Dinosaurs, we can all agree, are cool. They are very cool to kids: these monsters are part validation of our imaginations, part proof of the wonder of creation, and almost a promise, when you’re only five years old but already know the difference between a Giganotosaurus and a Carcharondontosaurus, of the adventure your life is going to be. The BBC mini-series Walking With Dinosaurs took these fascinating ancient inhabitants of Earth and treated them like you would any other nature documentary subject. A film version was originally supposed to ramp up the visuals and the scale of the project. That would have been cool. But somewhere along the way, a hackneyed hero-journey narrative and a whinging Justin Long were inserted. The film Walking With Dinosaurs plays to the lowest possible level of childishness, with the result that its visuals are spoiled, and the project rendered nigh unwatchable for adults.
If you just mute the film, and ignore the brief live-action framing device – because freaking dinosaurs are apparently not enough to entice rugrats to sit still – it’s an accomplished piece of CGI. There’s a little 3D pop-out pandering, but other than that the action sequences are decent. The film isn’t setting out to be Tree of Life gorgeous or anything, but the filmmakers have created a world that is striking, its inhabitants not as a plastic or vaguely intangible as creature effects can be these days. There’s a clear sense of natural scale, physical stakes, and period-correct beasties. In place of the standard Hollywood T-Rex, the Gorgosaurus pulls chomper duty, and does so admirably. Touches of the story’s documentary roots remain in the scientific names and facts that appear onscreen, and these do actually add to the picture, in a ‘huh, neat,’ kind of way.
But, oh sweet zombie veloceraptors, the story doesn’t. Let’s start with the bird-narrator, because a human narrator would be too boring? John Leguizamo voices Alex, a descendant of dinosaurs – as indeed birds are – who helps us step back in time. Which is fine. The conceit would be a little flighty but forgivable (Leguizamo handles the script best with a spirited accent) if the bird was just around to provide color commentary and the occasional joke; if he livened up this tale of herbovores migrating across what is now Alaska. But the anthropomorphizing only begins there, which confuses us. It’s already asking something for us to settle into the Cretaceous period, but having to hold in mind a bored little kid on vacation and this talking bird, too? The concept is muddled right from the start.
Dinosaurs talking, and having sibling rivalries, and losing their parents in traumatizing fires, and falling in love: all that’s been done and done acceptably well. The photo-realistic aesthetic may not exactly mesh with lots of cliche dialog, but it’s a movie. On movie terms, then, the story is bad. Not necessarily because it’s archetypal. It’s because the film doesn’t know how to shut up. Long voices Patchi, a runty Pachyrhinosaurus as bright and curious and full of heart as any second grader, with about the same emotional depth throughout. He grows to guide his herd to safety, coming to grips with his older brother Scowler (Skylar Stone) and finding love with the spirited Juniper (Tiya Sircar). It’s exactly the kind of generic hot air as the out of place pop songs that plague the picture and puncture its reality. And there’s just so much of it.
Think of a poop joke. This movie has the unfunny version of that poop joke.
I was fully prepared to let the film off with four beers, before doing a little IMDB diving and discovering some of the designers were also involved in Disney’s 2000 movie, Dinosaur. Thinking about that film – a trite coming of age story set in the world of dinosaurs and excused only by its effects – it hasn’t aged gracefully. The style and complexity of computer effects work changes so rapidly, that it won’t be long before Walking With Dinosaurs’ redeeming qualities are also too antiquated to survive. So this is a preemptive fifth beer for that day.
Visually, Walking With Dinosaurs is impressive, but it gets completely undercut by awful dialog and tired tropes. Bitties will enjoy it, but kids who are actually interested in scientific facts about dinosaurs will probably consider this picture a lightweight. If you want a dino-story that actually executes its story, stick with Land Before Time.
Take a Drink: whenever a dinosaur either poops, pukes, or eats something. Do not do all three if you don’t want to go extinct.
Take a Drink: whenever there is a contest for dominance.
Take a Drink: whenever names or educational information are flashed on the screen.
Do a Shot: when Karl Urban appears. Why are you here, Karl Urban?!
Finish Your Drink: when the movie starts stealing from Bambi.