Dinotopia

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The tale of a mythical lost continent. It is an idealistic Utopian society ruled over by Intellectual Animals. As the title suggests, many of the animals are dinosaurs who are very wise and very vague about how they survived the Cretaceous extinction. Other species, including humans, were marooned on the island over time. Once there, they are taught the ways of pacifism and vegetarianism by the other animals and are integrated into society.

And as goofy as the premise may sound, it works. This is largely thanks to the insanely detailed, gorgeous illustrations of author/illustrator James Gurney, previously best known for his book covers, animation background art, and especially for his incredibly detailed illustrations of historical cultures in National Geographic. Those illustrations certainly inspired the incredible amount of thought he has put into the project, which has resulted is a fantasy setting that is every bit as believable and appealing as Middle-earth.

Like Middle-earth, the concept of Dinotopia has proven so popular that it seems as though everyone has been given a chance to play in Gurney's sandbox. It even looks like Gurney has given everyone an open invite, as the three (thus far) Gurney-written illustrated novels have since been spun-off into (get some Burdock tea and a comfortable seat): A series of novels by various genre-fiction authors. A fourth Gurney-written/illustrated book packaged with a board game that serves as a prequel. A series of children's novels, also by various genre fiction authors. A made-for-TV movie. A computer game. A short-lived television series based, in turn, upon the tv movie. A made-for-video animated film. And, inevitably, a video game. (Note that these spin-offs are roughly listed in the order of closeness to the source material and, perhaps not coincidentally, of how much fans like them.)

It should also be noted that, like Richard Adams, James Gurney never met any Animal Tropes he didn't like...


The main series (books directly authored by James Gurney):[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time - Arthur Denison and his son William are shipwrecked and brought via dolphins to Dinotopia. With their new Protoceratops translator Bix, they travel across the island and learn about its culture and customs. Arthur learns about the scientific achievements of the Dinotopians, while Will and his new Love Interest Sylvia train to be Skybax riders together. Has a Chekhov's Gunman in Lee Crabb, a cranky dinosaur hating man who becomes a recurring villain in later books.
  • Dinotopia: The World Beneath - Arthur Denison leads an expedition into the World Beneath to explore an Advanced Ancient Acropolis. He finds a new Love Interest who accompanies him on the expedition and Lee Crabb tags along, hoping to find riches in the lost city underneath and perhaps a way off the island.
  • Dinotopia: First Flight - A Prequel to the other books that takes place in ancient times. Gideon Altaire is a citizen of the technologically advanced city of Poseidos who is discontent with living in a culture of artificial dinosaurs. He discovers a Scaphognatus named Razzamult who tells him of a plan to invade the Dinotopian mainland and replace all the dinosaurs there with robots. Gideon rescues a group of captive pterosaurs, steals the Ruby Sunstone that powers the attack force, and escapes to the mainland. There he Goes Native to help repel the invasion, in the process becoming the first human to ride a Quetzalcoatlus.
  • Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara - Arthur Denison's exploits have caught the attention of the mysterious emperor of the isolated city of Chandara. He and Bix are invited to tour the city, but their invitations are stolen by none other than Lee Crabb, forcing them to sneak past the border guards and find their way into the city through other means. Along the way, they meet a variety of people and dinosaurs.

In its various forms, the series provides examples of:[edit | hide]

