Fantasy is a genre of imagination, one where creators and audiences alike are free to dream up any world with any rules they want. I think we forget this sometimes, in our efforts to make worlds that prioritize excitement and believably. Fantasies can be about more than self-aggrandizement and dreams of power; they can also be about joy and wonder.
Dinotopia is a portal fantasy that asks the question, What would a world where dinosaurs lived alongside humans look like? It’s a charming alternative to more violent high fantasy series, presenting its world as a peaceful egalitarian community. The plot weaves sufficient tension to draw audiences through its narrative, presenting issues for the characters to overcome, but basing those issues within a surprisingly nuanced philosophy.
It’s easy to call stories that favor brutality more mature, and stories without childish in comparison. Dinotopia skews toward a slightly younger crowd, aiming at kids who are a bit too young for Jurassic Park or find less appeal in Jurassic Park‘s action-horror aesthetic. Dinotopia shares many qualities with Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender, satisfying a desire to see dinosaurs cooperating with, rather than chasing, humans.
Most of the time, anyway.
It’s not a life-changing watch, and it certainly has a sort of dated sentimentality that reeks of nostalgia, but I do think it’s worth examination, especially as we head into the new 20s. The structure of the story diverges in small but significant ways from the typical fantasy adventure, and its worldview is a big part of what makes it unique, dinosaurs or no. In any event, it’s a lovely little narrative that I think flew under the radar for a lot of people, so there’s no shame in chasing it down now.
3P Reviews Series: Dinotopia (Miniseries)
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Need-Free Socialist Utopias, Now With More Dinosaurs
The 1990s saw a big surge in dinosaur-related media thanks in no small part to the explosive success of the sci-fi thriller Jurassic Park and its film adaptation. This trend actually goes back much further, as Michael Crichton was inspired to write Jurassic Park thanks to an increase in public attention toward paleontological science.
Fossils have been captivating people ever since we’ve started finding them in the ground, and the early days of formal paleontology are often noted as a major turning point in the role of science as it pertains to the public. Dinosaur skeletons made natural history museums. More importantly, they made them for the masses. While the science has continued in back rooms ever since, the mid-20th century saw several high-profile paleontological and geological research that brought about a renewed fascination with the subject. Among these were the discovery of Lucy, wide acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics, new analysis of the Burgess Shale faunas, discovery of dinosaur nests and evidence of nesting behaviors, increasing acceptance of the relationship between birds and theropod dinosaurs, and the Alvarez hypothesis (the one that demonstrated evidence of an asteroid impact and proposed it led to the extinction of non-avian* dinosaurs).
In many ways, we are still riding this burst of interest, as the mid-20th century discoveries inspired dinosaur fiction like Jurassic Park, which has since inspired a new generation of paleontologists and creative paleo enthusiasts alike. Dinotopia was an early part of the 1990s wave, its first book actually released a year before the Jurassic Park film. The first few entries in the series were art books with passages detailing the story of a man and his son who, in the 1860s, became stranded on a previously unknown landmass populated by dinosaurs. Much of the story is really just an excuse for worldbuilding, as the narrator travels around and shows off beautifully painted vistas and artifacts, all themed around a society integrated with sentient dinosaurs.
The art book eventually spawned a series of additional books, kid’s novels, games, an the like, but for a long time, my only knowledge of the Dinotopia franchise was a miniseries released in 2002. I’ll heretofore call it “the film,” as that’s what I always thought it was, and really, that’s how it’s structured. It’s about four hours long, and it tells its own sort of story loosely paralleling that first book (which, if you hadn’t realized by now, I’ve also read and will be referencing intermittently).
The premise of the film is much like that of the original book, but set a hundred-some years later and featuring different characters. Humans stranded on Dinotopia become integrated into the society, travelling the world and meeting its inhabitants, learning about the Dinotopian way of life. The dinosaurs are intelligent, the more peaceful individuals like herbivores and small carnivores living among people in the cities, while more violent apex predators lurk in the untamed wilderness. Technology is a few centuries behind the rest of the world in many areas, but the civilization is peaceful and need-free, all resources distributed to ensure no one, human or dinosaur, goes hungry. Money isn’t really a concern, and status is afforded through training, not military power or birthright. The tenants of the society are egalitarian and even socialistic, promoting cooperation and harmony, meaning most who grow up in Dinotopia are peaceful and generous.
