- January 4, 2014
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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Making natural history films for children has its challenges. There is the unpleasant fact that creatures eat each other to survive, not to mention reproduction. ”What are they doing mummy?” asks the unsuspecting toddler. The answers are sometimes complicated.
A bigger problem is the commitment to truth. With a movie that has the name BBC Earth stamped on it, there is a duty to scientific accuracy, and that runs headlong into a duty to make a buck. In Walking with Dinosaurs, making a buck wins.
Starting from the basis of a successful documentary series made in 1999, the feature film has been shaped and reshaped to make it more appealing for North American kids. In a sense, that is fair enough, because the story takes place in North America, albeit 70 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Except that they didn’t: no one and no thing ruled Earth, but let’s not get into that.
The story follows a small pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (voiced by Justin Long) who has to survive the loss of some of his family, a scary migration across the Alaskan wilderness, and big adventures such as falling in love with another cute pachyrhinosaurus called Juniper (Tiya Sircar). Patchi’s constant companion is a talkative prehistoric bird called Alex, who speaks with a Mexican accent (John Leguizamo). That’s also fair, because the species Alexornis was first discovered in Baja, Mexico.
Each species of dinosaur is introduced formally, with a freeze frame, a scientific name, and a description of its eating habits. The pachyrhinosaurus is a herbivore, but Patchi is grabbed as a baby by a Troodon, an omnivore with sharp teeth, who puts a hole in the bony frill at the top of his skull. Patchi is thus instantly recognisable in his herd, because he has a hole that makes a noise when the wind whistles through it (and yes, I’m sure some of the double entendres in the film are intentional).
The backgrounds were filmed in Alaska and New Zealand, to get settings that looked like Earth of 70 million years ago. Many of these are stunning, as is the dinosaur animation. But even with a great deal of scientific accuracy behind it, the film becomes cloyingly anthropomorphic.
The dinosaurs have feelings, they talk in modern American parlance and their family dynamics are just like ours (i.e. American, nuclear). Yes, of course it makes the dinosaurs more appealing to children, and yes, there is a century-old tradition of anthropomorphism in films for children, but doing it the old way isn’t the only way, or always the best way. What’s frustrating is that the film set out to be much better than it is.
It was originally going to be a silent film, without dialogue or narration. The dinosaurs didn’t make wisecracks and the storytelling was to be entirely visual, with a strong musical score. Somewhere along the line, that changed. The dinosaurs didn’t just start to talk, they got names, and the script (credited to the experienced John Collee) was stretched over ”the hero’s journey”, like so many others. The designers, albeit with a team of palaeontologists watching, were told to make the dinosaurs cuter, with bigger eyes and more kid-friendly features.
I’m not sure who drove this process. Apart from BBC Earth, the partners in the film include Reliance Entertainment, an Indian conglomerate with vast wealth behind it, and Animal Logic, the Australian effects and animation house. The co-directors are Barry Cook, an experienced American animator (co-director of Mulan) and Neil Nightingale, the head of BBC Earth, the new marketing name for the BBC’s natural history brand. Nightingale is a former head of the natural history unit, with a first-class degree from Oxford in zoology. We may assume that Cook took charge of the animation side, and Nightingale tried to keep it real, with educational value, and yet profitable.
The educational value is compromised. Children with an interest in dinosaurs will get some superb, thrilling sequences that are close to what we know about certain species. The younger viewers will think dinosaurs could talk, and that they were cute and playful and warm-blooded. They will also find some of the episodes quite scary, as when a forest fire almost engulfs Patchi. The narration warns us when things are heading in that direction, which is reassuring.
For its grandeur, the film deserves praise. It has great sweep, made more powerful by the addition of 3D. For its lack of nerve, its unwillingness to be the film it set out to be, and for underestimating the intelligence of modern children, it deserves less praise.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS: THE MOVIE
Directed by Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale
Rated PG, 87 minutes