Walking With Dinosaurs: The Movie (2013) Review

Walking With Dinosaurs Review

1999’s “Walking With Dinosaurs” was a ground-breaking and spectacular six part BBC nature documentary using state of the art film making techniques and special effects to give dinosaurs the full natural history documentary treatment. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, it was serious, scholarly and also immensely entertaining. Imagine, then, such a bold, principled approach being revisited but using the new technology available to filmmakers today: a realistic portrayal of life in the time of the dinosaurs in eye-popping HD 3D with immersive surround sound.

Unfortunately, the “Walking With Dinosaurs” 3D movie positively reeks of the interference of focus groups and studio executives. Gone is the nature documentary aesthetic and any serious attempt to educate or inform. In its place is an anthropomorphised adventure which is more focussed on exploring the feelings of the dinosaurs and sentimental issues such as courage, self-belief and friendship. Thus we are presented with a story which is bookended by completely unnecessary present-day scenes starring Karl Urban (who has now presumably fully embraced the Michael Caine school of saying “yes” to anything he is offered) as an uncle taking his enthusiastic niece and reluctant surly teenage nephew to an archaeological dig. But quickly we find ourselves back in the late Cretaceous period thanks to a crow who morphs into our narrator: an Alexornis called, imaginatively, Alex and voiced by John Leguizamo.

He introduces us to the three young Pachyrhinosaurus: Patchi, his grumpy older brother Scowler (I kid you not) and Juniper, a young female from another herd.  We follow them as they grow from hatchlings into adulthood, dealing with the trials of life along the way: forest fires, migration and, of course, predators.

Leguizamo, no stranger to voice acting in pre-historic films, chooses an accent which immediately undercuts any authority or gravitas Alex the narrator may have had. Apparently he was aiming for a Ricardo Montalban timbre but he ended up somewhere a few sombreros past Robin Williams’ stock Hispanic accent.

It’s clear that this was intended to be a very different film from what it has ended up to be. The small voice cast and the fact that beyond the four principle dinosaurs, no other animal speaks in the film and no effort is made to make it appear as if the animals are actually talking suggest the decision to skew young and kiddie-friendly was imposed on the film long after most of the production work was done. There’s still a ham-fisted attempt to retain some educational value here. For the first half of the film, every time a new dinosaur appears on film, the frame freezes and a caption appears telling you what the dinosaurs name is and what they like to eat. The intentions are good, but it ends up being intrusive, annoying and seriously hampers the tempo of the film when it’s trying to create narrative momentum.

It’s a real shame, too, as the visuals are as good as you’d hope. The landscapes look spectacular on the big screen and the dinosaurs are well realised and convincing. The only complaint on that front is the roster of thunder lizards for this film feels a bit B-list, with none of the megastars of the Mesozoic making an appearance: instead of the mighty T-Rex we have to make do with “Gorgon” the Gorgosaurus (no effort was spared in naming these guys, was it?).

In the end, we’re presented with a lacklustre, compromised attempt to bring “Walking With Dinosaurs” to the big screen: a film too cutesy and full of manufactured sentiment to satisfy fans of the original documentary and too thinly plotted and slow to really engage the attention and enthusiasm of its target pocket money market. For all its promise and thoroughbred lineage, “Walking With Dinosaurs” is decidedly pedestrian.

Score 4