In 1993, Steven Spielberg stunned moviegoers around the world with the incredible lifelike dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Less celebrated, is another dino-centric movie that he released that year, this one an animated adventure that was as far from realistic as it gets.
We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story, produced by Spielberg's now-defunct Amblimation, was marketed as the family-friendly solution to Jurassic Park, which many felt was much too graphic for younger audiences. Jurassic Park made box-office records and sprouted a cinematic universe that continues to this day; hardly anyone remembers We're Back!, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.
Loosely based on the 1987 children's book by Hudson Talbott, the movie follows a group of dinosaurs that are granted enhanced intellects by a wise old time traveler, Captain Neweyes (and his alien assistant, Vorb), who then sends them back to modern-day New York City, where they thrill young children keen on meeting dinosaurs. While there, they go on an adventure with two young runaways, Louie (Joey Shea) and Cecilia (Yeardley Smith).
Despite having an all-star (and somewhat unusual) voice cast that includes John Goodman, Julia Child, Jay Leno, Walter Cronkite, Charles Fleischer, Larry King, and Martin Short, We're Back! bombed with critics and at the box office, taking in just over $9 million domestically. You probably forgot this movie even existed, but somewhere, deep down in your subconscious, you can hear John Goodman belting out "Roll Back the Rock (To the Dawn of Time)."
Over the last two decades, the film has pretty much fallen into obscurity, hidden by the T-rex-sized shadow of Spielberg's much more beloved dinosaur projects—you must recall that he also produced 1988's The Land Before Time. But I love the movie (which is currently on Netflix, by the way) and wanted to learn more about the story of its making.
To that end, I tracked down Hudson Talbott and two of the project's directors, Phil Nibbelink (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, An American Tail) and Simon Wells (Balto, The Prince of Egypt), all three of whom provided us with an oral history of how such a strange yet amazing movie came together in the first place.
Hudson Talbott: I had done a calendar that was a satire of a pet owner's manual, but for dinosaurs in 1984 or '85, called Your Pet Dinosaur. A children's book editor saw it in Barnes & Noble and looked me up in the Manhattan phone book and invited me to do a children's book — I had never thought of doing kids' books before, but that first one, We're Back!, was a hit and I've been doing them ever since, 32 years later!
[Universal] called me and asked if I would be interested [in selling the rights] just a few months after the book came out. Surprisingly, they weren't the first. Hanna-Barbera had already reached me. Universal paid off HB and bought the rights for Spielberg.
He was very, very nice and extremely flattering. The only time we actually "worked" on it together was when they flew me to London to the animation studio they had there. He would call in every day from L.A. It was like the voice of God coming out of the speaker phone. I had very little to do with the production — they were just appeasing me by meeting the people working on the film.
Nibbelink and Wells were working on Fievel Goes West when they began to put the movie's pieces together. However, since Jurassic Park and We're Back! came out the same year (production on the latter was pushed, as we'll explain later), everyone on We're Back! was aware of the, shall we say, "scaly competition."
Simon Wells: It was weird because, of course, we'd started making our dinosaur movie a long time before Steven even bought the rights to Jurassic Park. So we felt a little bit like, "Hey! We're making a dinosaur movie, now you're making a really, really big well-known dinosaur movie."
Phil Nibbelink: There was no gap in the production, we just moved from one to the other, and so the crew had no downtime, it was really quite smooth. We started storyboarding We're Back! during the production of Fievel Goes West [in 1990]. Simon and I were pulling double duty where we were directing the animators and the color and the production of Fievel Goes West, but we were boarding [We're Back!] at the same time.
We would see them in production on [Jurassic Park]. I was blown away when I saw the first shot that ILM did was the Gallimimuses [running] over the hill, and I was just blown away when I saw that. I knew it was gonna be a game-changer.
Talbott: We're Back! was started before Jurassic Park and took forever to finish. No matter. I thought the big wave of Dino Mania had peaked long before, but I was wrong. It was still coming. Living in New York City and having done dinosaur stuff as early as 1984 skewed my perspective. I probably could've continued to do dinosaurs for my entire career. But I needed to move on. I'm rather restless when it comes to my creative focus.
When it came time to adapt Talbott's book, Spielberg decided to tap an Academy Award winner after the first draft wasn't to his liking. Talbott didn't have much say in how his work was adapted, but he was well compensated with a handsome paycheck and the freedom to explore the Universal lot in Los Angeles.
Wells: There were a lot of very talented people who worked damned hard on [We're Back!] ... I started working on it, originally with Flint Dille, another writer, writing it. That kind of didn't work out, and so Steven asked John Patrick Shanley to write it for us. John Patrick Shanley had just won the Oscar for Moonstruck, so he was a big cheese. He agreed to do a draft, which he knocked out in record time.