  • Advanced Ancient Acropolis - Poseidos.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population - Where most paleontological art plays the Real Is Brown trope for all it's worth (probably because the influential paleo-artist Charles R. Knight did), Gurney likes to subvert it. A lot. (It's always Mardi Gras in Chandara.)
  • And Now for Something Completely Different: The World Beneath is written in third person, switches perspectives between Arthur and Will, and involves having to stop a real antagonist.
  • Animal Talk - There's some jazz about a "dinosaur language" early on in the first book. Then the prospective Skybax riders are told that, because Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, their mounts will not be able to understand the dinosaur language. Because whether you can understand a certain language depends on your biological classification. Even though humans and other non-dinosaur species can understand dinosaur language. Gurney has, understandably, RetConned this little ball of confusion into oblivion. In Journey to Chandra, Arthur's able to understand small pterosaurs chattering, and it's written out like English.
    • The idea behind the dinosaur language was sound, at least at first. The first book stated fairly early that most dinosaurs speak their own language because they lack the physical structures to speak human languages. Protoceratops and the smaller pterosaurs are the few exceptions, having more parrot-like vocal cords that allow them to pronounce human languages: its why the dimorphodons are used to relay messages, and Bix is an ambassador, able to speak several languages. The skybaxes have different vocal structures again, and so have their own language. A side-plot of the book Windchaser is the that the eponymous skybax is the first of his kind to learn human languages, and becoming a translator for the skybax.
    • Though it should be noted that by "dinosaur language", the first book meant a universal language for all dinosaur species; something very close to the definition of Animal Talk except, as noted above, specific to your Linnean classification. (In other words, imagine humans talking with cats talking with whales talking with aardvarks talking with fruitbats talking with desmostylans talking with tapirs talking with... and it's easy to see why Gurney retconned this.)
  • Anthropomorphic Shift - Gurney strongly dislikes it when animal characters act too human, particularly when it leads to Furry Confusion. He has written extensively in his blog and in his nonfiction book Imaginative Realism about how he himself has struggled to avoid this. However, a few of the spinoff novels and each of the films have featured animal characters that are indeed anthropomorphic or nearly so (the TV movie and series goes ahead and gives an animal character human-like hands). This may be one of the key factors in the Canon Discontinuity...
    • There are a few feathered dinosaurs in Journey to Chandra who appear to have human-like thumbs, but this is a pretty common mistake in paleoart.
  • Atlantis - It's suggested that Poseidos was Atlantis.
  • Author Avatar - Arthur Dennison is in the not-even-subtle-about-it category, particularly in Journey To Chandara.
  • A Wizard Did It - It is very vaguely implied that the sunstones in the World Beneath gave the dinosaurs their sentience.
  • Bamboo Technology - Indeed, the residents appear to be technophobes to a degree, relying entirely on man-power (so to speak; it's just as likely to be crocodile-power or woolly rhino-power or whatever).
    • There's some degree of gadgetry in Chandra, including what seems to be a gramaphone, but they're regarded as curiosities.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies - Some books make mention of oversized prehistoric insects and other arthropods.
  • Call a Rabbit a Smeerp: Every prehistoric creature is called by its scientific name... except for the Giant Flyers with the red-black-white color scheme, who are called Skybaxes by everyone. When huge pterosaurs came and rescued Arthur and Crabb at the end of The World Beneath, these were identified as Quetzalcoatlus northropi, and looked distinct from the skybaxes also present. It wasn't until the third book when it was mentioned in passing that skybaxes are Quetzalcoatlus, but not usually called that. For some reason.
    • Arthur identifies a Skybax as a Quetzalcoatlus "The most magnificent flying creature of all", right from the first time he sees one. The reason for their being two different species is likely because, when Guerney was illustrating the first book, fossils of Quetzalcoatlus were sketchy at best and some of the existing illustrations at the time were wildly inaccurate (as a side-note, a lot of Quetzelcoatlus reconstructions looked like monstrous Giant Flyers). The Q. northropies were probably included for safety's sake.
  • Canon Immigrant - Many of the towns and locations featured in the Young Adult novel series appeared on the map of Dinotopia in Journey to Chandara.
  • Carnivore Confusion - The series is one of the few works involving Talking Animal characters that openly addresses this issue and has, relatively speaking, a well thought-out approach to the problem. All carnivores have switched to a diet of fish and it's implied that those who can (most notably humans) have gone entirely over to veganism. The twist is that some animals refused to make the change and have exiled themselves to the Rainy Basin and Backwood Flats, where they live as their wild ancestors did (similar to The Wild in Kevin and Kell). Interestingly, this is treated by the major characters as more of an alternate lifestyle choice than a break of the rules and such characters are not vilified as one would expect. (At least, not in the book. The movie is another story...)
    • In one of the not-quite-Canon spin-off novels, a city-dwelling herbivore was shown journeying through the Rainy Basin as she was about to die, providing the carnivores with food. This act was referred to in almost religious terms.
    • To be sure, the assurance that fish are kosher becomes a bit troubling when it becomes increasingly clear in Journey to Chandara that any species with more brains than a sponge can communicate with each-other...
    • Additionally, leathers, skins, and furs were seen in use by the Dinotopians. Readers had to wait until Journey to Chandara for the explanation: Arthur Dennison is given a new journal bound in the skin of an Intellectual Animal "whose dying wish was to donate his body to science". Have fun with the Fridge Logic.
  • Catch Phrase : "Breathe deep, seek peace" and the Skybax rider version. "Fly high,seek peace"
  • Chekhov's Gunman - Lee Crabb only had one appearance in the first book and had become the main antagonist by The World Beneath and Journey to Chandara.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome - The Deinonychus librarian Enit and the Troodon timekeeper Malik are not even mentioned in the fourth book (perhaps being lumped under the "many friends" Arthur and Bix bid farewell to before they leave for Chandara), in spite of making named appearances in the first two books. Especially jarring in the case of Enit as his assistant Nallab (a human) does appear. Might have something to do with being unfeathered deinonychosaurs in a 2007 book.
  • Clarke's Third Law - Arthur invokes this when trying to explain the sunstones.

