Nick Van Owen: Animals, maybe... big iguanas.
Making movies about giant monsters (often dinosaurs) is downright awesome. However, sometimes, the filmmakers just don't have the budget to make a somewhat convincing monster suit, or an animatronic puppet, or stop-motion, or even a crappily animated CGI monster.
But, all hope is not lost. No.... you can just take an ordinary lizard, alligator or other non-extinct reptile (or, very rarely, other smallish animal), stick it in a costume or glue on a few cardboard fins and horns, and... ta-da! Instant dinosaur!
Of course, having an Adventurer Palaeontologist pointing to an oversized iguana with horns glued to its head and calling it a "Brontosaurus" is just as convincing as it sounds, not to mention a complete and utter mockery of palaeontology. After all, if a five-year-old kid can tell the difference between a Tyrannosaurus rex and an iguana, it's highly unlikely anyone is going to be convinced that your cardboard-taped-to-his-back monitor lizard is supposed to be a dinosaur. Especially if they have any understanding of the Square-Cube Law.
Still, that's what makes these movies such cheesy fun anyway. A good source of Nightmare Retardant, many fans suspect that these films' animal stars are the film-makers' pets. This has been a Discredited Trope since the 1960s. A normal-sized but similarly nonthreatening movie animal is the Terrifying Pet Store Rat.
Technically, dressing a horse up as a Unicorn should be this trope, although the lack of actual unicorns to compare them to means that it's usually given a pass.
- Parodied in a series of ads for McDonald's in the UK, which showed people running from a superimposed cute Pug in a lizard costume. The idea being that this is what you got if you spent 99p on a special effects budget instead of their Pound saver menu.
- Also in a Heineken ad which showed a tortoise with stegosaurus plates glued to its shell.
- Parodied in Frankenweenie (and in Tim Burton's original short film). The film opens with the projection of the protagonist's homemade film, on it, "dinosaurs" made of handkerchief sock puppets "fight" and then the "monster" appears: the protagonist's dog in a costume.
- In-universe example in The Last Unicorn. Mommy Fortuna takes everyday animals and uses a little bit of trickery to fool people into thinking they're mythical beasts. When she captures the titular unicorn, as the general public can't see her horn, she has to stick a fake horn onto her head.
- The giant Kaiju-like being Meowthra who attacks the city in The LEGO Ninjago Movie turns out to be an ordinary house-cat... which, seeing as she's an ordinary house-cat attacking a city made out of and populated by LEGO, means that she is a genuine threat to the characters.
- The Trope Namer example (albeit by fans of the film), and the one where most of this footage comes from is One Million BC with Victor Mature and Carole Landis. This film had a plethora of animals in makeup and/or visually enlarged to make them look monstrous. The image above is from this movie. Other examples from this film include an Elephant in fur as a Woolly Mammoth,note a pig with glued on horns and a tail as a Triceratops, Alligator with a Glued on Fin (enlarged), various enlarged lizards (monitors, iguana, skinks) as Dinosaurs, a snake and enlarged Coati (the coati eats the snake on screen) and an (enlarged) armadillo with rubber horns. It also featured a Rubber Suit T-Rex which was NOT enlarged in any way. Yeah, it's So Bad, It's Good.
- One Million Years B.C., the 1966 remake, generally avoided this (favoring stop-motion instead), although a real lizard and spider were thrown in around the beginning to liven things up (and as an homage to the original film which did employ it). A few critics complained that the Archelon scene used a real turtle, but it didn't; Ray Harryhausen made really good Stop Motion.
- The FX from this film got reused from the 1940s through the 1960s in such films as: Tarzan's Desert Mystery, Two Lost Worlds, The Lost Volcano, the American version of Godzilla Raids Again, Jungle Manhunt, Untamed Women, Robot Monster, King Dinosaur, Teenage Caveman, Valley of the Dragons, Journey to the Center of Time, Horror of the Blood Monsters (the stock footage was tinted in color for this film), and the Mexican films Island of the Dinosaurs (La Isla De Los Dinosaurios) and Adventure at the Center of the Earth (Aventura al Centro de la Tierra). If you've seen much MST3K, you've probably seen the footage in question a few times.
- A mammalian example would be the film The Killer Shrews. When the so-called giant shrews were not being played by cheap puppets, they were being played by dogs in very unconvincing costumes. This is hilariously pointed out in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that featured this movie.
