Lessons from Dinotopia…Unless It’s the Mini-Series: Review Take 2

All right, here’s round 2! In my first take on reviewing the Dinotopia mini-series (DMS), I focused in on a few close-ups. Now I’d like to frame my discussion with some lessons that I took from James Gurney’s books and the related novels. Because those lessons are why my anger at DMS has lasted so long. Dinotopia was among the first books I practiced reading, and some of its maxims still guide my actions today. Gurney created a richly detailed world laced with creative hope. DMS bulldozed through that vision to pave a simple road, and not a particularly good one at that. If the filmmakers didn’t want to be true to that world, they should have called this “Carl and David in Dinosaurland” instead of pretending it was Dinotopia!

I will, again, be going into some spoilers for DMS (not sorry) and the books (sorry). For a brief recap of DMS’s plot, please see Take 1. Here, meanwhile, is a quick tour of the original book.

Now onto those lessons…

Progress Should Be Measured in Life Quality, Not Technological Achievement

One of my biggest beefs with DMS is the sunstones. Supposedly mined from “the meteor that hit the earth” and somehow killed all the dinosaurs except the ones it practically landed on,1 these faceted lumps are the “source of power” in DMS.2 Which apparently means they power some indoor lights, a flight-simulator fan, and a submersible. Mostly, they function as Pteranodon repellent, with the flying reptiles shrinking like vampires from the light despite happily flapping about in broad daylight the rest of the time. Everyone’s panicking because the sunstones are “failing,” and if the “prime sunstone” dies, it’s “the end for Dinotopia.”3 So David and Carl mine more sunstones. No one investigates why the sunstones are failing or how to potentially live without the clearly non-renewable resource of alien rocks. It’s like someone “solving” the current fuel/climate crisis by finding enough oil to last us another couple centuries.  

This sunstone-dependent Dinotopia closely resembles the ancient kingdom of Poseidos from the books. First Flight shows the sunstone-powered city teeming with dinosaur-shaped mechanical “strutters,” sentient “hoverhead” robotic servants,4 and remotely operated drones. Those at the top strictly enforce their authority while most people struggle to survive on a diet of “flavorless nutrition pellets,”5 their jobs steadily consumed by automation.6 The ruby sunstone, which could “magnify dark desires in anything it touched,”7 symbolized the height of their corruption, though mining is what causes the literal collapse of Poseidos into the ocean.8 Sound familiar? Yes, Dinotopians who left the island (they did exist) turn Poseidos’ story into Atlantis, said by Plato to be the “allotment” of sea god Poseidon.9 Both tales are dire warnings against putting technological advancement and greed over environmental stewardship.

“Lost City of Atlantis or Mystery Legend Atlántida” by George Grie, George Grie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Book Dinotopia learned this lesson well. Sunstones are rarely if ever used, no one is denied food or shelter,10 and power comes from wind, water, or uncoerced muscle. DMS may recite that “dinosaurs take pride in their strength” and don’t shun physical labor,11 but I don’t really see the subtler aspects of that value in play. Consider that flight simulation machine. It resembles a balance exercise from Windchaser where students lie on a flat board with arms at their sides attempting to balance as two dinosaurs move the board. Hikaru praises Raymond for calmly yielding to gravity rather than clinging to the board,12 while Oonu barks out, “Again, Cadet,” as if falling is failure.13 One seeks to enhance his students’ connection to their bodies while the other emphasizes mechanical results. Book Dinotopians don’t scorn technology but are content with what Arthur Denison initially judges a pre-industrial society. Only later, after hurling the ruby sunstone back into the sea, does he come to appreciate that they are a post-industrial society that has finally found balance.