Will Denison: Is it magic?
Arthur Denison: No, I believe it is science, but an ancient, strange science, quite unknown in Europe or America.

  • Creator Cameo - Dinotopia (the first book) has one of these in addition to the Author Avatar noted above. He's a minor figure in the street scene in Pooktook, the man standing to the right of the centrosaurus with the drink-dispensing panniers. He has a child riding on his shoulders, curly-toed shoes on his feet, and the most detailed facial features on that particular spread, especially considering that there are other passers-by standing closer to the foreground.
    • It's justified, though. In Imaginative Realism, Gurney reveals that he often has to act as his own actor/model when there's none handy.
  • Cut Short: The TV series (after the miniseries) ended with the Wizard's magic portal back to the real world mysteriously stolen. To which we ask, "What the hell book did the writers of the show read?"
  • Cypher Language - The Dinotopians use an alphabet made up of footprints. Which just happens to be a straight substitution cipher for the modern Latin alphabet.
  • Deadpan Snarker - Chaz the Protoceratops in Alan Dean Foster's two novels. In Hand of Dinotopia he remarks (after a flash flood in a desert) that only with Will Denison could he risk drowning in a desert.
  • Deathbringer the Adorable - See the Shrouded in Myth example below.
  • Demoted to Extra: Done to some extent to Will in Journey To Chandra; previously he'd had equal pagetime to his father, but in this he appeared fleetingly, twice; as might be expected, the role of his Love Interest Sylvia was similarly reduced. Done much more severely to Oriana, who had been Arthur's traveling companion and budding Love Interest in The World Beneath. Neither of them are even mentioned at the end, when Arthur's reflecting over the places he's seen on the way.
  • Dinosaurs Are Dragons - Run into the ground, then taken out back and shot in the otherwise well-liked spinoff novel Dinotopia Lost. Among the pirates who land on Dinotopia there is one from China (sigh) who insists on referring to every dinosaur regardless of species as a "dragon" (sigh), even the Ornithomimid family they kidnap and plan to sell to a mainland circus (sigh). For the record, your typical Chinese Dragons look like this, and your typical Ornithomimid looked... like a weird bird.
  • Most Writers Are Human - Very oddly applied, even leading to some uncomfortable Fridge Logic. Dolphins (who bring shipwrecked humans to the island) and humans are the most prominent modern-day species on the island. We are assured that there's something about humans. Yeah... Also, according to the text only ten percent of the Dinotopia population is human, but the illustrations suggest otherwise.
    • Then again, the human narrator would naturally be drawn to the human population centers; loitering too long in "wilder" regions like the Rainy Basin would prove hazardous to one's health.
    • Newcomers are even referred to as "Dolphinbacks."
  • Eternal English - Averted in the beginning first book. Arthur Denison notes that one character's English is "archaic". And then it gets played straight after that.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture - Justified. Shipwrecked survivors throughout the ages brought their cultures with them. Also, some who successfully escaped the island influenced other worldwide cultures.
  • Feathered Fiend - Many dinosaurs in Journey to Chandara are shown with feathers, however this is subverted in that they don't behave particularly like fiends.
  • Fish Eye Lens - Coupled with some kind of infrared/rainbow filter, we're told that this is how dinosaurs (and human children and artists) see the world in one page of the original book. As with the convoluted "rules" of the Animal Talk (see above), this has also more or less been RetConned out of existence.
  • Framing Device - First Flight is told as a story that Will is learning as part of his Skybax riding training.
    • A Land Apart from Time and Journey to Chandara are presented as Arthur Denison's diaries that James Gurney found.
  • Fridge Horror - In Journey to Chandara, James Gurney states that Dinotopia no longer appears on modern maps. The manner in which he says so implies that the island no longer exists.
  • Fridge Logic - All the dinosaurs are referred to by the names given to them by the mainstream scientific community (despite the island being completely isolated from that community)... including the ones that haven't yet been discovered and named at the time the books are set in.
