Mark Reviews Movies

Walking with Dinosaurs


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale

Cast: Karl Urban, Charlie Rowe, Angourie Rice, the voices of Justin Long, John Leguizamo, Skyler Stone, Tiya Sircar

MPAA Rating: PG (for creature action and peril, and mild rude humor)

Running Time: 1:27

Release Date: 12/20/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 20, 2013

If one were curious what a movie that was developed in committee ever looked like, here's Walking with Dinosaurs, which is part education tool, part cutesy and generic story about talking animals, and a complete mess of form. The movie is so piecemeal in its construction that one can see and hear exactly where the various revisions to the drafts of the screenplay were made.

It's very loosely based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, which inserted computer-generated dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals into footage of real landscapes and cleverly framed it as a nature documentary—as if somehow a camera crew traveled back in time to film these creatures—complete with a wise voice of authority telling us exactly how these beasts lived. The basic concept is in this movie, with some finely rendered dinosaurs and their fellow inhabitants of North America during the Late Cretaceous period wandering around and interacting with the wide plains and dense forests of Alaska.

Even large chunks of the narration accompanying these images in John Collee's screenplay (spread throughout the credits are other writing duties, aiding the theory that the whole affair was patched together in stages) have the same flowery rhetoric of a serious-minded study of such things as migratory patterns, the scenic backdrops, and other behavioral observations. The change, though, is that the respectable voice has been switched out for a jokier one.

That alteration is the result of the movie's most curious conceit: The animals talk. It starts during the heavy-handed opening scene. Set in the modern day, a paleontologist (Karl Urban) is taking his fascinated niece (Angourie Rice) and skeptical nephew (Charlie Rowe), who doesn't see the big deal about dinosaurs, to a dig site in order to find the rest of the fossilized remains of a tooth he previously discovered. The nephew stays behind and meets a crow who morphs into an Alexornis named Alex (voice of John Leguizamo) that begins telling him the story of how that tooth came to be separated from the rest of its former owner.

The story centers on Patchi (voice of Justin Long), a Pachyrhinosaurus that's the runt of the litter and, after an adventure outside the nest as a baby, ends up with a hole in its bony frill. Pretty much every new development in these early stages undermines and eventually shatters any illusion that the movie has a sincere desire for teaching. From the introduction of dueling narrators (Patchi's voice cuts in to point out that this is his story in between Alex' constant jokes) to the oddity of hearing these animals talk in modern parlance (At least their mouths don't move to form the words they're speaking), the screenplay doesn't take its most obvious educational device—the narration—seriously. Once the baby Patchi winds up covered in the dung of a bigger dinosaur, it's pretty much a done deal.

The story itself is a broad one, following Patchi as he grows up (in a montage set to a pop song), falls in love with a Pachyrhinosaurus from another herd named Juniper (voice of Tiya Sircar), and winds up an orphan with his brother Scowler (voice of Skyler Stone) after a deadly encounter in a burning forest with a Gorgosaurus during the yearly migration south for the winter. There are a lot of obstacles and a fight between the brothers, and everything about these animals feels far too human for them to be any legitimate kind of learning experience.

As a narrative, it's clunky, especially because, on occasion, the movie freezes mid-action to tell us the long, sometimes difficult-to-pronounce names of these creatures and what those names mean. That little quirk, like the lumps of narration that are somewhat informative, seems to be a remnant of some early version of the screenplay that actually did care about these beasts for what they actually were instead of the awkward, romanticized anthropomorphism of the characters they turn out to be.

The movie looks quite good, and directors Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale, along with the visual effects artists, do a worthwhile job of blending the computer-generated creatures with the terrain. There's a sense of mass and texture to the dinosaurs that makes the illusion passable. That barely matters, though, when Walking with Dinosaurs lacks a distinct identity, and the battle between the movie's educational and story-time modes is arduous.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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