Revisiting “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend,” One of the Most Fucked-Up Family Films Ever Made

Revisiting “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend,” One of the Most Fucked-Up Family Films Ever Made

An honest man who was an honest boy, I have only one memory of sneaking into a movie — and even then, my mom had paid for me to see a movie, just not the one I snuck into. The one I snuck into was Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. I’d already seen it once, and wanted to see it again rather than whatever else my family was seeing. As further evidence of both my fandom and the fact that this was marketed as a movie for kids, I saved a candy container in the shape of the eponymous dinosaur’s head. It was part of a line that also included E.T. and Gremlins heads.

E.T. is what director Bill L. Norton (More American Graffiti) seems to have been going for in the scenes where American couple Susan (Sean Young) and George (William Katt) interact with the young brontosaurus of the film’s title. Spielberg’s masterpiece also apparently gave Touchstone license to make the movie’s bad guys genuinely scary. These bad guys go way beyond “scary,” though: they’re outright murderous, and their interest in the dinosaurs is entirely centered on the fame and fortune a successful catch will bring.

With the latest Jurassic Park sequel about to hit theaters, I just revisited Baby for the first time since I was a kid. Yes, it’s on iTunes, under “kids and family,” with a description that promises “a thrilling expedition deep in the forbidding jungle” and an “entertaining adventure of gigantic proportions!”

My psychological self-defenses must have kicked in when I was a kid, because I remembered the movie being mostly about the Americans’ gentle interactions with the baby dinosaur — with its parents being the big reveal at the end. I’d completely forgotten that the parents are actually the first dinosaurs we meet, and that they both get graphically gunned down: Mom with tranquilizer darts and Dad with bullets. There’s a dramatic death scene where Mom’s head flops down next to the dying Dad.

Here’s what else I forgot: the fact that the story pits a native jungle-dwelling tribe against gun-toting Africans hired by an evil white scientist (Patrick McGoohan). The African setting — Baby was the first American movie to be filmed on location in the Ivory Coast — is established with far more patience than the would-be astonishing fact of dinosaurs’ survival, starting with an opening sequence of a ceremonial parade through a modern city.

However, it’s all seen through the unapologetically biased lens of George, a cynical sportswriter who’s depicted comically failing to teach natives how to play baseball. It’s also rife with what a soundtrack reissue booklet refers to as “National Geographic nudity,” and given that National Geographic has apologized for its past racism, maybe it’s time for Disney to reassess whether Baby still ought to be promoted in the “kids and family” video section — rather than the “Gen X soberly faces its past” section.

(The score, by the always-underrated Jerry Goldsmith, is the one aspect of the film that’s worth saving: it combines traditional orchestration, electronic elements, and a little musique concrète. Think Planet of the Apes Baby Dinosaurs. The reissue even includes the bespoke pop-song pastiches the producers cooked up instead of licensing existing hits for the dino-junta to rock on their riverboat.)

The production has its own backstory, also seen through a white lens: “machete-wielding natives were ready to retaliate” for the fact that a local child was killed by one of the film’s drivers, AFI notes, “but tensions eased after film emissaries expressed their regrets and agreed to pay for the young girl’s funeral.” Power outages, strong winds, and animal bites plagued the production, which involved three elaborate dinosaur models, “so life-like that villagers were reportedly frightened.”

Most reviewers were unimpressed by the resulting film, including the dinosaurs. “Daddy and mommy look as if they were made out of cement and ‘Baby’ as if its skin had been stitched together from old footballs,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. Roger Ebert was more impressed with the dinosaurs (“surprisingly believable”), though not with the movie as a whole (“dreary”).

It must have been those “cement” creatures that had my nine-year-old self running back to see Baby, because it certainly wasn’t the terrifying story. Looking back, it’s probably fair to call Baby a high-water mark of practical dinosaur effects prior to Jurassic Park, though you’ll be all the more impressed with the latter film when you reflect that Baby was the best $14 million could buy just eight years before Spielberg changed the game.

It’s also a reminder that bringing dinosaurs into the modern world has been an ambition of fantasy filmmakers and writers dating back at least to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World (1912) and its 1925 movie adaptation. It just took them a while to get it right. In his Baby review, Ebert clearly saw what needed to happen, and what Spielberg subsequently achieved: “The movie even blows the one moment you’d assume couldn’t fail — the first sighting of a brontosaurus. Instead of a moment of quiet awe, the movie gives us the gee-whiz approach of a Godzilla remake.”

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom may not be great. It can’t be worse than Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. If you’ve never seen it, don’t. If you saw it as a kid, like me, revisit the movie only if you want to be reminded of how much fucked-up shit gets passed off as family entertainment. If you have kids, definitely spare them. (As an indication of the film’s scientific accuracy, there’s a fatal attack by a murderous brontosaurus.)

The screenplay got at least one thing right. “Just another legend?” asks Susan?

“If we let it be,” replies George.

Jay Gabler