This month we look back on We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, one of the three animated films produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation and an unofficial animated companion to Jurassic Park. It was released on November 24, 1993, and unlike the aforementioned live-action dino-centric movie that year, it wasn’t a hit with critics or audiences.
The story begins with Buster the Bird (Blaze Berdahl) planning to run away from his family nest. But before he hits the skies, he chats with a friendly Tyrannosaurus rex, cleverly named Rex (John Goodman), who takes a break from playing golf to tell the birdie about his journey to becoming a talking dinosaur. It’s an odd tale to bookend the movie, but not the weirdest thing that will happen.
In a flashback, we see Rex in his natural carnivorous form as he’s plucked from prehistoric times by inventor/time traveler Captain Neweyes (Walter Cronkite) and his alien assistant Vorb (Jay Leno). He’s fed Brain Grain Cereal, triggering a visual and mental transformation that softens his terrifying appearance and gives him enough intelligence to become sentient. Rex then meets his fellow talking dinos — Woog (René Le Vant), a Triceratops, Elsa (Felicity Kendal), a Pteranodon, and Dweeb (Charles Fleischer, aka Roger Rabbit), a Parasaurolophus.
Neweyes shows them his Wish Radio, which captures kids wishing that dinosaurs were real. The quartet excitedly agrees to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City because every whimsical children’s tale takes place in NYC. Within minutes of descending into the city, they stumble upon the most New York kid ever, Louie (Joey Shea), who’s running away to the circus because his parents are too loving or something.
A chase sequence ends with him and Elsa flying into a massive and empty penthouse where they find Cecilia Nuthatch (Yeardley Smith), a Harry Potter character name if I ever heard one. The lonely girl, whose parents are too busy to pay attention to her, joins Louie as another adolescent human runaway and friend for the lovable dinos.
The most memorable scene of We’re Back is when they attempt to blend in at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as giant dinosaur robots. That doesn’t last long because Rex decides to appease the kids in the audience and ends up singing the super catchy “Roll Back the Rock (To the Dawn of Time),” a song that’s covered by Little Richard in the end credits.
The kids are the first to meet the movie’s underdeveloped villain, Professor Screweyes (Kenneth Mars), the unhinged, evil opposite brother of Captain Neweyes whom the dinosaurs were warned about. He has a Fright Radio that lets him hear everyone’s fears, an implement which is essentially an idea machine to help him add scares to his Eccentric Circus. He has also created his own transformation concoction, which he dubbed Brain Drain, but instead of cereal, it comes in the form of pills.
This is where We’re Back gets dark. Louie is so desperate to join the circus that he willingly accepts a mysterious contract, signing his name in blood. Cecilia follows, presumably to stay with her friend and not because she wants to become a scary actor.
What makes this scene so creepy is that Screweyes seemingly has no interest or use for these kids but lets them sign themselves away anyway. However, it works out for him in the end because he gets something better. The kids’ dinosaur pals track them down and agree to be frightening attractions in exchange for letting Louie and Cecilia — who are temporarily turned into monkeys — break out of the binding contract.
Louie and Cecilia wake up human to find Stubbs (Martin Short), a jovial yet anxious clown who stands out amongst the decidedly dark atmosphere. Now they hatch their own plan to rescue their friends, who’ve devolved into ravenous monsters.
As you can see, the plot of We’re Back is both thin and kind of messy. But considering John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) penned the script based on Hudson Talbott’s 20-page book of the same name, it’s not that bad. Production began in 1990 with a rotation of directors working on the film at different times including Phil Nibbelink (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and Simon Wells (Mars Needs Moms), along with brothers Dick and Ralph Zondag (Dinosaur). They probably could’ve expanded the story more if the runtime was longer than 71 minutes.
The music was composed by James Horner (Casper), the master of hauntingly whimsical scores. However, in a 2018 interview with SYFY Wire, Phil Nibbelink claimed that while the score was written by Horner, it was actually conducted by others. Either way, the score is perfect for the film’s shifting tones.
A noticeably odd aspect of the movie is the ensemble cast of big names. News anchor Walter Cronkite does well as the kind-hearted explorer, but it’s a bizarre choice, though maybe not as strange as chef/media personality Julia Child voicing museum curator Dr. Juliet Bleeb. The magnificent cast overall speaks to the draw of working with a giant like Spielberg.
We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story is a strange and forgettable tale that begins as a lighthearted yet melancholic story about friendship and temporarily descends into full-on nightmare fuel. It’s the type of deep-cut 1990s media you might vaguely recall, but since it’s talked about so little, you assume it must’ve been a fever dream. While the animation still holds up and the odd array of voices make it a fun watch, We’re Back! likely only appeals to those with a sense of nostalgia for the obscure title.
We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story is available to rent on Prime Video.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.