"It's time to talk about the future…"
"You mean the Cenozoic Era?"
Dinosaur films have a long, strange history and none of them have ever really captured what it was like to be alive as recently as 60 million years ago. Films like The Land Before Time and Disney's Dinosaur have attempted such a feat, but the anthropomorphizing of the creatures only crushes any hope of truthfulness. The creators of the tremendously successful BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs had already turned their endeavor into a touring arena spectacle, so a feature film seemed like an easy leap for them to make. So could they distill the essence of what made those so lucrative into a ninety minute film aimed at children? Read on to find out…
Walking with Dinosaurs utilizes a framing device involving Karl Urban as a paleontologist working in Alaska on a fossil dig. His apathetic teenage nephew Ricky (Charlie Rowe) has tagged along but doesn't want to be involved, until a raven captures his attention, morphing into a prehistoric bird, voiced by John Leguizamo, that promises to make dinosaurs cool to a kid so consumed with technology. The bird tells of his adventures alongside a herd of Pachyrhinosauruses, namely the runt of a newborn litter named Patchi, voiced by Justin Long.
The dinosaurs migrate south, live for several months and then migrate back north. This cycle goes on, and as Patchi grows, so too does his rivalry with his brother Scowler, voiced by Skyler Stone. When their father is killed by a fearsome Gorgosaurus, the brothers begin to look at the world in a different way, and also look towards a future when they will one day compete to be the new herd leader. There's also a love story between Patchi and a female from another herd named Juniper, voiced by Tiya Sircar.
Walking with Dinosaurs is a downright baffling film. It looks as though it was made with a very serious mind towards telling a historically accurate dinosaur tale, as all of the dialogue is done through voiceover. The characters' mouths don't move, so I can only assume that the studio got wind of this borderline avant-garde silent film was going to be horrendously unmarketable, so they added voices for some characters, including Leguizamo's comedic narration, and then added in a bizarre grab bag of popular music ranging from Fleetwood Mac and Barry White to Matisyahu. It's a truly odd mix, and worked well enough for my seven and four year old daughters, but I was a tad bewildered by the film. I probably ended up enjoying it vicariously through my daughters, but could easily see anyone whose children find the film to be insufferable feeling the exact same way about the film.
I admire a lot of the things that the film does, like stopping the action anytime a new dinosaur is introduced to give its scientific name, the meaning of that name, and whether it's a herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore, but it also feels like a remnant of an earlier version of the film that didn't have the voiceover attached. I'm trying very hard to be polite about this all, but it truly feels like two different films for much of its running time. It's not a total failure, but it's not a complete success either, and just sort of bounces back and forth for ninety minutes. It's entirely reminiscent of the famous Simpsons episode where they add Poochie to The Itchy & Scratchy Show, and your children will either be decrying it as the worst episode ever or left wondering when they're going to get to the fireworks factory.
In spite of all this, a smattering of set pieces worked incredibly well. A march of a herd of Edmontousauruses along a beach set to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" was incongruous, but oddly entertaining. Similarly a sequence late in the film where Patchi attempts to lead the herd off thin ice retained much of the charm that I think the filmmakers were intending to capture before the voices were put in, and the sequence worked incredibly well. I can't help but give the filmmakers credit for at least trying to elevate the form, but it feels as though some marketing visionary like Kenn Viselman (the man behind the dreaded Oogieloves experiment) got his grimy paws all over this thing.
The voice actors were all fine, though their dialogue was horribly tin-eared. Some of Leguizamo's antics played like gangbusters to the kids in the audience, like his extended riffing on the Gorgosaur's tiny arms, but most of it was jarringly incongruous in context. The animation was fantastic and blended seamlessly with what I believe to be actual landscape footage, but every film made almost exclusively in a computer in this day and age looks great. Ultimately I'm just left wondering at whose feet the blame will land for this film that is most assuredly a tug of war between a filmmaker's willingness to compromise and a studio's insistence that the film be more marketable to kids.
Walking with Dinosaurs is not a fiasco, but it comes awfully close on many occasions. Young kids under the age of ten will likely find a lot to enjoy, particularly dinosaur lovers, and who isn't at that age? Any older than that, and they'll just find the film to be insufferable, and adults without children in that same age range will feel likewise. I probably enjoyed the film more than I would have were my kids not with me, and while that's not enough for me to give the film a blanket recommendation, I also can't dismiss the fact that I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would. Anyone that does not fit into that very specific demographic, however, should steer clear and stick with the BBC documentary instead.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]