Nibbelink: We had to take [Hudson Talbott's] little book, which basically had no villain and hardly any plot, and turn it into an 85-minute feature film with American movie structure. For him, that was a very painful and horrifying process to watch us try to expand his little cute idea into a full-blown thing ... he was always afraid that we were killing his baby, and in a real sort of way, we were.
I spoke to him, I explained the whole [horrifying] process that all children's book authors have to go through, having an American movie structure superimposed onto their cute little 20-page book ... I said, "Talbott, you've got to put a big smile on your face and you've gotta say, 'I love it! I think it's the best thing ever!' Because you gotta sell it, [if] you wanna make money." [laughs] Even that was a hard pill for him to swallow.
John Patrick Shanley won't like this story, but I thought his dialogue was a bit stiff in places, a little unnatural and hard to read. Many of the actors found that to be the case as well, especially John Goodman, so the way we worked it is that we would record the line— the deal I made with the actors is that yeah, let's just get it the way John Patrick Shanley wrote it, and then we have that.
The actors would be relieved, because then they could just be more of themselves and they would just make a few line changes just to make it flow for them. Those takes were invariably more natural, we cut that in, and Steven was OK with that, but John Patrick Shanley heard it and he was really upset that we had changed a few of his words and he insisted that we put it back the way it was, so we had to put it back, what he originally wrote, which I think is unfair and very frustrating for everybody.
Talbott: I had little to do with the outcome of the production ... it was void of my irony or tongue-in-cheek humor -- the classic story of the New York author selling his book to Hollywood movie folks, but then in miniature, since it was a kids' book going to a kids' movie. It was a learning experience for me.
I just remember riding around the Universal lot in a golf cart, hopping from the Amblin offices to Universal offices, stopping at sets to watch a shoot and then going to lunch in the commissary. It was the Hollywood of my imagination, but it was actually happening. I had a blast ... The whole thing was a lot of fun and a great era in my life. A primordial era in my life, but I still remember how much fun it was.
As stated above, the voice cast was packed with talent, even people you would never expect to hear in a kids' movie, like CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and legendary chef Julia Child. The rationale for bringing them on was simple...
Nibbelink: There is a funny story there, because I [did] most of the voices for the animatics. I can do a Julia Child and I can do a Walter Cronkite, and so when it came time to put voices to our storyboards I would do those voices, and it made Steven laugh and so he said, "Fine, let's just go with those guys [for the voices]."
Talbott: Hey, it was Steven Spielberg. He could get anybody ... The voice actors just came into the studio, read their lines, and disappeared. None of them came to the screening in Hollywood.
Wells: We traveled round a great deal to get people. Because we were based in London, we'd fly out to L.A. for three or four days and have back-to-back recording sessions with people.
Of course, there were a bunch of amazing behind-the-scenes stories with the actors that Nibbelink and Wells were all too happy to divulge.
Wells: I remember John Goodman [Rex, a gallant T-rex], bless him, came in, and he just had his wisdom teeth removed the day before and he was in real pain, and you wouldn't know from his performance, he was great. But anytime between takes, he was there just kind of nursing the side of his face, I felt so sorry for him.
I was more excited about working [with] Felicity Kendal [Elsa, a motherly Pteranodon], because she'd been a television star from my youth and I'd even actually approached her about a voice for a student film I did or was planning to do. I wanted to get her to read a little story and she politely refused, so it was actually kind of a minor victory to get her as a voice talent on We're Back!
Nibbelink: We recorded [Walter Cronkite as Captain Neweyes] on a Saturday morning in downtown New York. It was our policy, Simon and I, where we would fly to wherever the actor was, and that took us all over the world ... When we got there, it was in a skyscraper and it was a 9 o'clock recording session, and of course the doors were all locked downstairs, but there was a porter who let us in and we went up and we met the engineer who was there, we got all set up, and then we waited for Walter Cronkite.
And we waited and we waited ... We had no way to communicate with him on a Saturday because, of course, the people we had communicated with before were his agent and stuff, so they were not at work [that day]. Finally it dawned on me, maybe he couldn't get in downstairs, and so I went down to the street level and sure enough, there he is, cold and huddled up against the sidewalk.
I let him in, he was just mad as hell. My first meeting with Walter Cronkite was to meet with a grumpy, cold old man, and I had to apologize up one side and down the other and warm him up, get him some coffee, jolly him up. Basically bring him back to life before we could record the session.