- The Giant Gila Monster more traditionally has a reptile play a reptile. The title monster looks okay — except for the fact that it isn't a gila lizard. It's a Mexican Beaded Lizard.
- The 1960 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912) is notorious for this. Particularly when Claude Rains identifies an iguana with plastic fins as a brontosaurus. The most definitely not-fake alligator vs. monitor lizard battle shows one of the main reasons why this trope isn't used anymore. This is the last real use of this trope in the classic sense.
- In the 1959 film Journey to the Center of the Earth, optically enlarged lizards with fins glued to their backs play dimetrodons, a synapsid that actually looks... sort of like a lizard with a fin on its back (though the ones in the film are somewhat larger than their real-life counterparts). They don't actually look too bad. Although, this is later played again with an even bigger monitor lizard in the ruins of Atlantis which they didn't even try to pass off as anything unique. Technically also applicable for Gertrude, who was originally slated to be an Icelandic eider duck, but was played by a white domestic duck in makeup because the trainer couldn't get a real eider through customs in the time available.
- In King Dinosaur (from 1955) an iguana plays a Tyrannosaurus rex (which, for some reason, lives on another planet). Hilariously, the biologist identifies the obvious iguana as a tyrannosaur! As well as throwing in One Million BC Stock Footage. There's also woolly mammoths which are just elephants clothed in shaggy fur, though that doesn't seem very far-fetched considering woolly mammoths are indeed just elephants covered in long fur. All of these, of course, get pointed out in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring the film.
- The large fire-breathing dragon in 1971 Swedish fantasy comedy Äppelkriget/The Apple War is played by a little lizard. Then again, the special effects are really not the point of that film.
- A similar example appears in the 1970s Czech fairy tale movie Princ a Večernice (The Prince and the Evening Star). During the prince's epic journey to fulfill his quest, he has to climb a high cliff at one moment. When he finally reaches the cliff's edge, a dragon-like monster appears before him... played by the all-time slurpasaur favourite — an iguana! This gets justified and subverted in an amusing way though : The "dragon" immediately vanishes, since it's just another illusion summoned by the evil wizard of the story, who's trying to discourage the prince from continuing further...
- Proving that it's possible to dress up an animal and make it work, the banthas from A New Hope were played by an elephant named Mardji draped with thick furs and a puppet head, and since they could only afford one elephant several scenes with more than one bantha were achieved through optical composing. In a few scenes the elephant's trunk can be barely seen through the furs but it's otherwise a convincing illusion, though she apparently attempted to remove her costume several times during filming and caused a few outtakes. Averted with Yoda, who was initially conceived as being portrayed by a costumed monkey rather than a puppet.
- The Land Unknown (1957) had two stegosauruses fighting each other which were obviously photographically enlarged monitor lizards.
- King Kong vs. Godzilla features a giant octopus as a secondary monster on top of the two in the title, who menaces the natives and explorers on Farou Island before Kong comes to the rescue. An unusually-polished example, the giant octopus was for the most part portrayed by real octopi, who were encouraged to clamber over the miniature set by having air blown on them. A sophisticated puppet was also built, and stop motion animation was additionally used to portray the giant cephalopod.
- Nosferatu used a striped hyena to pose as a werewolf, which is pretty clever given that it's dog-like but also alien to viewers in the 1920s.
- Alien³ attempted to put an alien suit on a small dog for a brief scene when the xenomorph is still at small size, but when they looked at the result, it looked exactly like a small dog wearing an alien suit.
- Kung Fury has a wolf who's clearly portrayed by a regular dog digitally made larger, part of the film's general tone.
- A fairly recent and surprisingly convincing example are the aurochs from Beasts of the Southern Wild, which are actual pigs wearing a makeup of fur and horns (nevermind the fact that the aurochs in Real Life were prehistoric cattle rather than pig-monsters).
- In Quest for Fire, the sabre-toothed cats are played by trained lions with prosthetic teeth.
- In a rare modern (and convincing) example, the Corellian hounds in Solo were played by actual dogs in full-body costumes, as an homage to the Death Dogs from the earlier Ron Howard/George Lucas production Willow.
- Beginning of the End revolves around giant mutant grasshoppers attacking Chicago, and naturally said bugs are played by actual grasshoppers composited into the shot - or in some cases, crawling around on postcards.
- In Amazon Women on the Moon, the astronauts are attacked a dinosaur that is some kind of lizard with horns attached.
