February 9, 2011 by abbyo
Hollywood is a world dominated by trends. Once it’s discovered that a particular concept sells, you can bet that the movie moguls will keep on pushing it to within an inch of its life–and sometimes, as we’ll see today, even for a good while afterward. Right now, for instance, we’re in the Superhero phase. In past years, we’ve been through a movie-musical phase, a western phase, and a revisionist Shakespeare phase, among others. Studios like predictability, until a predictable success becomes an unpredictable tank.
In the early 90s, Hollywood was fixated on dinosaurs. 1991 saw the premiere of “Dinosaurs,” a pre-historic sitcom about a working-class family of… Dinosaurs. It was kind of like “Roseanne” or “Married: With Children” except that it starred a bunch of life-sized reptile puppets. In 1993, we got “Jurassic Park,” which you already know my feelings about, and “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story,” my other favorite movie of that year (don’t judge me, I was 5).
Anyway, around the time all this dino-hoopla was winding down (two years after Jurassic Park, one year after “Dinosaurs” finished its run) the powers that be decided to flog that horse one more time. The result was “Theodore Rex,” a bizarre straight-to-video release that has to be seen to be believed.
Here’s the premise: In the future, a tough-talking cop named Katie Coltrane (Whoopi Goldberg, wearing a body suit for which the descriptor “ill-conceived” is a polite euphemism) gets a new partner: sneaker-wearing, cookie-loving dinosaur Theodore Rex. Someone is killing prehistoric creatures, and it’s up to Katie and Theodore (or “Teddy”) to find out who’s behind it, and also thwart a mad scientist who’s trying to bring on a new ice age, with the help of his ridiculous henchmen. Throw in performances by the likes of Armin Mueller-Stahl, “Pontypool’s” Stephen McHattie, and Bud Cort (of “Harold and Maude”) and you’ve reached a whole new level of weird.
What’s even crazier is the legacy this movie has left behind: In his “My Year of Flops” column (required reading for any bad movie aficionado), Nathan Rabin writes that “Theodore Rex” is the most expensive direct-to-video movie ever made, with a budget of around $35 million (that was two years ago—I haven’t heard of anything topping it since then). In addition to that sad fact, Whoopi was actually forced to make the movie after trying to back out of an oral agreement to star, and was sued for $20 million. Eventually she settled for a $7 million payday. Daaamn. However, one does have to wonder under what circumstances that oral agreement was made. I imagine it involved a loud party, a lot of drinks, and a conversation where at least one person wasn’t paying full attention.
This monument to terrible filmmaking starts with a really poor script. It’s aimed at a child audience, so, as you can imagine, the lines aren’t exactly sophisticated. To show you what I mean, here’s a collection of highlights:
“Citizen Kane” it ain’t.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the acting is in a class of its own. Whoopi is sleeping her way through the role, hoping someone will wake her up and she’ll discover it was all a bad dream. At times, it seems she laughs because she just can’t do anything else. Armin Mueller-Stahl seems to be doing much the same thing, just kind of waiting around until the end of filming so he can collect a paycheck (side-note: I like Armin Mueller-Stahl. But the man should be a little more discerning when it comes to his projects).
But the real stunner here is Bud Cort. “Transformative” might be the right word to describe his performance, but I don’t mean it in a good way. God bless the man for putting forth some effort, but someone really should have told him to stop. As I watched “Theodore Rex,” I compared this performance to the Bud Cort I know from “Harold and Maude” and “The Life Aquatic.” Who was this whiny-voiced, prancing troll? It baffles me, frightens me, even, to know that he has a performance like this in him.
Then there’s the puppetry. Good Lord, the puppetry. If “Jurassic Park” was an example of great creature effects work, “Theodore Rex” is an example of why that practice died. All the dinosaur characters look like the results of dumpster diving on the “Dinosaurs” backlot. The puppets flap their gums along to poorly timed voiceovers, and are about as graceless as a ballerina with stiff joints and cinderblocks for slippers. It’s obvious that little to no effort was put into any level of this production, and New Line Cinema, who released the movie, knew it, deciding to cut their considerable losses and send it straight to video. It’s one of those movies that may have seemed like a bankable (if questionable) idea at the time, but blew up in the face of everyone involved once they realized there was no saving it from utter disaster.
Rabin, in his review of “Theodore Rex,” writes that the experience of watching it nearly destroyed him. That’s saying a lot, coming from a guy who’s devoted a big chunk of his career to watching unsuccessful movies. But I don’t think it’s that bad. Sure, it’s a class-A example of uncreative people shoving garbage at the audiences, but realizing later that not even the unwashed masses would put up with it. But because this movie fails, and fails so spectacularly on every level, it’s actually kind of mesmerizing. I think it’s time for “Theodore Rex” to have a cult revival. It’s a special kind of bad movie, a jaw-droppingly awful product of its time.