When I was directing [Julia Child as Dr. Juliet Bleeb of the Museum of Natural History], the first line is "the dinosaurs knock on the door," and she's supposed to yell — she's way off in the back of the museum — "I'M COMING! I'M COMING!" So when she read the line, the first time she read it, she said [in a stately and quieter voice], "I'm co-ming, I'm co-ming." I said, 'Well, you're in the back of the museum and you're running, can you please yell and project [proceeds to copy her characteristic voice] "I'M COMING! I'M COMING?" She said, "Well, you don't want me to do it in that silly cartoon voice, do you?" And I went, "No, I'm sorry. Please, just do it as it you naturally would." She says, "I thought not!"
[Later down the line,] we were looping [with Martin Short as Stubbs the Clown] … he had recorded months before in New York and we went back and caught some new lines.
We were going through some of the lines doing what's known as a touch-up, and he finally said, "Why are we touching these up? They seem fine to me." And we said, "Well, we had heard through Spielberg's people that you were unhappy with your own performance and that you wanted to do touch-ups." He says, "No, I didn't say that. I think my performance was fine." I said, "Well, we think your performance was fine, too." We both stood there, all looking at each other and blinking for a few minutes.
So, somewhere, somebody had lied to both of us. Perhaps Steven was unhappy with the performance and he didn't wanna tell that to Martin, so Steven's people told us that [Martin] wasn't happy with the performance and somebody told Martin that we weren't happy with his performance. We both realized that we had caught Steven in a lie, basically.
[Leno] showed up at the recording studio and we got to get to know him. Interestingly enough, when he's not on stage, he's very, very shy and talks in a low tone … and he's practically talking in a whisper ... He always wears the same clothes … jeans and a blue denim shirt, and he just wears that continuously. So, onstage, of course, he has the nice suit, but the rest of his life, he's in jeans and this blue denim shirt. So he shows up in these jeans and he's hunched over and ... he's talking in a whisper, in a very low voice, and I give him the script and we say, "Okay, rolling." And he says, "Are we rolling?" I go, "Yes." He goes, "HEY! MY NAME'S VORB! HOW ARE YOU?" A completely different personality, it's amazingly different.
Wells: This was right around the time when Jay Leno was just exploding as a [celebrity]. I think he'd just taken over doing [The Tonight Show], and so we got him and then he was a huge name doing this little tiny part [as Vorb]. But he was great fun, he really enjoyed it, he had a really good time ... that's the advantage of having someone like Steven producing your movie."
Three actors were seriously considered for the role of Captain Neweyes' evil brother, Professor Screweyes, who has his own radio that picks up people's deepest fears.
Nibbelink: We first recorded John Malkovich to play it, and he delivered such a dark and dangerous performance that Steven didn't like it and thought it was too scary. So we said, "How about Christopher Lloyd?" He liked that, because Christopher Lloyd gives sort of caricature performances. I was in London and our producers were in L.A. and we all flew to Boston, where Christopher Lloyd was in a play that summer. We all got to the recording studio, and we're all sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting, and he never showed up.
Many hours later, we finally found him [but] he couldn't do it, so we all flew back to London and L.A. and we came out the next weekend to record him again, and that time he showed up and he delivered a great performance, but Steven didn't like it.
In the end, Kenneth Mars (Friedrich Kemp in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein) got the part of the main antagonist due to his flexibility and range. However, the multiple recording sessions for Screweyes didn't come cheap.
Nibbelink: It was amazing how much money [was spent on one thing], and Steven would change his mind; thousands and thousands of dollars every time you change your mind, it was quite expensive.
Once a good chunk of the movie was done, Spielberg pulled Nibbelink and Wells off of We're Back! so they could develop an animated version of the stage musical Cats. Brothers Phil and Ralph Zondag were brought on to shepherd the project along, but Nibbelink returned once Cats fell through, although the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation continued to start and stall several times. As such, Nibbelink (who developed Cats again at a later date with Dick Zondag following a rewrite) remarked that it "seemed to have 9 lives."
Wells also came back to We're Back! after the stoppage of Cats, but became more preoccupied with directing Balto (1995). The Zondag siblings could not be reached in time for this story.
Wells: After Cats fell apart and I guess Steven wasn't terribly happy with the way the film was going under Dick and Ralph, Phil and I were brought back. At that point we were developing Balto and some serious thought was given to how everything was gonna pan out. It was decided [that] it would be much more efficient if I took on doing Balto and Phil handled We're Back!
We split up at that point and Phil really carried the lion's share of the work on We're Back! My involvement with that basically ceased completely.
I was really involved in doing a very early stage of it and some of the John Patrick Shanley version. Then I was really out of the loop for a very long time and only briefly came back to the movie. It's a bit wrong of me to have my name on there as a director, because I probably did less than everybody else did on the [movie].
