Speckles the Tarbosaurus just can’t catch a break. For one thing, the menacing tyrannosaur is named “Speckles”–not exactly the most intimidating name for the Late Cretaceous carnivore. But, in the Korean-made film Speckles: The Tarbosaurus 3D released last year, things get far worse for our unfortunately-named hero.
If you’re a dinosaur cinema aficionado, you’ve seen Speckles’ tale before. Proving that dinosaur cinema may be the most unoriginal sub-sub-sub genre out there, the story is a mish-mash of elements from Disney’s Dinosaur, the anime treat You are Umasou, the cutesy Pangea, the dinosaur sequence of Fantasia and even Ricardo Delagado’s comic series The Age of Reptiles. This isn’t to say that the resemblances were necessarily intentional, but how many times are we going to see one-eyed Tyrannosaurus villains, dinosaur death marches across arid plains and pterosaur-eye-view flyover shots before someone tries something different? With 150 million years of prehistory to work with, you’d think filmmakers would show some originality.
The story follows the tragic life of Speckles, a young male Tarbosaurus who, of course, quickly gets into all sorts of trouble while exploring the jungles and cliffs of his prehistoric homeland. Best to leave browsing Therizinosaurus alone. Without tragedy, though, the story has nowhere to go, and our protagonist quickly finds himself alone. Speckles loses his entire family in a stampede of herbivorous dinosaurs caused by “One Eye,” a gnarled Tyrannosaurus that personally dispatches Speckles’ mom. From that point on, Speckles is consumed by thoughts of revenge, but not so much so that he passes the chance to court a blue-eyed Tarbosaurus who ultimately becomes his mate.
Things get a whole lot worse for Speckles before they get better. I’m not going to spoil the details here, but it’s really no surprise that the story winds up almost exactly where it began. And unless you’re an especially dinosaur-crazed kid, there’s not much to justify sitting through the hour and twenty minutes it takes to get to that point. The stylistic difference of the similar animated fable You are Umasou let the filmmakers explore issues of identity and family, but Speckles is a slow plod toward an obvious and inexorable end-point without depth or nuance. Speckles is good, One Eye is bad, and it takes far too long for them to finally settle their vendetta.
Fortunately, the dinosaurs don’t talk in this one. At least not in the manner of Disney’s overly-anthropomorphic Dinosaur. Instead, we only hear Speckles internal monologue, even as he misidentifies and mispronounces the names of various prehistoric creatures. (In an early scene, the crested hadrosaur Parasaurolophus is called a “Tyrannosaurus.” D’oh!) Although my favorite howler comes when our hero prematurely believes that he has defeated One Eye at long last. “I defeated him! I’m Speckles!” our narrator taunts.
And now it’s time to pick from Mesozoic nits. The typical problems plague the movie’s computer-generated dinosaurs. The coelurosaurs aren’t sufficiently feathered, the Velociraptor have bunny hands and the way the dinosaurs run and fall down defy physics. And it’s worth pointing out that the entire dinosaurian assemblage is an unnatural amalgamation brought together just for the movie. Tyrannosaurus rex and Tarbosaurus bataar were not neighbors–these two closely-related tyrannosaurs lived in North America and Asia, respectively. Likewise, the supporting dinosaur cast of Torosaurus, Parasaurlophus and company from North America never met Velociraptor, Microraptor and other dinosaurs from Cretaceous Asia. Worse still, despite the fact that none of these dinosaurs lived in prehistoric Korea, the movie is presented as being a look at the Korean Peninsula circa 80 million years ago. Dinosaurs actually found in Korea–such as Koreaceratops and Koreanosaurus–don’t even get a cameo.
As much as I love dinosaurs, I have to wonder if it’s even possible to make a compelling feature-length film from a dinosaur’s perspective. Several films have tried, and several more have been scrapped before they even reached production. Based upon Speckles, and similar films, dinosaur movies seem doomed by standard tropes that make dinosaur cinema frustratingly repetitive. Perhaps it’s best to take a tip from Phil Tippett, creator of “Prehistoric Beast“, and keep dinosaur tales short and savage. Cinematic dinosaurs are awesome to behold, but filmmakers have not yet found a way to make us really care about their individual lives.