Celebrate Diversity

Even the books stumbled a bit here. Scott Ciencin having Chinese teen Lian note the “[b]ig difference” between Chinese and Japanese people14 doesn’t quite offset his use of the clearly Westernized spelling “tszri-ai” for the Japanese word “tsuri-ai.” 15 Gurney’s brilliant method for identifying one’s background is marred by him referring to Tok Timbu as “four mothers African” even though he’s “descended from a Yoruba king.”16 Since Nora is three “mothers Irish,”17 Tok should be “four mothers Yoruba.” Still, the authors did try to create a dynamically multicultural society. Midori Snyder did better with Sada, “five mothers Swahili,”18 and Brad Strickland even adds some ability diversity with Tostri, a deaf Deinonychus who signs. DMS tosses that all out, identifying Marion as “20 generations Dinotopian” as if assimilation is all that matters.19 The costumes of DMS Dinotopians generally look more like clownish creations of random scraps rather than emblems of real cultures, and Oonu is the only POC with a major speaking part.

James Gurney’s artwork depicting the Dinotopian city of Pooktook. Denver666, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even the dinosaurs are less diverse. Where is the Baryonyx getting his teeth scrubbed,20 the monocle-wearing Amargasaurus,21 or the musically-minded Therizinosaurus?22 Gurney’s vibrant yet scientifically accurate multitudes are replaced by a mere 12 prehistoric species, 7 of which even Wikipedia corrects. Some are totally unrecognizable. How is that stuffy Froot-Loops-colored puffin wearing pilot goggles a Dimorphodon?! The annoying habit of referring to humans as “mammals” erases the menagerie of prehistoric mammals populating book Dinotopia, ranging from tiny Necrolemurs to towering Megatherium sloths. Gone too are the richly developed saurian cultures, from the Troodon knights of Lost City to the genealogical songs of unspecified hadrosaur Kranog and the delicate dances of feathered Chirostenotes in Chandara. Dinosaurs in DMS occasionally show hints of personality, but more often they act like livestock or, in baby 26’s case, dogs.

Take that awful scene where an Ankylosaurus smashes up a street and probably kills several people. Marion runs up like some mix of Crocodile Dundee and George of the Jungle (“Crocodile have toothache. George pull tooth”),23 and everyone acts like this is totally normal. Such violently careless behavior would never be acceptable in Dinotopia! And if Marion is truly the millennial heir to Oriana, her dialogue should have looked more like this:

“Norburt! You stop this ridiculous tantrum at once. What? Dammit, Norburt, I told you to see a dentist two weeks ago! You better breathe deep and seek peace right now, or I’m telling your Aunt Ludmilla what a total hatchling you’re being!”

Respect the Full Cycle of Life

DMS makes its carnivores into monsters. Yes, Marion dutifully parrots that “carnivores aren’t evil. They’re just hungry by nature.”24 Then the Tyrannosaurus appear, and it’s all screams instead of negotiating with smoked fish. Most carnivorous species are actually integrated into Dinotopian society, like Enit, a Deinonychus librarian. Some—particularly large theropods like Tyrannosaurus —choose to live separately in the Rainy Basin. All are represented as intelligent beings who command respect but don’t swarm cities in ravening hordes. In the past, the Pelledrine culture lived alongside them,25 and Poseidian rebel Blake Terrapin rode one as a Saurian Knight.26 Now that would have been a cool visual if DMS wanted to do Dinotopia-but-violent! Instead they play Great Valley by segregated the “sharp-teeth.” That choice falls back not only onto the oversimplification that all life is either carnivore or herbivore but to the idea that all stories need a monster or villain to work.

Hey, DMS, Jurassic Park called. They want their evil eating-machine Tyrannosaurs back. “Jurassic Park” by mabecerra is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

You may have noticed I mentioned fish. Dinotopians aren’t vegan, and their vegetarianism is primarily practical rather than the vilification of meat-eating implied by Marion’s accusing tone over Carl wanting “a bird, to eat.” 27 No one eats steak or chicken on Dinotopia because all the animal life can talk back, and no one wants to be like Poseidian King Ogthar, “devouring drumsticks too big for any chicken.”28 Yet dying dinosaurs frequently make pilgrimages to the Rainy Basin or Canyon City to “donate [their] flesh to the living,”29 showing an acceptance of the natural cycle. Fish are certainly caught and cooked, and Arthur notes “large creatures with jointed legs and compound eyes” on a menu in Chandara.30 Those living near mammoths may also get mammoth milk.31 Though that doesn’t explain Carl’s bizarre claim that 26 likes “her bread dipped in warm milk.”32 Just what were you milking, Carl?! 