Nibbelink: I never really worked directly with Dick and Ralph. I went back into We're Back! and Steven pushed [back] the release date and added a million dollars' worth of changes. We went back and fixed a lot of things and changed a lot of stuff, did a lot of repair work in there.
Part of the thing that created the repair work was we screened it for an audience, we had a test screening at Universal, and Sid Sheinberg was there, and we listened to the focus group, the focus group hated the film. And so Sid Sheinberg pressured Steven into making a lot of big changes.
I was very impressed with all the special effects, I thought that there was a lot of beautiful work being done by the effects department, especially in the circus at the end. I also liked the flying ship, the ark that has the wings. I designed that, and I think it came out quite beautiful.
Wells: I think a certain amount were choices that Dick and Ralph had made that Phil and I would have changed if we'd had the opportunity. But a lot of the time, you're stuck with the money that's being spent and that's what you're gonna do. I've gotta be honest, it's not a film I have a great fondness for, and it always slightly surprises me [when I meet fans who do].
One of the biggest changes/additions is perhaps the film's most memorable sequence. Rex and his fellow dinosaurs pretend to be floats during the Macy's Day Parade, but when he hears the children below wishing that he were real, Rex breaks out into song and dances with the kids.
If you're paying close attention, you can see a movie marquee for Jurassic Park during the scene. "Roll Back the Rock" was written by Thomas Dolby and covered by Little Richard for the film's end credits.
Nibbelink: That was one of the things we added, just to lighten up the movie.
Talbott: John Goodman singing "Roll Back the Rock" [was my favorite part of the movie].
The film's hauntingly beautiful score was written by James Horner, who unfortunately passed away in 2015. According to Nibbelink, however, Horner did not conduct the music for the project.
Nibbelink: Interestingly, when it came time to do the score for We're Back!, all these different guys would step up and grab the baton and start conducting it. It became obvious to us what was happening — he had basically freelanced the whole project out and there were maybe four different composers who came in and grabbed the baton and would lead. James was there and [he] was in the control booth and then the conductor would come back and say, "Well, James, what do you think?"
And James would say, "Beautiful, great stuff, Bob." I don't know if Steven would've liked that, and I guess we kept it a secret from him because we didn't want to create a problem, but I was shocked, frankly, that, basically, it's not a James Horner soundtrack. It's a combination of guys who were composing in the style of James Horner … I'm not sure how that worked and I couldn't ask. It was clear that James was hearing it for the first time.
So Simon and I were just watching this happen and blinking and not saying anything, but now the truth is out!
When the movie was complete and ready to be released in theaters, Universal marketed it as "A dinosaur adventure for the whole family," a reference to the fact that while Jurassic Park was pretty much just for adults, We're Back! was for audiences of all ages.
Wells: Rather famously, Steven had not allowed his own children to see Jurassic Park, because he felt it was too violent for small kids, so he was a good sport in sort of saying, "But we're making a dinosaur movie that the kids could enjoy."
Nibbelink: We were all hoping that we were creating a dinosaur craze, and unfortunately, when We're Back! came out, we couldn't get the same people [who saw Jurassic Park] to go see the movie. It was very frustrating ... Then Siskel and Ebert reviewed the film and I remember Siskel used the word "arched dialogue"; in other words, he felt that the dialogue was stiff.
It was [also] a lot darker than I would have liked. We had different versions of the movie, and earlier on it was a lot funnier and a lot lighter. John Patrick Shanley['s] version was much darker, and Steven liked that and I did not. I worry that maybe that's one of the reasons that it didn't do well in the theater, I'm not sure...
We thought, "This is the year of the dinosaur!" The whole country was dinosaur crazy … even the [We're Back!] posters said, "A dinosaur film for the rest of the family." In other words, Steven was trying to do counter-programming, and I thought that was pretty wise.
Years later, I bumped into [Jay Leno] at the gas station ... We talked a bit and then we both got in our cars and started driving, and he had one of these open-air Cord Roadster Phaetons. He's driving along next to me and he's yelling at me, "SO HOW'D THE FILM DO?!" I said, "NOT TOO GOOD!" [He said] "Oh, that's a pity." I said, "But it did do well in Finland. I think because it was so cold that winter that everybody went to see my movie just to get warm." He went "HEH-HEH-HEH-HEH-HEH" and he gave it the gas and roared off, but he was waving to me as he went.
Talbott: I haven't seen it since the screening in NYC. That was a lovely gesture on Steven's part: They organized a private screening for me with my own guest list of 150 friends, buddies, and professional colleagues. Great party afterward in my loft!
Would I have done things differently? Of course. But they paid me handsomely for the rights to do it their way, and for that I remain grateful.