MY PET DINOSAUR
Starring: Jordan Dulieu, Annabel Wolfe, Scott Irwin
Directed by: Matt Drummond
Written by: Matt Drummond
Review by: Nick Schofield
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my work on Rogues Portal before that I’m a real dinosaur nerd. I’ve always enjoyed a good dinosaur flick, and obviously, it should go without saying I’m a massive Jurassic Park fan. So, when offered a chance to review the film My Pet Dinosaur, I jumped at it. Worst case scenario, I get to see my favorite things ever on-screen in a new type of story, right?
Well, I watched it. And I have a lot to say. Let’s dive in, shall we?
One Dino-Sized Plot Summary
In the Town of Brightwood, somewhere in (probably?) the southwestern United States, something is amiss. Over a hundred residents have mysteriously fallen ill and died in recent years, and activity from a nearby military base has set the community’s suspicions ablaze. One of the fatalities was the father of a young boy named Jake (Jordan Dulieu). Struggling to cope with this loss two years later, Jake finds himself adrift in life.
Then, a girl named Abbie (Annabel Wolfe) and her father, Dr. Frank Tansy (Chris Gabardi), move in next door. The EPA has sent Dr. Tansy–an epidemiologist–to investigate the illnesses plaguing Brightwood. As he works to uncover the truth, the whip-smart Abbie wiggles her way into Jake’s group of friends.
During an alien hunting expedition with their UFO-obsessed friends, Abbie and Jake come across a glowing, blue goo they decide to collect for a school science project. While in charge of the material, Jake spills it, accidentally mixing it with a protein shake. He doesn’t realize until later that night–when he’s woken up by something strange–exactly what he’s done.
Jake now finds himself in charge of a rapidly-growing, four-legged creature he decides to name Magnus. He tries to keep it a secret from everyone, but eventually, Magnus is discovered and captured by a military team led by Colonel Roderick (Rowland Holmes). Abbie’s father is also captured, and the friends–along with help from Jake’s older brother Mike (Harrison Sanders) and their mom’s boyfriend, Officer Alan Farraday (Scott Irwin)–decide to enact a rescue mission.
In the end, the rescue team is able to free Dr. Tansy and Magnus, and expose Col. Roderick for the death and destruction he’s caused with his blue goo. The steadily-growing Magnus who, by the end of the film, has transformed into an animal resembling a Styracosaurus, transforms himself into a small, flying creature and is able to live the rest of his days peacefully.
Background, and a Short List of Pros
My Pet Dinosaur is an Australian family adventure/science fiction film written and directed by Matt Drummond. As an Emmy Award-winning visual effects professional, Drummond has worked on worked on projects for BBC, Discovery, and the History Channel. This is his second time in the director’s chair for a feature film, however.
Drummond is an avid dinosaur fan, which explains the impetus behind My Pet Dinosaur as well as his directorial debut, Dinosaur Island. One of only a few feature films to include feathered dinosaurs, Dinosaur Island, can be considered a triumph. It premiered worldwide in over 50 countries and was a finalist for the 2015 Animation & Effects Awards & Festival. Needless to say, this set a high bar for the filmmaker’s future projects.
True to form, My Pet Dinosaur delivers on the visual effects. For the most part, the creature animations are well done, imaginative, and colorful. While they aren’t always rendered the best into the scenes, for the most part, you get a sense of the animals being grounded into the scenes. There are also some lovely CGI transitions that take place.
Overall, the film looks pretty good aesthetically. There are moments in the film where you can tell they were filming during the day and applied filters over the final picture, but it looks good enough to glance over. You get enough of a sense of time and light to believe the locations could be in darkness.
You can also tell that Drummond was heavily inspired by Spielberg when making this film, and My Pet Dinosaur winks at several Spielberg films in both subtle and unsubtle ways. From the dynamic of Jake’s friends resembling the boys in E.T. to the picture of Devil’s Tower from Close Encounters taped to Jake’s window, it’s clear Drummond has a soft spot for the kind of adventure films created by the iconic filmmaker. These easter eggs make watching My Pet Dinosaur a little more fun for all.
Imbalances in VFX and Story
Unfortunately, because My Pet Dinosaur is so focused on its visual effects, its plot, narrative, and characters take a side seat. There are several things I included in my (fairly long) summary that wasn’t explained in any synopses online or entirely apparent while watching the film. There are also a handful of things that don’t get explained or are explained poorly, leading to confusion. I think even younger viewers are going to struggle with understanding some of the plotting/narrative problems.