Of course, that doesn’t preclude the story from conflict; Dinotopia is a lovely place, but might not necessarily fit the definition of a true utopia. It has underlying structural weaknesses which, while not problems themselves, can lead to oversights that cause them. There are antagonists here and there, and while the typical conflicts facing Dinotopians are usually minor affairs, a society with traditionalist values and little adaptability is vulnerable to any significant upset that can shift the power balance in favor of those with few scruples.
Part Two: I’m Here for Pterosaur-Riding Nonsense
Dinotopia is first and foremost a world concept, more than most fantasy series I’ve come across (with maybe the exception of certain video games). As a result, the film is designed to allow as much exploration of the world as it can fit into its run time, with the three main characters illustrating different perspectives on the world. That said, the plot holds up surprisingly well, especially when compared to other stories of this sort. It’s standard fantasy fare, but it has enough minor tweaks that the story is enjoyable to watch even when paired with more well-known examples of the genre.
Most of the story follows David and Karl, half-brothers who start the film on a special bonding trip with their father. While flying in a small plane over the ocean, the three men run into a storm and the plane goes down. David and Karl make it, but their father is trapped in the plane and drowns. Washing up on a nearby shore, the brothers stumble around until they come across a strange man who calls himself Cyrus Crabb. Cyrus tells the boys that they’re in Dinotopia, and despite his sardonic personality, offers to help them get their bearings. He tells them he’s collector of artifacts and trinkets, which he sells in his shop in the capital, Waterfall City. He fails to tell them that Dinotopia is inhabited by, as the name suggests, dinosaurs, but the brothers soon find out on their own.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the world is cohabited by dinosaurs who survived the famous extinction event, and humans who have washed up on the shores of the island over the years. Their descendants have designed a utopian society for use by humans and various species of dinosaurs, mostly herbivores, as well as a few other prehistoric animals. Cyrus is cynical about the enterprise, not overly fond of the dinosaurs thanks to a run-in with one of them that left him less a leg, and we soon learn that many other Dinotopians are apprehensive of Cyrus for his shady dealings. Among them is Marion, a young woman training to be a leading matriarch whom David, Karl, and Cyrus run into at a small town. Marion knows the inner workings of Dinotopia in a way few others do, her mother being a matriarch in the south, and her father the mayor of Waterfall city. She has tremendous empathy for humans and dinosaurs alike, and she’s been investigating some ominous events in the outer villages.
Marion dislikes Cyrus’ attitude toward Dinotopia, but bonds with the brothers and accompanies them to Waterfall City so she can report back to her father. Travelling by Brachiosaurus, the posse discover an essential outpost has been raided and destroyed by tyrannosaurs. The towns use rare glowing gems called sunstones to keep aggressive predators away, but the sunstone for this outpost has gone out — a phenomenon Marion has seen before. Once the group reaches Waterfall City, Cyrus ducks out and gives Karl his business card. The brothers introduce themselves in a public gathering, discovering that Dinotopia has had no newcomers in several generations. They also learn that no one in the outside world knows about Dinotopia because no one leaves — the tempestuous seas around the island are so dangerous that the county has a law forbidding any attempt to leave. Marion then informs her father about the broken sunstones and unusual tyrannosaur activity, but her father dismisses her concerns, explaining that Waterfall City’s sunstone is the largest ever discovered and has never gone out, therefore they at least aren’t under any threat.
Over the coming weeks, perhaps months, David and Karl settle into their new life at citizens of Dinotopia. They’re housed with a librarian named Zippeau, a medium-sized theropod who I think is supposed to be a troodontid. The boys are surprised to learn that Zippeau can speak English, to which he explains that the ability is rare among dinosaurs, but they all speak some language or another, mostly their own. Zippeau and Marion acquaint them with Dinotopian culture, enrolling them in a class (for children) that teaches the basics of how to get by in Dinotopia. David takes to the work readily, scholarly by nature and fascinated by his luck at becoming a part of this world. Karl, meanwhile, is fixated on the death of their father, to whom he was closest, and longs for a way back to his old life. Karl shirks his studies, buddying up with Cyrus and cheating his way to graduation. The two of them graduate and eventually get assigned further studies, David at Canyon City — where cadets learn to fly Quetzalcoatlus, called in the series Skybax — and Karl to the farmlands where Marion’s mother works. Marion, meanwhile, travels between the two locations, growing romantically closer to both of the brothers, but also discovering more problems with the predatory creatures and sunstones.
