From the 50s to the 70s it was clear that Disney Studios loved zany wacky family comedies; while some of them worked rather well i.e. Blackbeard’s Ghost, while others, like today’s topic One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, fell a little short. Based on the book The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (pseudonym of David Eliades and Robert Forrest Webb) the movie drastically shifts the tone found in the novel from a rather violent story of a group of British nannies up against Chinese agents, both looking for a piece of microfilm containing military secrets hidden on a dinosaur skeleton, to a more kid friendly fare with the emphasis on madcap antics than actual danger.
Though the basic premise of British nannies trying to prevent Chinese agents from getting back stolen military secrets, and the hiding place of the microfilm is inside a dinosaur skeleton, is roughly the same but in the book the story took place in America and the hidden microfilm contained information about a top-secret plot by the Red Chinese, under Mao Tse-tung, to conquer England and possibly the world, while the film ends with a comic reveal that the microfilm contained the Chinese’s Leader’s mother’s recipe for Won Ton Soup.
The book is clearly intended to be a fun thriller but there are serious moments; murders are carried out by villainous agents and one of the nannies has a love affair, while Disney’s version is story aimed squarely at children with some seasoned actors thrown in to placate the parents. Audiences were quickly alerted to what kind of movie they were about to see when the opening scene has an aged Lord Southmere (Derek Nimmo) telling us of his escaping from China with a microfilm containing the formula for the mysterious “Lotus X” and his various zany modes of transportation from a Chinese kite to being carried by the Abominable Snowman.
If after this opening parents haven’t grabbed their children and fled the theatre it is a clear testament of how much they loved their kids, because this prologue was atrocious. Eventually Lord Southmere makes it back to London but he is soon on the run from a group of Chinese agents, and he is forced to duck into the British Museum of Natural History. There is a painfully idiotic sequence where he tries to surreptitiously sneak around the museum while hiding inside a baby carriage until he is forced to conceal the microfilm inside the vertebrae of a Brontosaurus skeleton. It’s actually an Apatosaurus skeleton but that kind of mistake is the least of this film’s problems.
Lord Southmere falls from the skeleton but is able to stagger out of the exhibit before collapsing in front of his old Nannie Hettie (Helen Hayes). In his delirious state he manages to inform her that he hid a very important microfilm for something called “Lotus X” and that they must retrieve it before the “others” do, and he warns her not to trust anyone. As he passes out two of the Chinese agents arrive, they claim to be doctors, and they take away the unconscious man. It’s at this point we should discuss the Chinese agents of this film; the movie’s title is a parody of the 1942 film One of Our Aircraft is Missing, which starred Peter Ustinov who in this film plays the head of Chinese Intelligence, Hnup Wan. White actors playing Asian characters is nothing new as we’ve seen it done time and time again from the 1930s Charlie Chan movies to the horrible Mickey Rooney landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Now Hollywood no longer puts white actors in terrible Asian make-up (well with the exception of Cloud Atlas) they instead just change the characters from Asian to Caucasian, illustrating that the White Washing of the film industry is still going on strong if only a tad subtler.
What’s a crime here is that Peter Ustinov is a brilliant actor and he is just wasted in this silly racial stereotype role, as is Clive Revill who is stuck playing his Chinese number one henchman. Now One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing isn’t all bad; Helen Hayes is quite fun as the leader of a group of nannies hellbent on defeating these nefarious villains and rescuing Lord Southmere, and I particularly enjoyed Joan Sims as Emily, the one young nanny who thinks the whole thing is just “so exciting” and she is an overall delight in this film. There is a nice bit where two boys, charges of Helen Hayes, who secretly get involved in the hunt and, by trying to prove to their nannies how much smarter they are, they end up tipping off the Chinese that Brontosaurus skeleton that everyone is fighting over is the wrong one. Speaking of the skeleton theft this is what everyone paid to see; three nannies in a high speed chase with a prehistoric cargo is pretty damn fun to watch. The jokes a pretty predictable; a lot of double takes and jaw droppings, and even big game hunter who thinks that thing would make an excellent trophy, but overall still a decent sequence.
At ninety minutes the movie does run along at a fairly good clip, and I did chuckle a few times, especially during the Chinese martial artists versus the old nannies big fight at the end, but this is certainly a movie of its time and most modern audiences will either find it quaint and boring while others will find it offensive due to the “Yellow Face” casting. Sadly both are valid points of view making this a film that can only be recommended to the cinematically curious and the Disney completists.
Trivia Note: The skeleton prop used in this movie eventually turned up in a much better film; it was used for the Krayt Dragon’s skeletal remains that C-3PO walks by when he first arrives on Tatooine.
One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
Disney Studios employees a slew of classic actors for what is basically Saturday morning Kiddie fair, and the great Peter Ustinov wearing slant eyed make-up is something I’d rather forget ever happened. I can certainly understand why the authors of the novel were less than pleased with the result.