A prime example of this is Abbie and her father. In the film, we meet Abbie first, and all we know is that she’s new to the area. It isn’t until about twenty minutes in that we learn her father, Dr. Tansy, is an epidemiologist sent by EPA to investigate the community’s health problems. Up until that point, we see this girl whose intelligence levels are far beyond any of her peers but don’t understand it as anything but an innate trait.
Once we learn Dr. Tansy is her father, the context of both her purpose in the story and her intelligence completely shift. She’s running analyses on the goo and coming up with “preliminary findings” in part because her father has trained her. While I’m not at all claiming Abbie’s intelligence as dependent upon her father, the film seems to infer this relationship. But, with that context change comes confusion. Why wasn’t this revealed sooner? Did waiting this late have a purpose? How will it come into play later? None of these questions are answered adequately.
Likewise, the secret government program that creates Magnus is never openly explained at all. Col. Roderick hints that the goo is material he’s been working for years, and it’s somehow meant to create proxies for combat soldiers in the form of (I guess?) dinosaurs and other animals. But why dinosaurs? What properties of the material make it turn from gunk to living-ish being? Again, these film never explains these questions. That’s unfortunate too because they’re fundamental to understanding the story in greater depth.
Getting Dinosaurs… Sort of Right?
My Pet Dinosaur does bring dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures to life through VFX, but their designs leave room for potential misunderstanding. For example, Magnus winds up looking like a Styracosaurus by the end of the film. While he’s growing, though, he doesn’t have that iconic frill and horns. Instead, he’s got these axolotl-like appendages coming out of his head. In addition, he’s got a flexible sail on his back (think sunfish) and similar structures on the top and bottom of his tail. As far as scientists can tell, these features weren’t present on these dinosaurs.
The only reason why I bring this up–and why I think it matters–is because almost every other dinosaur and prehistoric creature that rises out of the goo in My Pet Dinosaur is pretty scientifically accurate. Hell, they even get pterosaurs’ downy bodies in the film, as well as their ankles (The ankle thing is something paleontologists complain about with pterosaur depictions in film and television, trust me). So, you can imagine the misunderstanding Magnus’ features could bring to parents and children alike.
A lot of people out there give folks like me guff for pointing out the scientific inaccuracy in essentially fun, meaningless movies. But I’ll stand my ground on this, mostly because of the contrast between Magnus and the other animals in the film. If the rest of them were inaccurate, I’d only be disappointed. But it’s so easy to mistake Magnus as accurate in relation to the other animals. That’s a barrier to understanding science that can have adverse impacts on audiences.
Prehistoric Attitudes About Women
The women in My Pet Dinosaur really get the short end of the stick, time and time again. Their characters are developed in that insidious way that pretends to give them agency while stripping them of power and complex characterization.
For example, look at how smart Abbie is. Her intelligence is nothing more than a utility for the story and the male characters. The story exploits her wits to put Jake in the position to create Magnus accidentally. After that, she gets maybe one or two moments of being smarter than the boys, but she basically ends up falling into the “damsel in distress” role.
The young men in the film also treat Abbie the whole time as nothing but Jake’s love interest, totally undercutting any agency she might have. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I was watching this film with my family, I wouldn’t be happy with that portrayal. The character had real potential to be her own person and not defined by the men in the story. But, alas, the script writes her into that corner.
A similar case is true for Jake and Mike’s mother. She’s a single mother who works as a nurse, and that’s rad. However, she’s always yelling at her boys or furious with them, going from 0 to 100 real quick. She winds up on the sidelines while the men in her life do whatever they want without any real consequences. She’s always told she’s wrong, or what she should be doing that will help the male characters complete their proverbial “quests.” Seriously, come on people. This is 2018. Can’t we do better than this?
Skip It! There’s plenty of other things I didn’t discuss in this review–flat acting, exposition done entirely through dialogue, confusing timelines, unnecessary scenes, and so on–that made watching My Pet Dinosaur difficult. Maybe this film is a sort of throw-away stepping stone for Drummond to make larger-budget films featuring dinosaurs. However, I’d save your money this go-around. However, if you’ve got young kids, they might like it.