From here, the film splits off into separate arcs for these three main characters.
David’s enthusiasm wanes, as he’s not particularly athletic and also has a fear of heights. He is an excellent student in the classroom, but the rigors of Skybax training are nearly enough to make him quit. A fellow student who has dreamed of riding a Skybax since she was young helps him learn the ropes outside of class, and Marion helps as well. She’s in Canyon City investigating the Pteranodon flock. The pteranodonts, depicted here as vicious carnivores, normally live in the lower canyon while the Skybax dwell in the upper canyon, separated by an array of sunstones. Surprise, surprise, the sunstones have been flickering, as have many of those around Dinotopia, and the Pteranodon have been growing more aggressive as a result.
During her research, Marion discovers an albino Pteranodon that gets picked on by the others and as a result is tamer than most. She introduces him to David, who “communes” with the Pteranodon and discovers his name is Freefall. On graduation day, David has improved considerably and is on par with the other students, but his nervousness prevents a Skybax from landing on the graduation podium and letting him ride it, the crucial part of initiation. However, after the ceremony, David decides to try again, eventually attracting Freefall’s attention, and completing his training as a Pteranodon rider instead.
Marion spends much of the story as the archetypical love interest to both boys, her main contribution to the plot a sunstone necklace given to her by her parents. One of these days, I’ll set aside time to write about the limited roles given to many female characters are how discourse around them has developed, but for now, I feel comfortable expressing my usual irritation that a character who is decently complex is relegated to the role of macguffin-carrier.
As a figure who is given sway in Dinotopia, Marion actually has a fairly well-developed series of skills and traits that define her character. She’s highly knowledgeable about Dinotopia, even more than most of its citizens. She’s also especially tuned-in to the various prehistoric animals, reluctant to hurt even the predators, and concerned with plights unique to the dinosaurs. Both of these characteristics make her more proactive than her traditionalist parents, willing to explore temples and push boundaries even if it gets her into trouble. She’s frequently a mentor for David and Karl, similar to Zippeau, and like Zippeau, she’s willing to take a page or two from their book as well. She’s something of an instigator for the main plot, which is where a lot of my frustration toward her lack of involvement in the climax comes in. Marion is a fairly enjoyable character to watch for most of the story, but her arc doesn’t really have an ending to it, her success depending entirely on the trustworthiness of David and Karl. It’s not film-ruining, but it’s something that doesn’t age well.
Karl is granted the most weight of the three, his character arc most directly connected to the main plot and the climax resolution. Well, in summary anyway. Karl’s attempts to find a way home and his frustration over losing his father directly play into his character arc. He resists joining Dinotopian society, upsetting customs and refusing to participate whenever possible. He’s a bit of a pill, to be honest, insulting those who try to help or comfort him, and disregarding anything requested of him.
This changes somewhat, more by force than by Karl’s say so, when he’s shipped off to the farms and given a dinosaur egg. The egg hatches into his assigned companion, an adorable baby chasmosaur that Karl has no idea what to do with. Giving Karl what basically amounts to a puppy is perhaps the best move the film could have taken, as it gives him a predictable but straightforward and empathizing trajectory. He is reluctant to care for the creature at first, calling her Twenty-Six after the number on her egg, but of course he grows to slowly care about the dinosaur like any good parent. It’s not initially enough to keep him from seeking a way off the island, as he finds a broken boat on a nearby beach and repairs it with Cyrus’ help. Cyrus agrees to even give him a chart of the reefs so he has a better change of escape, but only if Karl agrees to steal the hatchery’s sunstone for him. Karl does so on Cyrus’ reassurance that Waterfall City has plenty of sunstones in reserve, which is the common assumption as the mayor is reluctant to let Marion’s suspicions become public just yet. Cyrus isn’t ready to let go of Karl just yet, and sabotages his boat, but discovers soon after that Karl has one-upped him and given him a regular rock instead of the stolen stone, which he returns to the hatchery on his way out to sea. Twenty-Six tries to follow him, forcing Karl to choose between trying to fix the boat and saving his chasmosaur from drowning, which is an easy decision. From there, Karl reluctantly accepts that one way or another, he’s stuck here.