When All Are Valued, We can Truly Grow

With protagonists usually 12-14 years old, I’ve seen the Dinotopia novels labeled both “YA” and “children’s.” Most deal with themes of taking responsibility and finding one’s life path, though, with a refreshing lack of adults acting as simple obstacles dismissing or forbidding on reflex. In The Maze, Gwen’s father displays such emotional distance that she believes he “wanted a son” instead,33 but most adults are shown taking teens seriously and encouraging them. Magnolia is the one protesting she’s “too young” when graduated to Habitat Partner of Freshwater at age 13.34 All in all, the novels imagine a world where people aren’t treated as if their age determines IQ. DMS instead tries to cover the YA trope of adults stupidly ignoring righteous teens with Carl, David, and Marion breaking rules to save Dinotopia through illegal mining. Yet the fulfillment Carl and David show in the roles Rosemary assign them suggests the opposite trope where adults know what’s best and teens are just too immature to see. So, basically, everyone is stupid.

The biggest contrast is the lack of choice. People are “forbidden” from attempting to leave,35 and their life paths are set by Rosemary, apparently with no input accepted. Her claims that David is “of the sky” while Carl is “of the earth”36 are probably drawn from mountain elder Levka Gembo’s comment about Arthur and Will being re-“born of the earth” and sky respectively.37 Yet those “births” result from freely made choices rather than one know-it-all. All this earth, sky, and water stuff also makes it sound like everyone in Dinotopia is a Habitat Partner. Apprenticeship, which gave me an early fascination with experiential learning, is the main path to a career in Dinotopia, and the teens in the novels pursue a variety of occupations, from tightrope walker to healer to farmer and inventor. As a child, I was struck by the “dignity” Gurney gave to Copro Carters,38 who proudly collect and process dinosaur dung. Book Dinotopia does not judge people for their choice of profession, and it makes sure everyone gets that choice.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

It’s sad to see DMS take the vibrant world Gurney brought to life in Dinotopia and leech all the color out of it. Literally. Gurney’s genius as a painter is the ability to make fantastical scenes flooded with brilliant colors and sometimes quite goofy expressions while making it all look real. Carl and David plod with often blank or vaguely perplexed expressions through a landscape of mostly browns and grays. The most annoying additions—the “messenger bird” and Zippo—are the main exceptions. Unlike Carl and David, Zippo reacts constantly and often strangely, like when he stares at his hand after Cyrus calls him “scaly” like he’s never noticed he has scales before.39 Even the World Beneath, a glowing cave of wonders in the books, becomes just another dingy tunnel with bits of gold scattered here and there. The sunstones also cleverly manage to avoid displaying the varying colors from the books by shining so brightly that they are completely washed out.

A fascinating video of how James Gurney creates his colorful and complex worlds from models to paintings.

It’s equally disheartening that DMS replaces some great leaders with stock rigid authority figures. Mayor Waldo does the classic “mean ruler” schtick of denying refugees access to his city and blithely denies any new information until it hits him upside the head. Rosemary is more tolerant but she still coldly insists that people “address [her] as matriarch.”40 Arthur uses that title to describe Nora of Treetown, who, though firm, has no problem with plain ol’ “Nora.” Oonu enforces stereotypical militarism in his “Sky Corps,” responding to David’s insecurities with dismissal, comparison, and “No cadet has ever failed my course.” The last comment focuses on Oonu’s reputation, not David’s needs. In book Dinotopia, leaders are not made by titles but by actions, showing compassion and a cool head in times of crisis. Many contribute by living their belief in a cooperative system that is only possible “if you do imagine it.”41 Even Emperor Khan, a Microraptor who rules the self-isolating kingdom of Chandara, cares for his subjects by flying around nightly to collect their written wishes for inspiration.42

