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Non-Review Review: Walking With Dinosaurs – The 3D Movie

You never really grow up past the love of dinosaurs. Sure, you are probably never as relentlessly fascinated with the gigantic reptiles as you were when you were a kid, but those prehistoric creatures still garner affection from children of all ages. That was, after all, the basic premise of Jurassic Park, which got a high-profile 20th anniversary re-release this year. It was also the driving force behind Walking With Dinosaurs, the ground-breaking CGI documentary broadcast on the BBC in the UK and on Discovery in America.

So adapting the show to film seems like a logical step, and Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie is a bit of a no-brainer for a holiday family release, especially with families that have children too young to watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or Anchorman: The Legend Continues and who have already seen Frozen. It’s a concept that really sells itself, which makes it incredibly frustrating that Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie goes out of its way to sabotage itself.

"It was a night like this, forty million years ago..."

“It was a night like this, forty million years ago…”

What was unique about Walking With Dinosaurs was the fact that it was filmed like a nature documentary. The only real difference was that subjects of this particular nature documentary had been dead for millions of years. Sure, there were narratives formed and stories told, often expanded in the cultured tones of Kenneth Branagh (if you lived in the United Kingdom) or Avery Brooks (if you lived in the United States), but the most striking thing about Walking With Dinosaurs was the sense that this was exactly the kind of show that David Attenborough would produce if he had access to a time machine.

That’s not to discount the value of a good old-fashioned narrative films, with voice actors and characters and anthropomorphised dinosaurs. After all, if you’re going to ask kids to sit in a darkened room for an hour and a half, you need something to keep them directly engaged and excited. So there’s a perfectly justifiable reason for opting not to produce Walking With Dinosaurs as a purely CGI documentary.

A sight for (dino)saur eyes...

A sight for (dino)saur eyes…

The problem is that Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie tries to split the difference. We get voice actors playing the dinosaurs, and making them seem anthropomorphic. They have human characterisations, higher reasoning, senses of humour, self-referential gags. “You kicked his butt up to the Stone Age!” one young dinosaur praises his father. When one dinosaur remarks that their predators can smell fear, another wittily replies, “That’s not fear.” Dinosaurs of different species interact and talk to one another.

In short, Walking With Dinosaurs sounds a lot like your typical modern animated film. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie wants the best of all possible worlds. The most obviously disconcerting effect is that the dinosaurs talk, but their lips don’t move. It’s often a little hard to get to grips with, particularly when a lot of their other movements are anthropomorphised.

The grass is always greener...

The grass is always greener…

The second disconcerting factor is that the dinosaurs seem to act and behave like regular animals, often fostering a disconnect between the “trying too hard” witty banter and the behaviour on-screen. It’s very hard to believe that a bunch of dinosaurs would repeatedly migrate through a valley that they call “ambush alley.” It’s perfectly reasonable for large animals to behave the way they do here, but it seems surreal when juxtaposed against the self-aware dialogue.

There are moments when the film takes advantage of this curious blend of documentary and family film. The wise-cracking narrators will occasionally pause the action for a time-out or an instant replay; the facts on screen will call into question the narrator’s credibility. However, these moments are few and far-between. For most of the film, it seems like Walking With Dinosaurs just refuses to pick a genre and so unsuccessfully straddles both.

From the day we arrive on the planet...

From the day we arrive on the planet…

There’s a conscious sense that Walking With Dinosaurs doesn’t trust its audience to care about what’s going on without hammering them repeatedly over-the-head; that they can’t relate to dinosaurs without voice-over work from Justin Long and John Leguizamo. Which feels like it under-estimates the children in the target audience. After all, the appeal of dinosaurs is not that they makes familiar jokes or sound like cartoon characters, but that they are so incredibly different from us.

This pandering is particularly obvious in the clumsily constructed framing sequence featuring Karl Urban doing his best impression of Sam Neill. There’s an exposition-ladden phonecall from the teenage protagonist who only appears in the opening and closing scenes, offering a completely unnecessary and cliché back story for the human characters involved in the plot. Jurassic Park featured a “kids reconnect with uncool relative” plot line, but one threaded into the dinosaur narrative, not wrapped around it.

Food for thought?

Food for thought?

To be fair, the basic idea of the framing sequence is commendable. It’s a good idea to teach kids that every fossil has a story, and that dinosaurs lived their own lives as opposed to existing as mythic and unrelatable monsters. It’s great to inspire kids to imagine what those stories might be; what those lives might have looked like. However, the execution is just terrible and condescending and patronising.

Still, Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie looks stunning. The CGI is absolutely wonderful, and a nice reminder of just how much of this would have been impossible even a decade ago. More than that, Walking With Dinosaurs makes commendable use of its 3D. Realising that this is a movie about dinosaurs that is aimed at children, it is completely unashamed of having objects “pop” out of the screen towards the audiences. Birds swoop, rodents dive, bigger dinosaurs snap and spit.

I dino about that...

I dino about that…

There’s a wonderful sense of depth to the film, and the technical skill on display here is astounding. It is very easy to take this level of craftsmanship for granted, and everybody who worked on the animation of Walking With Dinosaurs deserves considerable praise. It’s just a shame that all of this is in service of a story that isn’t anywhere near as ambitious or exciting.

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6 Responses

  1. Completely agreed. Great review!

  2. Thats a very fair review. The framing story was rewritten anonymously during production and the narration – which I thought was pretty funny – was written anonymously in post

    • Thanks John. It is a technically impressive film. The 3D is stunning and the animation is wonderful.

      Well, if the narration was written in post, that explains the decision not to fully anthropomorphise the dinosaurs, since one assumes most of the animation was complete at that stage? It was very disconcerting. The film seems to have been written so that it would be easy to follow with just Branagh- or Attenborough-esque narration. “And, not that much the worse for wear, young Patches returns to the nest; his adventures over for the day.”

      To be fair, there were moments that worked – I’m a sucker for playing with the fourth wall, which is oddly appropriate for a 3D spectacle, so I loved the pausing of the narration to get a bit of background, the instant reply, the reveal that our narrator probably isn’t the expert that he thinks he is.

  3. This was a beautiful movie that was ruined by post-production voice overs. I would like to see a fan edit with simple narration because there was not one line of dialog that added to the movie. It’s a shame.

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