    • The Dinotopians are probably using whatever words the specific species of animals are using for themselves, so we could probably consider this a Translation Convention.
      • The fact that the Latin translation of Tyrannosaurus rex is a minor plot point in The World Beneath rules out Translation Convention.
  • Full Name Ultimatum - Sylvia does this to Will too many times to be normal in Hand of Dinotopia.
  • Gentle Giant - Most of the larger species.
  • Giant Flyer - The Skybax (who sit comfortably in Rule of Cool territory), as well as the Pteranodons.
  • Heroes Want Redheads - Will Denison's Love Interest Sylvia is redheaded.
  • Heroic Dolphins: Dolphins were responsible for bringing all shipwreck survivors to the island.
  • Historical In-Joke - It's implied that Dinotopians from the advanced lost city of Posidos escaped destruction and began all of human civilization. Egyptian, Mayan, and Indian art motifs are seen in the pre-Egyptian daguerreotypes, as well as in the Greek-ish language used to name the city.
  • Horse of a Different Color - The animal characters are not, strictly specking, anthropomorphic, which avoids some uncomfortable Furry Confusion here.
  • Instant Messenger Pigeon - Dimorphodon.
  • Intellectual Animal - Most of the cast.
  • Lampshade Hanging - Lee Crabb points out that Dinotopia directly translates not to "dinosaur utopia", but "terrible place".
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis - The original book was presented as a reproduction of a book Gurney found in a university library.
    • Journey to Chandara is another journal that Gurney found in an antique bookstore.
    • At the end of World Beneath Arthur's journal floats away, implying that this is the book Gurney found. This would mean that the same journal covered the first two books.
  • Lost Technology - The Strutters (Steampunk Dinosaur Tank-Walkers) in The World Beneath. They are essentially mechanical life-forms. Funny enough, once they're found technology, nobody particularly wants them.
    • Though this is retconned in Chandara, where some Strutter technology has been adopted by the mainland Dinotopians; ie, for situations that would be to dangerous for humans and animals.
  • Lost World
  • Mineral MacGuffin - The Sun Stones that power the Strutters. See also Power Crystal below.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot - The one exception to the spin-off novels' Discontinuity, among fans, is a well-loved trilogy by Scott Ciencin about the Knights of the Unrivaled. They are, naturally, a Hidden Elf Village of Samurai Troodontids.
    • Also Dinotopia Lost, which has pirates, sympathetic Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a Deinonychus that knows martial arts and had his own hot air balloon.
    • And who can forget the robot dinosaurs of Poseidos?
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist - It's never made clear exactly what sort of scientist Arthur Denison is, but he has so far shown the skills of a paleontologist, zoologist, botanist, geologist, anthropologist and even engineer.
  • Ptero-Soarer - Skybaxes, the Pteranodon guardians of the World Beneath and Instant Messenger Pigeon Dimorphodon. They most of the inaccuracies seen in other depictions.
  • Power Crystal - See above.
  • The Power of the Sun - The sunstones absorb sunlight.
  • Prehistoric Monster - Utterly averted. All the dinosaurs are wise, peaceful and sentient. Even the uncivilized carnosaurs of the Rainy Basin are not above negotiating with any travelers who try to buy safe passage with offerings of fish.
  • Raptor Attack - Hand of Dinotopia has a tribe of Deinonychus living on Culebra. They help out the protagonists in exchange for being taught how to fish.
    • The Deinonychus and Troodon ("Stenonychosaurus") in the earlier books are also now victims of Science Marches On, being depicted without feathers.
  • Retcon - The World Beneath introduces the Sunstones as being newly (re)discovered. Journey to Chandara states that Sunstones have been traded on Dinotopia for ages. There's also the Animal Talk and Fish Eye Lens mentioned above, and the Veganopia mentioned below.
