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Tracking the Fate of an Unseen Dinosaur Drama

Tippett's "Prehistoric Beast" remains one of the best dinosaur films ever made. What could he have accomplished with "Dinosaur"?

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Dinosaur Revolution, Discovery’s four-part prehistoric miniseries, was originally meant to be a different kind of show. No narration, no talking heads, no humans whatsoever—just dinosaurs and their contemporaries acting out stories in a restored Mesozoic world. Frustratingly, worries about the show’s appeal forced the original vision of the show to be scrapped, and this is not the first time a wordless dinosaur drama has been turned into something else.

Much like Dinosaur Revolution, the 2000 Disney film Dinosaur went through a number of permutations before reaching audiences. Artist Pete Von Sholly has previously shared a number of sketches from scenes that never came to be, vignettes representative of a different vision for the film. Even before that stage, Dinosaur was envisioned as a highly dramatic and violent look at life at the end of the Cretaceous. The first few minutes of Dinosaur—in which not a word is spoken and a Carnotaurus rampages through a nesting ground—is a brief glimmering of what the movie was originally intended to be. Dinosaur film buff Mark Berry dug up the backstory for his book The Dinosaur Filmography.

The origins of what would eventually become Dinosaur can be traced back to 1984. That year that special-effects master Phil Tippett created his stunning film Prehistoric Beast, a short story in which a Centrosaurus is stalked by a Tyrannosaurus. There was no trace of human presence in the short. The stop-motion dinosaurs were left to act out the drama on their own, and Tippett’s creation remains one of the best dinosaur films ever made.

Tippett’s skill at creating the stop-motion creatures helped him get other gigs, and a few years later, he helped bring the massive ED-209 to life for Paul Verhoven’s feature Robocop. (Coincidentally, Robocop does feature a dinosaur in a brief parody car commercial.) It was then, during a break in filming, that Tippett suggested to Verhoven and producer Jon Davidson that they collaborate on a movie like Prehistoric Beast, but on a grander scale. Set during the final days of the Cretaceous, the film would feature stop motion dinosaurs—chiefly a heroic Styracosaurus and villainous Tyrannosaurus—and at least one small mammal named Suri set to be portrayed by an actor in costume. There would be no anthropomorphized, talking dinosaurs.

We’ll never get to see all the details of the scuttled film, but a few snippets have been preserved via interviews. For example, in 1999 Tippett remarked that the movie would have been “very gritty and had some pretty intense moments” as a result of Verhoven’s influence. This was not going to be a kid’s movie, and according to Verhoven, the film would have had a dark ending. Naturally, the Styracosaurus and Tyrannosaurus would have battled each other to settle their score once and for all, but the eventual victory of the Styracosaurus would have been robbed by the impact of the asteroid which marked the end of dinosaur dominance. Not quite the schmaltzy conclusion Disney decided to go for.

There are plenty of other dinosaur movies that have never been made. Sometimes the concepts were too loopy or complicated to bring to life, and other times studios simply got cold feet and jettisoned the ideas for fear of saturating the market with too many dinosaurs. Out of all the dinosaur features that have ever been made, though, very few are actually good, and I think we’re due for another skillfully-crafted dinosaur feature.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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