderful, but those arching necks don’t have the sinuous, giraffe-like mobility you expect. (And in the careening chase sequence which--inevitably--ends the picture, those necks are not as delicate as they should be either.)
Their eyes are the biggest problem. Although Raponi was for many years a partner of Carlo Rambaldi, who created E.T., the little space man who had eyes that seemed capable of a whole range of emotions, Baby’s faintly reptilian eyes are dead. And with them dies a lot of our belief.
What’s best about the film comes at the beginning, with a parade through the streets of Abidjan of masked dancers and marchers in headdresses, on stilts, in masks beautiful enough to make a National Geographic collector weep with delight. (At this point there is only one, swift killing, to set up the true villainy of the villain.)
Then, as Katt and Young first trek into the jungle, on the trail of a suspiciously huge-neck vertebrae, they are greeted by the Kaleri tribes people, with actor Mativo as their chief. This exchange of cultures, of exotic drinks with a crumbling bar of what Katt calls “hippie food” is great; there’s charm on both sides and the tribes people are seen to have dignity and magic.
By the film’s last third, when things have degenerated into warfare and the most callous killings of important characters, the young chieftain and his open-eyed glee as he mans a machine gun might come straight from a Republic serial or from a performance by Willie Best. It’s an uncomfortable moment.
‘BABY ... SECRET OF LOST LEGEND’ A Buena Vista Distribution Co. Inc. release of a Touchstone Film. Producer Jonathan T. Taplin. Executive producer Roger Spottiswoode. Director B.W.L. Norton. Screenplay Clifford and Ellen Green. Camera John Alcott. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Editors Howard Smith, David Bretherton. Production designer Raymond G. Storey. Art director John B. Mansbridge. Associate producer E. Darrell Hallenbeck. Dinosaurs created and engineered by Isidoro Raponi and Roland Tantin. With William Katt, Sean Young, Patrick McGoohan, Julian Fellowes, Kyalo Mativo, Hugh Quarshie, Olu Jacobs, Eddie Tagoe.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.