  • Sapient Cetaceans: Although every creature in and around the island of Dinotopia is at least intelligent enough to communicate with humans, dolphins were the first to interact with humans.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Schizo-Tech - Poseidos had robots, flying drones, antigravity cars and computers... before Christ was even born. Possibly Hand Waved by the fact that their access to sunstones encouraged rapid technological development. That doesn't explain how Arthur Denison was able to invent a flying dragoncopter, though.
  • Science Is Bad - Essentially the Anvilicious plot of the second illustrated novel.
    • Hammered painfully into the ground by First Flight, which also featured an Egregious example of Rock Beats Laser.
    • Ironic in that our protagonist is a scientist. Really, it's only technology that is bad.
  • Science Marches On: Probably the reason why the Deinonychus librarian and Troodon timekeeper are nowhere to be seen in the fourth book, as they were depicted without feathers in the earlier books.
    • In A Land Apart from Time, pterosaurs are depicted standing on two legs.
    • In that same book, Malik the timekeeper is referred to as a Stenonychosaurus.
    • A inversion wherein Gurney actually predicted a scientific discovery: The portrayal of Oviraptor as an egg nurse instead of a notorious egg devourer. The latter was the common image we had of this animal at the time the first book came out (as you can easily tell by the genus name), because its fossil remains were found near a nest supposedly from Protoceratops. It later turned out that the specimen in question wasn't a thief caught red-handed, it was a brooding parent.
  • Shown Their Work - Not that surprising, seeing how as James Gurney was already a well established paleoartist when he created the series.
  • Shrouded in Myth - The reputation of Emporer Hugo Khan in Journey to Chandara proceeds his onscreen (so to speak) appearance so much that Arthur Dennison and Bix assume he must be a huge and intimidating creature like a Tyrannosaurus - and then he turns out to be a Microraptor. Probably the least intimidating of all dinosaurs.
  • Sliding Scale of Anthropomorphism - Firmly in the Talking Animal category.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism - On the far end of the idealist side. In Dinotopia Lost a band of cutthroat pirates are actually convinced to give up their former ways and reform after seeing the majesty of Dinotopia.
  • Somewhere a Palaeontologist Is Crying - While the depictions of dinosaurs are accurate (or were when Gurney drew them), how so many different fauna from such a broad span of time came to exist on the island gets mostly Handwaved, though obviously we don't begrudge him that.
  • Spoof Aesop - The Code of Dinotopia, a list of proverbs, has its last line cut off at "Don't p..." Some Dinotopians have suggested that the line might be "Don't pee in the bath."
  • Spider Tank - Sprogs from First Flight.
  • Stock Dinosaurs - Often averted, as the original books loved using more obscure dinosaurs, although the well-known ones do pop up.
  • Sweet Dreams Fuel
  • Talking Animal - Although not all of them talk in human languages.
  • Team Pet - Subverted. Bix would probably bite you in the thigh if you called her this. Really, she sometimes appears to think Arthur is her pet human.
  • Translation Convention - In the first book, the main characters have to learn the Dinotopian language, but it's all presented as English. Same may go for why all the dinosaurs are referred to by their genus names. Lee Crabb makes it clear that there is no translation convention going on for Dinotopia's name, though. The World Beneath does the same for Tyrannosaurus rex.
  • Tree-Top Town - The aptly-named Treetown.
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex - They guard ancient temples in the Rainy Basin and must be bought off with smoked fish to ensure safe passage. Journey to Chandara also features another variant that feeds only on carrion.
  • Underwater Ruins - Poseidos at the end of The World Beneath
  • Utopia
  • Veganopia - Although this appears to have been retconned to mere pescatarianism.
  • What Could Have Been - James Gurney has recently published a non-fiction book, Imaginative Realism, which serves as both a behind-the-scenes look at his painting method and a collection of his lesser known art. Several of the newly-published pieces practically beg for elaborations. Generally speaking, there were going to be a lot more Dinotopia spin-offs including a Theme Park, a line of dolls and toys, and a theatrical animated film (which, from the looks of it, would have been made by people who bothered to read the book).