Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend

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.

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3 Responses to Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend

  1. Bryan says:

    Hi Robert,

    You mentioned Blade Runner in your original review of Baby. Did you ever publish a review of Blade Runner? If so, any luck digging it up? I would be interested to see what you originally thought about it in 1982, and if your opinions have changed, positively or negatively, as various versions of the movie have surfaced over the years with, eventually, the release of the elaborate blu-ray/DVD set a few years ago, and a limited theatrical run for “The Final Cut”. Reading about the production and post-production troubles of this movie as a teenager was the first time I was exposed to the “business” side of Hollywood, and how much of movie-making is just a job for the people involved. The tensions between Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford, and between Ford and Sean Young, and especially between Scott and the financiers of the movie over the editing. We probably know too much about this kind of thing now, but at the time it was brand new to me, and I really found the whole story absorbing, but disenchanting as well.

    Thanks,

    Bryan

    • roberthorton says:

      I guess I never did write about Blade Runner. I have re-visited the movie a couple of times when they’ve re-issued it in various definitive new forms, and I have never had a revelation that made me get over my initial disappointment in it. It’s a spectacle, but it just doesn’t do it for me, and I think it brings up a lot of Scott’s limitations (and some of his strengths, too).

  2. Moor Larkin says:

    For what it’s worth, the “Making Of” featurette brushes up quite well. Strange that it never gets included on the dvd’s in a less fuzzy form. It’s here at the moment:

    http://www.retrojunk.com/movie/trailers/2727-baby–secret-of-the-lost-legend/a/

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