Friday, March 7, 2014
By Betsy Sharkey
LOS ANGELES — The new 3-D nature tale “Walking with Dinosaurs” is nothing like its predecessors.
Patchi, left, appears with his older brother Scowler in a scene from the film “Walking with Dinosaurs.”
20th Century Fox
Patchi, center, walks with the herd in a scene from the film “Walking With Dinosaurs.”
20th Century Fox
“WALKING WITH DINOSAURS,” animated. Rated PG for creature action and peril, and mild rude humor. Running time: 1:27
I don’t mean the creatures of the Jurassic Period, which came before the Cretaceous Period that is the movie’s staging ground.
Not the “Jurassic Park” period either, when that great paleontologist Steven Spielberg introduced rampaging dinosaurs to a new generation.
No, I’m referring to the late 20th century when “Walking with Dinosaurs” roamed the BBC’s airwaves as an excellent TV natural history series narrated by Kenneth Branagh. But in making the move from small screen to big, the apple fell too far from the tree – or not far enough.
“Walking with Dinosaurs” the movie is a hyper-realistic-looking, character-driven story of survival with talking dinosaurs that can’t decide whether to inform or entertain. The film and its featured creatures do a little of both but modestly.
Unfortunately the “after-school special” sensibility, which never affected the TV production, sticks to the film like dinosaur poop on a baby Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (Justin Long). The film’s poop joke helped earn “Walking” its PG rating, but there’s nothing in the family-friendly story that truly offends.
The movie follows Patchi’s journey from egg-hatching to his battle to be leader of the herd. Alex, a prehistoric parrot, is our narrator. Voiced with a little Latin pizazz by John Leguizamo, Alex is Patchi’s friend – you know, giving him advice, picking the bugs off his hide. The villain role is handled by Gorgon, a Gorgosauraus, who doesn’t talk but does tear Patchi types into bite-size pieces.
To get us to the past – as if we couldn’t simply go there in the first place – the film is bookended by three present-day humans: Ricky (Charlie Rowe), little sis Jade (Angourie Rice) and Uncle Zack (Karl Urban), who has found a dinosaur tooth. This trio is not animated in any sense of the word.
Alex the parrot flies into their world and suggests that Ricky, the teenager too busy to look up from his texting, might try looking at the real world for a change. The film’s lesson plan also includes occasional kid narrators who read the names of the dinosaurs as their species, and their specifics appear in freeze-framed title cards on screen.
Not that there is anything wrong with trying to slip a little educational filler into the meat of a story about the beasts that mated and migrated 70 million years ago in what we now call Alaska. It was, by the way, Alaska’s hot period – flowers and forest fires were more common than ice.
The film, directed by Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale, has a solid creative team behind it. Cook is a longtime animation-effects guy who made his feature directing debut in 1998 with Disney’s “Mulan” (co-directed with Tony Bancroft). Nightingale is the creative director for BBC Earth, overseeing all of its natural history content. He also co-directed (with Patrick Morris) the 2012 nature documentary “Enchanted Kingdom,” which hasn’t made its way to U.S. theaters.
The look of “Walking with Dinosaurs” is distinguished by its realistic effect. The lands the dinosaurs walk on are real, shot in the Alaskan and New Zealand outback. And the computer-generated beasties look remarkably lifelike, interacting with one another and the environment. Until they open their mouths, that is; dinosaur lips aren’t really conducive to forming words.
The screenplay by John Collee is a strange bag of worms. It’s also a bit surprising because he was part of the writing team behind the delightful animated penguin saga “Happy Feet” and was co-writer with director Peter Weir of the fine historic drama “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
There is, to use the scientific term, not enough symbiosis in the story. All the information about migratory habits and species information doesn’t mesh easily with Patchi’s problems with sibling rivalry, or winning the heart and the hand, well, you know, of the beautiful Juniper (Tiya Sicar).
It’s not a disastrous film by any stretch. I learned, for example, that Pachyrhinosauruses have frills. It’s more that “Walking with Dinosaurs” feels like an idea that is evolving – not quite ready to stand on its own.