- In More Information Than You Require, the mole-men ride around on "pseudosaurs", enormous iguanas that they think are dinosaurs.
- Bruce Coville's Camp Haunted Hills trilogy is set at a camp where the attendees learn how to make movies. Harry Housen (ironically, named for an effects artist who specialized in averting this trope), who teaches special effects, specializes in holographic projection and is always painting his pet iguana Myron different colors, or pasting wings, fins or other things on the lizard, even figuring out how to make smoke come out of Myron's nostrils at one point, and then uses the altered iguana as a model for said holograms. Fortunately, the lizard is very patient about all this. The resulting holograms are more effective than one would think — they terrify both humans AND, in the finale, a family of Bigfoot holding the heroes captive.
- Inverted in the original Jurassic Park novel, where the Procompsognatus that attacked the little girl on the beach is misidentified by a reptile expert as a Basiliscus, a present-day lizard that is known for occasionally standing and running on 2 legs.
- Doctor Who:
- Played straight:
- Used very effectively with the giant maggots in "The Green Death", which were real maggots on miniature sets when not puppets made of condoms and taxidermy supplies.
- One of the more infamous examples is from "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", in which close-ups of a rat in a model sewer are meant to suggest a terrifying giant rat. A man in a rat costume is also used. Sadly, and predictably, the real rat and the rat suit of course look nothing alike.
- Subverted (in a way) in the story "Colony in Space". A robot with claws plus a hologram simulates a giant lizard attack.
- The same plot point was used in the later story "Vengeance on Varos", only with a hologram (stock footage) of a fly instead of an iguana. Doctor Who also played the trope straight at least once.
- Played straight:
- Parodied in a Little Red Riding Hood-based skit on Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus (also seen in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) in which the Big Bad Wolf is played by a tired-looking dachshund with a piece of faux fur tied to its back.
- The Adventures of Sinbad, used superimposed crows and iguanas as giant monsters for its first season.
- One of the Time Travel episodes in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The Series has the family being transported to "prehistoric times" and being promptly chased by a giant monitor lizard. The alleged Child Prodigy identifies it as a Tenontosaurus, which in reality was a vegetarian dinosaur. And then a caveman shows up.
- An interesting case where this actually works is the BBC documentary series Monsters We Met. The giant Haast eagle is played by an enlarged Harpy eagle, and it's downright creepy.
- An America's Funniest Home Videos submission spoofing Jurassic Park used dinosaurs played by guinea pigs. GUINEA PIGS.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: The Original Series:
- An episode has a lovable alien creature played by... a pomeranian with a horn stuck between its eyes. Granted, it fulfilled its main requirement: it was cute, and could alternately be lovable/evil.
- Klingon targs throughout the various series were generally played by largish dogs in costume, although since the targ was supposed to be roughly that size and mammalian (vaguely like a small, angry boar), it didn't go too poorly.
- The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Resolutions" used a spider monkey that had been trained to walk on its hind legs. Unfortunately the first time we see it is in a tree, so the effect is ruined. And even when it's standing, it's still recognizable as a monkey.
- Star Trek: The Original Series:
- Merlin occasionally has Arthur fighting giant underground monsters, vaguely mammalian but with no hair and huge front teeth. They are actually naked mole rats filmed close-up and superimposed on the action. And this from a series that routinely includes a convincing CGI dragon.
- Despite being created with CGI, the Ancestral Komodo Dragon from Terra Nova may be a subtle parody of this trope.
- In a shout-out to the Doctor Who example above, Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible uses miniature footage of an ordinary crab superimposed on footage of a sewer, as well as some footage of a claw puppet, in order to give the impression of a Giant Enemy Crab.
- Space: 1999: in the episode "New Adam, New Eve", in a change from the usual People in Rubber Suits, giant lizards are encountered in a cave. Commander Koenig makes short work of them with his laser.
- Team America: World Police:
- Thunderbirds episode "Attack of the Alligators" features an accident with some kind of Super Serum getting into the water table near a laboratory somewhere in Louisiana. Live baby alligators were employed on model sets alongside miniatures of the characters, but since working around the limitations of models and miniatures was what Gerry Anderson Productions did, it actually worked fairly well. Have a look. It doesn't hurt that alligators are actually scary on their own. (Although it's rather easy for reptile aficionados to tell that they're babies.)