DMS is rife with an attempted seriousness that ends up looking ridiculous, especially with the Code of Dinotopia. Book Dinotopia treats the Code more like an inspirational poster. Assistant Librarian Nallab jokingly interprets the broken final line, “Don’t p—” as “Don’t pee in the bath.”43 His casual attitude suggests a relaxed society where ideas can be comfortably exchanged and reworked. By contrast, the rigid world of DMS has children chanting the Code in creepy unison and adults citing numbered lines as if it’s a legal document. No wonder they have so many problems. DMS even shamelessly remakes the incomplete code into “Fin—” to promote their “Find the light” thing. And then they manage to ruin their own potentially inspiring line. Standing in the sunstone cave, David announces, “We found the light,” 44 as if all along that message meant, “Go mine more sunstones, ya fools.”

That’s possibly the most frustrating thing about DMS. I don’t like that it completely remakes Dinotopia, but a least it could have been a coherent piece in its own right. Yet in the end, what has really changed, aside from Carl and David getting medals? Mayor Waldo is still in charge, brazenly claiming he “always believed in these boys,”45 and with the sunstone supply replenished, everyone is free to go back to the same mistakes that got them into this crisis. Reviewing that moment when I’m also watching the world face challenges forcing us to consider whether to cling to the old status quo or to innovate new solutions was honestly sobering. And it just made me disgusted with DMS all over again.


So that’s why I hate DMS. I’m sure there are people out there who did enjoy it, and I respect their opinions. These are just mine. If you’re a fan of the books, what are your favorite Dinotopia lessons? Or perhaps you have another perspective on what you found in the books. If you’re new to the series, what do you think of these two contrasting worlds? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Sources
  1. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3, directed by Marco Brambilla, written by Simon Moore, ABC, May 12, 2002.
  2. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1, directed by Marco Brambilla, written by Simon Moore, ABC, May 12, 2002.
  3. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  4. Gurney, James, First Flight (New York: Harper Collins, 1999; New York: CALLA Editions, 2014), 4.
  5. Gurney, First, 95.
  6. Gurney, First, 63.
  7. Gurney, James, The World Beneath (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995), 142.
  8. Gurney, First, 96.
  9. “Atlantis,” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed Sep. 5, 2021, https://www.theoi.com/Phylos/Atlantes.html.
  10. Ciencin, Scott, Windchaser (New York: Bullseye Random House, 1995), 41.
  11. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  12. Ciencin, 71.
  13. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2, directed by Marco Brambilla, written by Simon Moore, ABC, May 12, 2002.
  14. Ciencin, 104.
  15. Ciencin, 70.
  16. Gurney, James, Dinotopia (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1992),48.
  17. Gurney, Dinotopia, 91.
  18. Snyder, Midori, Hatchling (New York: Bullseye Random House, 1995), 43.
  19. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  20. Gurney, James, Journey to Chandara (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2007), 130.
  21. Gurney, World, 24.
  22. Gurney, Journey, 49.
  23. George of the Jungle, directed by Sam Weisman, Burbank, CA: Walt Disney and Buena Vista Pictures, 1997.
  24. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  25. Gurney, First, 98.
  26. Gurney, First, 73.
  27. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  28. Gurney, First, 63.
  29. Vornholt, John, River Quest (New York: Bullseye Random House, 1995), 80.
  30. Gurney, Journey, 125.
  31. Gurney, First, 98.
  32. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  33. David, Peter, The Maze (New York: Bullseye Random House, 1999), 16.
  34. Vornholt, 13.
  35. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  36. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2.
  37. Gurney, Dinotopia, 141.
  38. Gurney, Dinotopia, 37.
  39. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  40. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2.
  41. Gurney, Dinotopia, 79.
  42. Gurney, Journey, 149.
  43. Gurney, Dinotopia, 77.
  44. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  45. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.    

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