Life in the Jurassic Period was no cakewalk.
Just ask the star of today’s documentary review. Meet Big Al, an immature Allosaurus from the Jurassic of what is now Wyoming. Al’s skeleton is notable for two reasons: it’s completion, and the numerous injuries that were found throughout Al’s body. Oftentimes the story behind the injury is more fascinating than the injury itself, which may have been why the BBC chose to make Al the feature of his own documentary. Today, I will talk about The Ballad of Big Al, a tale of the life and death of an Allosaurus.
As always, spoilers will be present. To be fair, we’re talking about the life of a fossil dinosaur, so it should be obvious where this story is heading. If you’d like to watch The Ballad of Big Al first, it is available free on Dailymotion here.
What’s it About?
The Ballad of Big Al chronicles the entirety of Big Al’s life, from tiny dinosaur hatchling to museum display. Throughout the story, we see the challenges that predatory dinosaurs face, from chasing dragonflies to battling giant sauropods. Over the first six years of Al’s life, we see how battles with both prey and other Allosaurus take their toll on Al’s body. After getting knocked over time, and time, and time again, Big Al succumbs to his injuries and is encased in a tomb of rock that would be sealed for the next 150 million years. The Ballad of Big Al is a rare dinosaur narrative piece that excels at putting the audience in the shoes of a long dead dinosaur.
Big Al’s story is a sequel/spinoff to the BBC’s classic dinosaur documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs. Released a year after the main series in 2000, Ballad of Big Al has all the hallmarks of the main series, both in terms of storytelling (examining the life of one organism) and appearance. Where the Ballad of Big Al elevates itself over WWD is by making its “protagonist” a more endearing figure, both by showing the entirety of his life and by giving him a name. While living up to WWD’s status as one of the greatest documentaries about prehistory is difficult, Ballad of Big Al is a worthy spinoff that makes dinosaurs just a little more engaging.
Withstanding the test of time?
For a program released in 2000, The Ballad of Big Al holds up surprisingly well. The animations are still awesome, with a seamless blend of animatronics and CGI working in tandem to craft realistic and vibrant dinosaurs. The reddening crest of Big Al as he matures is probably the most striking effects used in the program.
The science holds up well too. Othnielia, a small herbivore Al encounters early in the program, has since been reclassified as Nanosaurus, though this assessment came years after The Ballad of Big Al. Besides this, the only other issue is that the 10+ meter long Allosaurus that occasionally appear are larger than any known specimen. Shockingly, the show predicted the future when it showed Allosaurus practising cannibalism 20 years before it would be confirmed. In other words, The Ballad of Big Al has withstood the test of time, which means you can enjoy it without having to worry about accuracy.
Jurassic Love – an Awkward, Painful Undertaking…
Love in the time of the Jurassic. What a miserable experience.
The Ballad of Big Al has two scenes dedicated to courtship of Jurassic dinosaurs: one between Big Al and a female Allosaurus, the other between two Stegosaurus. As narrator Kenneth Branagh notes, Stegosaurus’ attempt to, um, copulate, is awkward at best, painful at worst. Books like Darren Naish’s All Yesterdays have attempted to decipher the mechanics of such an ordeal, making it out to be…. horrifying.
Equally horrifying is Big Al’s treatment from the lady Allosaurus. After attempting to court a larger female, Al is on the receiving end of a vicious beatdown. The worst part is that after the initial assault, the female looks back at Big Al and then curb stomps him. Talk about dark programming! If The Ballad of Big Al taught us anything, it’s not to mess with women who aren’t interested (in other words: a good thing).
Big Al: The Clumsy Oaf
Watching Big Al try to hunt is like watching Boba Fett in the original Star Wars movies. The movie tells us he is an infamous bounty hunter and good at what he does, but they certainly don’t show us. Same goes for Big Al, whose hunting abilities are frankly terrible. Al gets body slammed by a Diplodocus, is intimidated by an Ornitholestes (a dinosaur that weighed under 20 kg), and worst of all, breaks his toe chasing after Dryosaurus. It’s not like the Dryosaurus he faces do anything to hurt him either; they just run away! In Big Al Uncovered, a behind-the-scenes follow up of Ballad of Big Al, scientist Rebecca Hanna goes so far as to propose that Big Al’s extensive injuries resulted from him being clumsy. Just Like Boba Fett!
Highlight of the Episode: Dinosaur Ghosts
My favourite parts of The Ballad of Big Al comes when the program takes the audience to the University of Wyoming Geological Museum where Big Al is on display. While the thunder and lightning that flashes in the background is a tad cliché, the flashbacks between Big Al in the past and his skeleton on display are awesome. The final sequence of the episode, where Al’s ghost meets his body, is a nice circular ending to the program. It does raise on question however: is the University of Wyoming Geological Museum haunted????
Random Things to Note:
- Fun Fact! Analysis of Big Al’s skeleton in 2020 helped paleontologists identify a new species of Allosaurus, the elusive Allosaurus Jimmadseni.
- The predator trap Big Al avoids is based on the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, a site in Utah littered with Allosaurus specimens that may have gotten trapped in mud while scavenging prey.
- Kenneth Branagh – the film’s narrator – is brilliant and deserves to be on the Mount Rushmore of dinosaur presenters, right there with David Attenborough, Nigel Marven, and…Jeff Goldblum?
Big Al Uncovered
The Ballad of Big Al is technically a two-part program. Big Al Uncovered is a behind the scenes look at the science and production behind the program. Some of the science, like the use of birds and crocodiles to infer certain behaviours, holds up in the present. Others, like the dinosaur with a supposed heart, does not. But the true value of Big Al Uncovered comes not from the science, but rather the sheer comedic value. An Allosaurus animatronic sticking its head out the window? Big Al playing football with a bunch of kids? A mother Allosaurus looking at an egg in a maternity ward???? Big Al Uncovered is 100% worth watching, if not for the science than for watching CGI dinosaurs doing funny stuff like it’s nothing.
The Ballad of Big Al is an intriguing presentation of predatory dinosaurs. While most dinosaur documentaries examine one moment of time, The Ballad of Big Al expands its scope to fit the story of its protagonist. An immersive view of life in the Late Jurassic, the tale of Big Al is a reminder that even the most ferocious animals can get their butts kicked.
Thank you for reading today’s article! If you’d like to know more about Allosaurus and how it connects feuding 19th century scientists with cannibalism and toe infections, I suggest you read “The Monopoly of Allosaurus” here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article. All images are credit to the British Broadcasting Corporation.