That doesn’t keep Karl out of trouble, though; shortly after their next reunion, he and David get into a spat and tumble down a waterfall, which leads them to a hidden temple. They explore for a bit, discovering that this temple, along with others, is an entrance to the World Beneath, a mysterious place spoken of in Dinotopia lore. The residents of Dinotopia hold the temples in high regard, revering the World Beneath as a dangerous and sacred place not to be disturbed under any circumstance. Having disturbed the temple, David and Karl awaken a flock of Pteranodon that swarm and fly off, attacking any city they come across that isn’t guarded by a sunstone.
This development lands the brothers in hot water, and creates a crisis for Waterfall City as its massive sunstone finally fades for good. The urgency of finding new sunstones tightened, the protagonists seek help from Cyrus, who has some familiarity with the World Beneath and has been trying to find sunstones himself. He has a submersible his grandfather built and a map to one of the underwater entrances to the World Beneath, but it can only be powered by a sunstone — a small one specially-cut to fit the submersible’s engine. This is of course Marion’s sunstone necklace. The submersible too small to fit more than three people, Marion reluctantly gives the necklace to Karl and David in the hope that they’ll be able to use it to find more sunstones in the World Beneath.
The boys set off with Cyrus, and Waterfall City is attacked by the Pteranodon swarm. Some of the larger dinosaurs manage to hold them off, but it’s a surprisingly gruesome affair; one kid just gets picked up by his backpack and carried off, presumably eaten.
The boys surface in a cave system with air pockets, and eventually find a vein of sunstone crystals. Once the submersible is loaded up, though, Cyrus turns around and informs Karl and David that he’ll be leaving them in the cave. Marion wouldn’t have given the necklace to him alone, but he wants to take back bags of the crystals so he can use them as leverage to increase his status. That means there won’t be enough room for the brothers, and he doesn’t care to risk a return trip in the old submersible. Despite interference from a cave dweller who stops Cyrus from shooting the boys with his grandfather’s pistol, Cyrus gets away.
The boys thank the man who saved them, realizing he’s their presumed-drowned father, and they have a bittersweet reunion. Karl reveals he took Marion’s necklace, still not fully trusting Cyrus, meaning Cyrus won’t get far before he realizes the submersible has no fuel source. Before he can return, however, Cyrus’ hubris catches up to him and the creature defending this temple entrance, a massive prehistoric fish, destroys the submersible and straight-up eats him.
Trapped for good, the boys convene with their father, who explains that he’s been all over these caves and never found a way out. However, while searching for some means of egress, they stumble upon a pool of water where they find an item they lost at the Pteranodon temple. They realize the entrances all converge on the World Beneath, so this must lead to the other temple, allowing them to escape. David flies the sunstone back to the city, and after being chased by Pteranodons, he, Zippeau, and Marion manage to get the sunstone into its place and ward off the Pteranodon threat.
They all earn back their place in Dinotopia, and reopen the entrance to the World Beneath so that the rest of Dinotopia can use the new sunstones.
Part Three: Looking to the Future from the Past
The miniseries isn’t structured like a television show, but a lot happens in it to the point where a full assessment of the story requires a long summary. Like many fantasy epics, it has a winding plot that gets characters to interact with the world’s mechanics and see some impressive spectacles. The story itself, and the writing to be honest, is aimed at children, so while not simplified to the level one might expect in a cartoon of the same nature, the story itself doesn’t ask a lot of its audience. I’m largely recommending it here for its base entertainment value.
That said, I do think the film warrants a little more analysis, even if its structural qualities aren’t its most visible merits. The thing I find interesting about Dinotopia, and the reason it’s worth talking about now, is that I don’t think I’ve seen any more recent fantasy series set in utopias like this one.
The Dinotopia franchise all but died out in the early 2000s, shortly after the release of the miniseries. It has a dated feel to it, both in its aesthetics and general optimism. It kind of feels like it was written for a younger audience than intended simply because in the intervening years, we’ve become more cynical. Dystopian stories started to become a mainstay in the early 2000s with the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars kicking off, and global warming becoming a more pressing threat. Those issues have only gotten worse over time, and now we also have increased cyber threats, alt-right extremists, waste disposal crises, biodiversity crises, megamonopolies, and extreme income inequality to worry about. While strict dystopian fantasies in the vein of The Hunger Games were a sort of passing fad, most stories set even a few years in the future are pretty bleak, and with fair reason.
