Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Ludacris plays a dog cop in Show Dogs, going undercover at a dog show to solve a dog crime. It also looks like the worst movie ever made, which is the secondary theme of this week's entry.

Theodore Rex is kind of like if the Super Mario Bros. movie and Batman & Robin had a kid, and then that kid spent its whole childhood getting hit in the face with a shovel. One of the two best-known stories about the film is that it was designed for theatrical release, part of that whirlwind of dinosaur-themed media that erupted in American media in the wake of Jurassic Park, except that when New Line Cinema saw the final product, and the test audience reports, they decided to send the $33.5 million production direct-to-video; essentially, they were so ashamed of what they had made that they didn't even want to risk making money on it.

The other best-known story is that Whoopi Goldberg made a verbal agreement to star in the film, and then had to be threatened with a lawsuit in order to fulfill that agreement. It is difficult to say whether it would have been better to be attached to Theodore Rex, or to have spent years in and out of court. At any rate, Goldberg was enough of a pro that it never feels like she's phoning it in, and the film's co-citation in her Worst Actress award at the Razzies that year (the only DTV movie to ever receive a Razzie nomination, let alone a win) is not earned. It probably helps that Goldberg's character is a mirthless tight-ass whose primary emotion is annoyance, and whose primary motivation is that she doesn't want to spend time with any of the people around her; I imagine she had plenty to draw on.

So what of this Theodore Rex, the shame of New Line, the film that seemed like a no-win disaster to the star of Eddie and Made in America? It's pretty much exactly that bad, in fact. The story is set "once upon a time in the future", according to the plonking opening narration, at a time when brilliant, evil scientist Elizar Kane (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is just days away from sending a rocket into space that will trigger a new ice age, killing all life on Earth, and permitting Kane to repopulate the globe from "New Eden", his repository of two of every species on the surface of the planet. It's nice of the film to explain this all to us, because then we don't have to worry about the next 70 minutes of the 92-minute feature, during which time the two leads work to uncover exactly that same evil plot. Anyway, when he's not playing God of the Old Testament, Kane has made clones of every extinct species he can find, which is most of them in this horribly polluted, post-industrial hellworld. The most celebrated of his cloning efforts has been to resurrect the dinosaurs after 65 million years, giving them human-level intelligence and making them productive members of society. It reminds me of the celebrated 2015 Spider-Man panel:

Dinosaurs, as members of a not very well-liked but largely quiet minority, have been sufficiently integrated that the police department (of whatever run-down city of inky black nights and gaudy neon signs this is) has recently hired one, Theodore "Teddy" Rex (voiced by George Newburn). Despite his dreams of becoming a detective, Teddy has been strapped to a desk job, but that's about to change: dinosaurs have been showing up murdered, and the commissioner (Richard Roundtree) thinks it will look best if his one dino officer works alongside the robotically augmented human supercop Katie Coltrane (Goldberg) to crack the case. So far, so good,except that Teddy is clumsy, and so enthusiastic and innocent as to be useless, and he also has terrible breath and farts often. I believe this covers the entirety of the film's plot. Coltrane generally looks mildly annoyed, except when the emissions from one end or the other of Teddy's body reach her nose, at which point she looks like she wants to murder him, an emotion that immediately makes her the most likable and sympathetic character in the film.

The thing writes itself - given that we're told the twist ending within the first 30 seconds of the movie, I imagine you could literally write it yourself, though you might overlook the dino femme fatale chanteuse voiced, inexplicably, by Carol Kane - and probably just sounds harmlessly bad. It is not, though this has less to do with the halfhearted noir comedy of writer-director Jonathan R. Betuel's script (an auteur! And a pissed-off auteur at that, who blamed the movie's financial failure on poor marketing, which presumably means that the ads showed footage from the movie and mentioned its title), than with the garish incompetence of the craftsmanship at pretty much every possible level. Though the music isn't awful, that I can recall. The film's $34 million price tag is incomprehensible for such acutely shitty results, even taking away the $7 million bribe Goldberg received to stop fighting and just act in the goddamn thing. This is especially true of the dinosaurs themselves, who look repulsive: this premiered in the same calendar year as the magnificent Babe, and while it's unfair to ask every movie to be the single best film about talking animals ever made, the two films cost just about the same amount. Somehow, one of them has faultless animatronic and CGI hybrid effects that remain, almost a quarter of a century later, warm and inviting and emotionally involving, while the other has stiff robots moving so mechanically that you can almost hear the clacking noise as their eyes snap open and shut. If someone made a movie using the beaten-up automatons from a decommissioned Chuck E. Cheese's as the protagonists of a movie, it would... nope, it would still look better, because those are at least fuzzy, and fuzzy is more appealing than the pleathery surfaces of Teddy and his cohort.

The atrocious dinosaur effects are probably the biggest problem here, but not for want of competition: I have almost as little affection for the ugly, totally unpersuasive sets that stand in for Los Angeles or whatever. It's yet another in the apparently inexhaustible family of movies whose design would be unimaginable without Blade Runner leading the way, but much, much chintzier. As far down as Super Mario Bros. is a step down from Blade Runner, that is about how far down Theodore Rex is from Super Mario Bros. There are gross neon lights, there are dinosaurish objects in the decor that feel freshly constructed out of papier mâché, there are thin little visual jokes that try to acknowledge that dinosaurs are larger and bulkier than humans, but give up about halfway through, like how Teddy's car has a separate door for his big tail, ha ha.

Apparently believing in all of this, Betuel goes way too far in making it "stylish": lots of canted angles, a completely flummoxing opening in black-and-white, except for a bright, gem-colored butterfly that's also a bomb (this ends up being a Clue, insofar as the film's pre-solved mystery matters a damn bit). Some of the actors go along with him: Goldberg is actually not totally checked out, and Mueller-Stahl is weirdly having what appears to be a great deal of fun. Newbern puts great earnestness and feeling into Teddy, though it is the wrong feeling: he's whinging and pathetic, with a voice that I want to describe as a shrill baritone, for all that phrase is a paradox. He's like a guy who apologises for apologising too much. In a film where "the worst" element is a strong race between basically all the elements, Teddy is the worst part, along with the wretched slapstick and scatological humor that hang around him like vultures circling carrion (once, for a change of pace, he gets morphed into a whole bunch of cultural stereotypes, like a Mexican or a Scot, and it endeavors to be make one look wistfully with fondness on relatively graceful jokes like "I didn't butt trumpet"). I have seen worse children's cinema, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen children's cinema that's quite this abject.

And guess what? You can stream it from the Internet Archive, though it's not my fault if you choose to do so.