- Made fun of in Girls with Slingshots, during Maureen and Jameson's honeymoon when they travel to a Dinosaur theme park with a "Brachiosaurus" which is a just a giraffe painted green and a "Triceratops" which is a rhinoceros with a glued frill.
- There's a quite funny YouTube video claiming to be of "A GIANT SPIDER". It's a dachshund in a spider suit.
- A sort-of Let's Play featuring every single way there is to hack, glitch and otherwise mess with Pokémon Blue has one joke entry where the cartridge is put through various abuse themed around the Pokemon types. When they get to the Dragon type, they settle for taping a bunch of spikes and wings to a cat.
- Spoofed in The Adventures of Captain Bucky and his Space Marshals, in Outer Space where the terrifying Moon monster is a Chihuahua (the same one used for the Series Mascot) with additions.
- At least one website has over-analysed the biology behind these.
- A prankster dressed up his dog as a giant mutant spider, then went around using it to scare people and posting footage of the encounters on Facebook.
- Parodied by Olive Jar Animation's Gila Monster! Each episode of this stop-motion animation series ended with the director letting his pet iguana (obviously not gila monster) wander through the dollhouse-sized sets. Best episode ended with the iguana "tasting" part of the scenery. D'awww...
- Also parodied in South Park, "The Startling" story arc, which really needs to be seen to be believed.
"It's a Guinessaurus rex!"
- In one episode of Doug, Doug and Skeeter were making a monster movie in their backyard. They attached a cardboard shark fin, tail, and jaws to Porkchop, to make him into a "shark dog".
- Parodied in an episode of The Angry Beavers in which Norb, Dag, and Stump go spelunking. They see the massive shadow of a ferocious dimetrodon-like animal approaching them... which turns out to be a tiny lizard with a fin conspicuously taped to its back.
- Leonardo da Vinci supposedly glued some wings onto a lizard and told his friends he'd found a real dragon, before revealing the truth. Imagine him telling them all they'd been punk'd.
- The Fiji Mermaid, a hoax created by sewing together the corpses of a fish and a monkey.
- When platypus specimens were sent to Europe shortly after Australia was settled they were widely believed to be an example of this.
- Pandas also got this treatment; until one was brought back to Europe alive, they were believed to be the work of a joking taxidermist.
- Another hoax was the Jenny Haniver; it's actually just a mangled carcass of a skate or ray, but they got paraded around by curiosity-cabinets and such for years as some kind of bizarre new monster.
- The De Loys Ape was a mangled spider-monkey corpse propped up in a picture to hide its tail and make it look larger than it was.
- Ever wonder why you know exactly what a unicorn horn looks like, with the spiral running down it? It's because during the Middle Ages, "unicorn horns" were common both in Wonder Cabinets and in rich people's home-remedies (mostly for impotency) — they actually came from narwhals.
- Not even people are exempt! During the 1800s especially, actors would be pretend to be "wild men" from jungles, islands, and so on. One from the San Francisco Barbary Coast era was known only as Oofty Goofty, the only words he spoke while in costume; his handlers first covered him in tar, then stuck horse hair into it. In the end, he had to go to the hospital because it wouldn't come off, and he wound up having to soak in chemical thinners on the hospital roof for a few days. This ended up killing off most of his pain receptors on his body, allowing him to think up his next great act: have people pay to hit him with a baseball bat since he "felt no pain". This act lasted until a heavyweight boxer gave him a whack and cracked several ribs.
- The Pleistocene varanid lizard Megalania could be seen by some as nature's example of this trope.
- Same for its contemporary Meiolania a.k.a. the tortoise that wished it was an ankylosaur.
- With the recent evidence that it might be quadrupedal, we can add Spinosaurus, who now looks less like a sailed dinosaur with a crocodile head and more like a giant crocodile with a sail on its back. Some '50s slurpasaurs were exactly that.
- Draco lizards look like they're this trope, when they have their gliding-flaps extended. They're real lizards that can protrude their ribs outwards to support sail-like structures along their sides.
- As well as lizards from the genus Basiliscus, who are known to run on two legs like dinosaurs.
- Inverted with the very first named dinosaur. Megalosaurus means "big lizard", because that's what it was believed to have been back in 1824. Keep in mind that it was known only from a fraction of the lower jaw, which resembled a scaled-up version of the jaw of a carnivorous monitor lizard, so this wasn't a bad guess.
- Shringasaurus, a Triassic reptile with a strong resemblance to the "tyrannosaur" in the 1960 Lost World film.