Dino Dicember #20: Theodore Rex (1995)

The 1990’s had such a thing for the “extinction impaired” that they managed to spawn not one, not two but three (at least) dinosaur cyberpunk movies, and yes, i’m counting Super Mario Bros The Movie as one of them, because it fits. But we’ll reference that one some more later, when we tackle Anonymous Rex, today we’re talking about a movie that people knew about at the time… but wish they didn’t.

Clearly it didn’t help Whoopi Goldberg’s career, but neither this nor Monkeybone stopped her. Baby Geniuses 2 did more on that regard, as far as playing a character (instead of herself) in a movie.

Of course, this means Theodore Rex, the sci-fi dinosaur buddy cop comedy that was meant for theathers, but ultimately went straight to the home video market, at least in the US and Italy. Also, it did earn Whoopi Goldberg a Golden Raspberry Award, but the Razzies… yeah, whatever.

Moving on to thing that actually matter, the plot of Theodore Rex is fairly typical, as far as detective stories go, though the setting gives us a cyberpunk universe where humans and anthrophomorphic dinosaurs (cloned back from extinction) co-exist in the future year (for the time) of 2013. Dinosaurs are the obvious stand-in minority, there are no Off-World Colonies in Theodore Rex, after all.

In New York lives Theodore “Teddy” Rex, a timid, clumsy, vegetarian tyrannosaurus rex, who works the office in the local police department, but secretly wants to be a detective. One night a mysterious dinosaur omicide (yes, a “dinocide”) takes place, and Teddy volunteers to solve the case, but the initially skeptical commissioner decide to concede, as long that he gets paired with an expert, the cyborg officer Katie Coltrane (played by Whoopi Goldberg), who of course is prejudiced against dinosaurs. As all cyborgs are, apparently, alongside pretty much anyone in this movie.

I got the feeling i’m supposed to hate this one… doesn’t help that it starts with “Once Upon A Time In The Future” and then follows it ups with a text scroll that – literally – tells you the plan of the evil mastermind (giving him a name as well) behind it all. Yes, it does completely give it away, just so we know why two characters we haven’t meet yet escaped… problem is the movie doesn’t follow up directly on that by showing what these two will face, not exactly, It cuts to a black & white dream scene that could or could not be a vision, dreamed by our lead, Theodore “Teddy” Rex.

Why don’t show the escape and tell the viewer less but better… by actually showing it? On top of being pointless because it’s also obvious as hell even if you skip the intro, the clumsy exposition fills you in on the most important part anyway… it’s confusing to boot, but in a strange way, as you couldn’t have any pressing question to get an answer for, since you just can’t, the movie literally started and already your throwing info at people with no context or reason to do so.

Then it starts to sink in how dumb all this is, with the fact that a “dinocide” is a first for this cyberpunk sci-fi world with gangs of clownish thugs killing people, set in a metropolitan big city. And yes, it’s not an exaggeration, did they cloned the dinosaurs back to life a couple of months prior? Doesn’t seem like it, given how have the “But he’s (that GTA V cutscene word that begins with Nickelback)!” frustrated comeback from every single human character towards the dinosaurs, just short of a “back of the bus” analogy because Jonathan Betuel clearly hasn’t met Ellen Page.

The problem is not how the opening really temps fate (and a critic’s patience), is not the movie itself being weird, it’s being weird and annoying, all the way through, in your face annoying as well. You can tell there’s effort to make a weird, cartoony, quirky world heavy on cartoonish visuals, in this case clearly taking more than a cue from Burton, but without anything to counterbalance the excesses and make the style work in a live-action enviroment, actually doubling down on the cartoony even where you shouldn’t, so we have Goldberg’s character looking like a kid-friendly Judge Dredd, chasing down “saturn morning cartoon” but-not-quite thugs, etc.

And it’s frustrating because i do like the idea of a cyberpunk dino world, the dinosaur puppets and body suits are pretty good and quite expressive (looking a lot like those from the sitcom Dinosaurs!) i see where it could have maybe worked, but then again…. it’s not clear for who the hell is this movie. Despite the usual labels for entertaiment meaning less and less every day, i just don’t know who could enjoy it: too childish for general adults to get past the puppets (at time too puerile even for kids), not “adult” enough on a superficial scale to attract children, not interesting for adults with niche tastes, its zanyness rarely pays off, especially with how big is the script on slapstick routines that get old fast, not that it handles the more mature subjects any better.

Tonally, Theodore Rex is stuck between Joel Schumacher’s Batman (while still clinging to the Burton version a bit) and the Flinstones films, with a sugar spoon of cyberpunk (it might as well not be there), not a good concoction on paper, and practice proves the assumption to be completely right. Doesn’t help that the plot, despite seeming kinda original, is ultimately a rip-off of Who Framed Rogger Rabbit (not completely, but mostly), it might not feel obvious at first, but as the movie goes on, it’s pretty difficult not to draw unfavorable comparisons or think of better movies.

This is kind of movie that makes for incredible screenshots but it’s a slog to sit through, to actually watch, which might sound odd, since this movie features anthrophomorphic dinosaurs that have a sort of collective unconscious dreamscape, a shared innate “mind meld” thing, but is that kinda of weird that eventually bores because there’s very little aside from the “weird”, most of it token and not that interesting, the acting is often bad, over-the-top or both, repeated belches in the night club from suited sauruses or obvious eye-rolling random references aren’t exactly charming or funny.

When it tries to be funny it’s often more annoying or cringey than funny, the whole “changing clothes in the holo thing” (complete with cartoon sound effects in the BGM) is the prime example, dumb, boring, unimaginative and old as fuck, just eye-rolling embarassing and ultimately made for both a cheap, very cheap laugh and to show off good but by now dated visual effects.

It’s not completely boring, all in all, but it’s still hard to sit through regardless, no wonder it had such a bad reputation for decades, as much as i would love to play contrarian… Theodore Rex sadly doesn’t have much to be worth re-evaluating years later, aside from the production values (quite high, but then again it was intended for theathers to begin with), the puppets and some scenic choices, and the faults are as obvious today as they were back in then, so in a way it aged perfectly, even if it’s a relic from the 90s that really no fun to revisit today, in this case no amount of cultural and temporal distance would really help. And doesn’t anyway.

Director and writer Jonathan R. Betuel pretty much retired from the business after this one, citing the fact the studio didn’t market the movie correctly, and i’m not gonna dispute that….but then again i don’t know how you could market well a movie like this, at all. I just don’t. Even for people who enjoy bad movies and weird “cinematic shit”, who enjoy putting gloves and rifting through obscure trash like me, there’s very little of value here, because the weird, with its annoying quality (and quantity) isn’t enough to mask the stupid plot, the boring action, the bad direction, the insipid characters, and grating attempts at humour that wound up embarassing.

There are some fleeting moments where i would like for this one to work, i do, but just doesn’t work in any way. This what i would call a proper “cinematic disaster”, but keep in mind: there’s so, SO, so much worse than this, let me remind you once again.

Plenty, plenty worse..

Whoopi Goldberg notoriously went on record years later to say that she regret doing the movie, and yeah, it checks out with her tentative to get out of the project half-way through, and her acting, in some shots you can see her soul escaping, her eyes looking somewhere else, far above the eyeline of the dinosaur puppets or the human actors.

Yeah, let this one rest in 1995, where it should remain, poor bastard.

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