Walking with Dinosaurs yields an alluring mashup of divergent facets, a cinematic Frankenstein that engrosses with vigor as it repels with inanity. Even the project itself is a hodgepodge of odds and ends. Produced by the BBC Earth team that created the similarly named documentary series that aired on U.S. educational outlets like NatGeo and the Discovery Channel, the film, which cost north of eighty million, almost didn’t get made as studio problems threatened to kill the funding, but aggressive ticket pre-sales carried it through. How great is that, a film that has paid for itself before even hitting theaters? And that’s probably why we’ve been seeing the trailers for it since mid-summer.
The craftsmanship is a visual wonderment, almost on the level of Gravity. The blend of live shot backgrounds filmed in Alaska and New Zealand (the latter where everything Tolkien is shot) and computer-generated dinosaurs is gorgeously seamless and about as real as you’ve seen a dino rendered—it’s up there with the Jurassic Park films. The directing tandem of Barry Cook, who was one of the directors on Mulan, and Neil Nightingale, who comes from the BBC side of the house, bring diverse and complementary skills, but just as with Gravity, special FX wizardry and a keen artistic eye don’t earn you a pass on story.
To move from the flat, remedial nature of an educational platform to something that would hit the “family-oriented” entertainment market (those ticket sales again), BBC Earth ostensibly layered in the cutesy animal voices and personas. The writer of the film, John Collee, happens to be an expert at such commercially aimed cinematic thuggery. He transmuted March of the Penguins into Happy Feet, and his efforts here are about on par with the latter feel-good film. The awkward plot wrapper has a modern day family out on a paleontological expedition (Karl Urban ill-fitting as the Indiana Jones uncle) and the doubting Thomas of the group (a generically generic Charlie Rowe) are sent back in time via a whimsical daydream trigged by a molted old crow and a petrified dinosaur tooth (don’t ask).
Back in the late Cretaceous period, we hang out with a herd of Pachyrhinosaurus (basically Triceratops minus the horns and with a big bony nose boss). The runt of the patriarch’s new litter, Patchi (voiced by Justin Long) can’t get a bite to eat from his chest-beating older brother, Scowler (Skyler Stone), and is subsequently stolen as snack food by a stealthy raptor. Obviously, the hero of the yarn survives, but he’s left with a hole in his frill—think of Nemo and his lucky fin. Patchi does Nemo one better, losing both his parents during the seasonal migrations to a pack of Gorgosaurs (a smaller, slimmed-down T-Rex) who lie like the hungry crocodiles of Nile in those NatGeo documentaries and wait for the teeming wildebeest and zebra herds to jump into their waiting jaws.
To give it context, the prehistoric flashback is narrated by the big ugly crow, who back in the Cretaceous is an even uglier bird with big teeth and mottled plumage. Known as Alex, the attention-challenged Alexornis (now you know how they cooked up the name) possesses a rangy sense of humor, so it’s a good thing he’s voiced by John Leguizamo, who’s the biggest name in the cast. Along the way to maturity, Patchi has many misadventures and clearly, as an undersized dino-rhino, he’s not going to win the alpha position by head butting a rival into submission, but then the call of nature (a feminine herd mate) in the form of the nubile Juniper (Tiya Sircar) changes all that and comes between the brothers.
Given the quality of the visual immersion, the shrilly voiceovers annoyingly detract. There’s some punny good lines like “Think outside the nest” and the future-knowing Alex serves up a telling quip about a lake becoming an oil field, but the fart jokes and dino-powered poop shower miss meteor wide as does the Barry White song cued up when Patchi first sees Juniper. Beside the use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” for a herd of marching herbivores, all the implementations of music are awkward, inappropriate and poorly synched.
The film’s pretty violent, too. There are dozens of deaths, though they are sanitized and mostly off screen. The company that made the fantastic sea plumbing documentary Deep Blue clearly wants to keep it real while making something family-friendly. The attempts to layer in educational facts about the dinos and the past are well intentioned but a bit random and ill-conceived. If there’s a lesson to be learned (beyond every fossil tells a story), it’s that it’s hard to be real and score mass appeal.
Director: Barry Cool, Neil Nightingale
Writer: John Collee
Starring: Justin Long, John Leguizamo, Karl Urban, Charlie Rowe, Skylar Stone, Tiya Sircar
Release Date: Dec. 20, 2013