This is at least part of why nostalgia has had such a prominent foothold in fiction over the past few years. People want some semblance of control and comfort, and nostalgia reminds them of the good ol’ days when they didn’t have to worry about Facebook bots shilling for Putin and whatnot. This is a bit of a fallacy, to be honest, as increased awareness of global issues and the arrival of new issues tends to overshadow the reality of our modern world. This has always been the case, ever since humans have been able to communicate; the 1980s and 1990s had their fair share of issues. Global warming has been happening for decades, and while it is critical right now, while it is having an apocalyptically visible effect on environments around the world, and it is something that we need to fix as soon as physically possible, it was still a problem in the 2000s. Many of the troubles we are facing today have historical roots. Racism, genocide, ecological disasters, wars, and diseases were plenty common in the 1980s, and in some of these areas, we’ve actually improved. Quality of life, human rights, health, and education have all increased globally. Part of where our current major issues stem from is our increased awareness of problems that, for middle-class Westerners at least, always seemed to be happening to other people. Many of these problems are bigger, and even those that aren’t still need solving. They needed solving in the 80s and earlier, and we failed. We are living with the consequences of those failures now.
Fiction ultimately has a limited influence on how people behave in the real world, but that influence is not negligible. Entertainment imprints onto us values and ways of thinking that can change the course of human civilization. We have cell phones today because of Star Trek. I like a good dystopia here and there, and I’ve seen some highly creative ones over the years. However, large swaths of popular culture seems somewhat stuck between Stranger Things‘ idolization of traditionalist 1980s nostalgia, and The Walking Dead‘s love of individualistic violence. Those don’t imprint ideas that are going to help us figure out the rest of this century. There’s nothing wrong with finding them entertaining, but if we’re going to appreciate media despite its problematic messages, why can’t we also have alternatives with a more functional perspective?
Steven Universe, The Fifth Season, Paranorman, Untitled Goose Game, Black Panther, and The Good Place are all wonderful examples of recent releases that are aimed at changing culture, sometimes in small ways, for the better. Many of them have already done so.
But creating new content is only half of the equation; in order to move forward, you can’t forget where you’ve been before. I’m not overly fond of nostalgia, but I’m not immune to it either, and of course, I have a bias toward Dinotopia because of what it meant to me as a child. It doesn’t mean the same thing today, and it probably won’t mean the same thing to someone watching it for the first time today. Things change.
Dinotopia is a story where the fantasy comes from building, not destruction. The world is a peaceful one, one where basic needs are fulfilled and everyone is welcomed, where people are free to create and explore and invent. There are restrictions, yes, and the society is not without problems, but its foundational principles are solid, and, crucially, altruistic. A few bad eggs can create problems, either by being selfish or greedy, but the society itself can withstand them. The resolution of the film hinges on newcomers, who do things differently but care about their friends, and care about each other, and care about people they have never met but who are depending on them for help. It hinges on people coming together and giving what they can to find a peaceful solution to the problem, to find a literal light in the darkness. They don’t do this out of obligation, or fear, except in a general sense; they do it because they love their friends, and they know their friends would do the same. I think it’s telling that the sunstone goes from character to character, all of them passing it along for as far as they can go, until they can’t anymore and someone else picks up the mantle.
Contribute what you can, do it for the people you love, and ask for help. Some links in the chain are more crucial than others, but they don’t get anywhere on their own.
The effects of the film might be a bit dated, the soft light filter might make the sets look flat, and the scientific accuracy may be near-nonexistent, but we can learn a lesson or two from Dinotopia and apply it to our future. If nothing else, it’s a sweet story with a rare glimmer of optimism.
*Birds are direct descendants of small carnivorous dinosaurs, and therefore grouped within Dinosauria, so it’s not entirely accurate to say that dinosaurs as a whole ever went extinct. They’re still around, though only as a single lineage. Because birds are technically dinosaurs but bear little resemblance to what many people know as dinosaurs, researchers often distinguish them as “avian dinosaurs” and the charismatic extinct dinosaurs as “non-avian.” I like the terminology, because it reminds people that we live in a world where there are more dinosaurs than people, and that Australia has a entire season where dinosaurs regularly attack people. Makes it a better world to live in, you know?