'Dinosaur Train' show champions scientific curiosity in kids

CorrespondentFebruary 27, 2014 

Catch “Dinosaur Train Live! Buddy’s Big Adventure” at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.

COURTESY OF JIM HENSON COMPANY

  • Details

    What: Dinosaur Train Live! Buddy’s Big Adventure

    When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

    Where: Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

    Cost: $14-37

    Info: 919-996-8700.or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com

When The Jim Henson Company first offered Dr. Scott Sampson work with its children’s TV series “Dinosaur Train,” Sampson was skeptical.

“I said, ‘you can’t call it Dinosaur Train,’ ” the paleontologist recalls with a laugh: naturally, humans and dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time. But when he heard the train’s passengers would be dinosaurs of various species, he was on board.

“That’s brilliant,” Sampson says. “It’s like chocolate and peanut butter for kids.”

“Dinosaur Train Live! Buddy’s Big Adventure” opens in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium Friday and runs through Sunday. The musical features puppet versions of some of the show’s prominent characters (including a flashy – though introverted – Elvis Presley dinosaur named King) and some larger props, including a replica of the titular train.

The television show it’s based on is from the same Henson Company responsible for the “Muppets” and “Sesame Street” franchises, but it’s also a cult sci-fi and fantasy like “Farscape” and “Labyrinth.” And while those are titles with remarkable reputations, “Dinosaur Train” is a phenomenon in its own right – as much for its genius merger of trains and sauropods as its championing of scientific curiosity.

And without the latter, Sampson wouldn’t be involved.

“I was worried about creating a product that would addict kids to screens even more than they already are,” Sampson says over the phone from his office at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he is vice president. One of his most important professional goals – and a major reason he accepted his current position – is getting kids back outside, so he hesitated in accepting the show’s host role. Then he and his wife came up with a tagline: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries.”

Admittedly, there’s the paradox of the TV show that tells its viewers to turn off their sets, but Sampson has heard from hundreds of parents and kids who are now digging for bones in their backyards or watching birds – “which are actually living dinosaurs,” he notes.

Sampson can relate – his own passion for the extinct animals began at an early age. He recalls a dinosaur picture he drew as a kid; he misspelled his own name, but he got “paleontologist” right. And he’s grateful to have had parents who, seeing his passion and curiosity, drove him great distances to see fossils.

Like him, many modern kids are fascinated by dinosaurs. Part of the draw, he says, is that these were real-world monsters – big, scary things – that are no longer around, meaning there’s no danger of, say, an Allosaurus hiding under the bed. Plus, there’s always the potential for discovery.

“It’s one of the first opportunities that many children have to learn something that grownups don’t know,” Sampson says.

Accordingly, he’s careful to keep real science in the fictional “Dinosaur Train” world. The episodes, which star a CGI Pteranodon family and their adopted T. Rex son (the Buddy in the live show’s title), are followed by live action segments in which Sampson explains the real-world theories surrounding whatever new species was introduced. And the creatures in the show, while big-eyed and cuddly, are honest about their respective places on the food chain.

And if the chocolate-and-peanut butter mix of trains and cute dinosaurs is what it takes to pique kids’ interest in science and the outdoors, so be it – even if the show has to draw a line between realism and kid-friendliness.

“The world of ‘Dinosaur Train’ is of course a more happy and peaceful world than the real Mesozoic world of dinosaurs,” Sampson admits. “In the real word, Buddy might very well eat his family, so we can’t have that.”

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