Having proved a surprise success story at the Chinese box office earlier this month, My Pet Dinosaur is a streaming only affair in the UK. It is a low budget Aussie adventure with more technical ambition than creative impetus.
Were Matt Drummond’s sophomore feature a product of Hollywood, this review would be rather less forgiving. A second dino-outing for the Australian writer-director, the film is Spielbergian to a fault. It would be cliched, even without the looming presence of Netflix’s Stranger Things. From Chris Wright’s swooping, orchestral score to the anchoring story of a boy pining for his deceased father, only smartphones betray the twenty-first century setting. These kids are very much bicycle boys.
Young Jordan Dulieu plays Jake Emory, the troubled teen who inadvertently creates a new species when working on a school science project. There’s more than a touch of The Water Horse to the tale – particularly with one subplot revolving around locals searching for a mythical monster in the Brightwood town lake – but it’s Fantastic Beasts that seems to have inspired the design team here.
Impressively, for a production on this small scale, the visual realisation of designs in the film are of a genuinely high quality. It is easy to believe in the creatures on show because they are, almost entirely, seamless creations. Perhaps one instance of a monstrous water-based animal launching itself into a little boat is a little lame but that’s the exception not the rule. The work of Hive Studios on My Pet Dinosaur is a testament to the growth of Australian independent cinema in an intimidating market.
Having collected a sample of mysterious space gloop from the local woods, with love-interest Abbie (Annabel Wolfe – in a dispiritingly genetic female role), it is when Jake knocks a protein shake onto his findings that Magnus is born. Increasingly developing a triceratops aesthetic, Magnus is a pleasingly cute little dinosaur. Silvery blue scales bring a touch of magic to the science fiction, as do the rapid growth spurts he sporadically begins to experience. The chaos that follows, naturally, revolves around Jake’s fruitless attempts to keep his new ‘pet’ a secret from his ‘jerk’ older brother (Harrison Saunders), harassed mother (Jennifer Champion) and the policeman next door (Scott Irwin). They’re just the nice ones. Also on the scene is a nasty military operation, led by the spookily hairless Colonel Roderick (Rowland Holmes).
If it is hard to pinpoint an original idea in the film, finding good nature is a doddle. Sure, Drummond’s script is abundantly clichéd and rather too stilted to flow, yet it is essentially true of heart. Take the staple scene in which Magnus pops his head between Jake and Abbie on the former’s bed; he’s cute enough but their smiles are infectious. Fundamentally, this is the story of a boy who refuses to accept change and the animal that gives him no option.
My Pet Dinosaur offers an amicable hour and a half for younger children but is ninety minutes that will struggle to hold the attention of more demanding audiences who have seen it all before.