Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend

May 20, 2011

Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend may well be the ugliest “family” film in recent memory. It’s the latest entry—following Splash and Country—in Disney Studio’s attempt to bring its movies into modern times.

But Baby is a strange and misbegotten enterprise—and a maddening one; there are the seeds of a wonderful film here.

The set-up is great: A youngish couple (she’s an anthropologist, he’s a sportswriter) are in Africa doing research. Well, she’s doing research, and he’s teaching the locals how to play softball.

Deep in the jungle, they discover dinosaurs: a genuine brontosaurus family, unchanged for millions of years. An evil scientist discovers the dinosaurs, too, and wants to bring them back for his own nefarious reasons.

Okay, great. There are classic elements there. Almost a King Kong meets E.T. with a little bit of Bambi thrown in when the dinosaur’s mother is killed.

But Baby flubs it. The basic screenplay—by first-timers Clifford and Ellen Green—is not so bad. But director B.W.L. Norton (More American Graffiti) mismanages darn near everything: The visuals are dowdy, the actors are undisciplined, the structure is lumpy.

Norton tries for a comedy-adventure atmosphere—the kind that has been in vogue since Raiders of the Lost Ark put tongue firmly in cheek—but his light touch is absolutely leaden. When the film tries to mix laughs with action, there are some very weird effects. There’s a lot of violence in the film—dozens of natives are shot or blown up—and the chuckles have a tendency to stick in your throat.

Against the violence of the chase, there’s the cuteness of the baby dinosaur, who is led by our heroes to safety after being separated from his parents. The baby’s doe eyes and friendly smile are inspired by E.T. and the good gremlin in Gremlins. As a special effect, created by Isidoro Raponi and Roland Tantin, it’s pretty good work. But as the focal point for the movie, the little fellow is soulless. The original stop-motion King Kong had more humanity.

There are a couple of local actors who ring true (location filming took place in the Ivory Coast). The real trouble spots are the leads: William Katt (likable leading man of TV’s “Greatest American Hero”) is perhaps too lightweight; Sean Young, memorably sultry in Blade Runner, is ludicrous as the anthropologist. When someone comments that she’s “one of the best in her field,” you snicker.

Disney executives may have been dismayed by the finished product. Up until about a month ago, the film was known simply as Baby. Then the subtitle Secret of the Lost Legend was added in a desperate attempt to approximate the cadence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those sorts of changes are warning signs that a movie’s in trouble. In this case, the Disney executives were right.

First published in the Herald, March 22, 1985

I’m not saying that the cameo appearance of a couple of dinosaurs in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had anything to do with posting this particular review, but on the other hand, hey, this lousy Disney misfire is also a part of the Tree of Life, if you’re hip to the cosmic vibe I’m laying down. This really is a stiff, a classic of second-guessing (as epitomized by the pitiful title change) and bandwagon-jumping, and I’m glad I haven’t had to think about it since the dismal day I saw it.