It’s been almost twenty years since Bill Watterson’s comic strip ended, and it’s still as popular as ever. The collections continue to be on the shelves of every bookstore and library. Watterson’s recent, unexpected reappearance caused great joy across the internet. Last year even saw the release of a documentary whose entire premise is “I sure do miss Calvin & Hobbes.”
So you’d think people would be pretty excited over the existence of Living with Dinosaurs, a Jim Henson special that’s pretty much a Calvin & Hobbes movie.
Mind you, it’s a downbeat, mostly dramatic Calvin & Hobbes movie focusing on a young boy’s struggle to accept his artist father and the new baby his parents are expecting. But hey – that kid also has a vivid imagination and his best friend is a stuffed toy that comes to life! Close enough to put on the poster!
In truth, the titular stuffed dinosaur is kind of a misdirect. The story isn’t really about that – it’s about the relationships ten-year-old Dom has with his parents, and that they have with each other. Like I mentioned, there’s some pretty heavy stuff here, but it succeeds because the dynamics between all three of them feel utterly real.
The most crucial to the story is Dom’s resentment of his father, a struggling artist named Lee (and who he calls “Lee” most of the time). Dom feels like his dad is a bum for not having a steady job and therefore making his pregnant wife continue to work. But Dom gets along splendidly with his mother Vicky – they snuggle together at story time and he poses for her in his new school outfit and they engage in witty banter at breakfast.
It’s clear, however, that Dom’s parents are completely in love with each other despite the financial problems that they’re having. Actors Juliet Stevenson and Michael Maloney have spectacular chemistry – this seems like a couple who’ve been together for years and are still delighted to be in each other’s company.
The final relationship is Dom’s disgust over his upcoming sibling, who his parents affectionately call “The Bulge” at this stage. It seems to Dom that the Bulge might be in danger of dying, but there’s some suggestion that this threat only occurs in Dom’s mind. The problems that we see are relatively common and minor ones for pregnancy, such as high blood pressure and nausea, and we never hear Dom’s parents talk about it like it’s a serious issue.
To escape all of these conflicts, Dom turns to his only real friend Dog, an adorable little stuffed dinosaur played by a surprisingly charming Brian Henson. I often find the younger Henson’s voice to be incredibly grating (see: Hoggle, the Storyteller’s Dog, Seymour, everything else) but he tones down the more annoying aspects here. Dog’s adorable design helps, but Henson’s performance is the real key. I just want to take that little guy home and let him sing Elvis songs to me all day.
Coming back around to Calvin & Hobbes, Dog invokes it in two keys ways. First, the reality of Dom’s time with Dog is never questioned or commented on. When others are around, Dog is just a toy. But when it’s just the two of them, he’s alive and they converse like friends. There’s no magic transition, and there’s no explanation. It might be all in Dom’s mind, or Dog might be a magical toy that only talks to him. It doesn’t matter – what does matter is that he’s real to Dom.
Second – and more importantly to the dramatic arc of the story – he functions as Dom’s conscience in a manner very similar to Hobbes. Just as Hobbes was allowed to talk about how cute Susie Derkins is, so Dog is allowed to say things like “Aww, I love your dad” when Dom is embarrassed by his father making cartoon voices in public. When Dom puts his dad and the Bulge on “The List” of people he wants to kill, Dog rightly points out that that’s a horrible thing to wish for.
The show’s biggest problem is its length. There’s a whole lot going on here – in addition to what I’ve already discussed, Dom has to deal with his cousin Victor bullying him and his uncle Adrian trying to interest him in educational toys and (*gasp*) video games instead of stuffed toys. Those aspects suffer due to the 47-minute running time, and the resolution of the Dom/Lee plotline is very abrupt as well. There’s more than enough here to justify a full-length feature film, which would have been even more satisfying.
A longer running-time (and a theatrical budget) would also have allowed them to explore Dom’s fantasy life in greater detail. We get two sequences that show Dom and Dog in imaginary settings – first a visit to Dog’s ancient cave home, then a traditional dinosaur attack. These are fun sequences, but they both take place in dimly-lit, half-realized environments. With more money/time, they could really have been something special.
When my biggest problem with a story is that I want it to be longer and more detailed, it’s doing something right. Flaws aside, Living with Dinosaurs takes on an ambitious story and tells it pretty well. It invests a stuffed dinosaur with so much life and personality that I actually flinched while watching him get torn by a schoolyard bully.
Really, it would have been enough for The Jim Henson Hour to even attempt a story like this one. It could be as dull as dirt, and I’d still be making excuses for it in this review because I admire the concept. That it turned out as well as it did is almost just a bonus. This is a heartwarming, effective little show, and it’s one that I wish was more widely available.
But this was the last of The Jim Henson Hour’s really ambitious experiments. There’s just one episode left, and it’s a return to the typical MuppeTelevision/Storyteller format. Will the show go out with a primitive CGI whimper or a primitive CGI bang? Join us next week to find out.
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by Anthony Strand