Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie (Review)
Walking with Dinosaurs
Released by 20th Century Fox on December 20th, 2013 (USA)
87 minutes long
Starring Karl Urban (Uncle Zack), Charlie Rowe (Ricky), and Angourie Rice (Jade), with the voice talents of Justin Long (Patchi), John Leguizamo (Alex), Tiya Sircar (Juniper), Skyler Stone (Scowler).
Directed by Neil Nightingale and Barry Cook
About six months ago, I wrote an article for this site in which I summed up my reactions to the first two trailers for Walking with Dinosaurs (then billed as WWD: The 3D Movie). While glimpses of the film's recreated dinosaurs and their world were more than enough to excite me, these trailers also raised some rather worrisome questions: How much anthropomorphism would be injected into the dinosaur protagonists? To what extent would it really be for younger viewers? Would the film's computer-generated imagery and the 3D format serve to mask a weak script or story?
By the time the credits began to roll, almost all of my fears about this project had been confirmed. From top to bottom, Walking with Dinosaurs is a visually astounding but rote, heartless, and exceedingly juvenile movie. There are so many things that prevent it from being even a passable kid-oriented film that it's hard to know where to begin. The film's biggest problem, I would argue, is that it tries to have its cake and eat it too in more ways than one.
Like the six-part BBC docudrama that it spins off of, Walking with Dinosaurs follows the life cycle of an individual dinosaur. Set 70 million years ago in Alaska, the protagonist in this case is Patchi, an rambunctious male Pachyrhinosaurus who rises from the runt of the nest to leader of his herd. As he grows, he befriends an Alexornis named Alex and falls in love with a female of his kind called Juniper. Throughout his life, however, Patchi also has to contend with his bullying elder brother Scowler and a host of predators large and small.
On paper, this is not a bad premise for a dinosaur film, even with the cutesy, unoriginal character names. What cripples the movie almost from the beginning, however, is its attempts to reconcile the raw, untamed world of the dinosaurs with shallow human characterization. These creatures are given realistic bellows, chirps, and cries. Patchi and company, however, are primarily dubbed over by human voices delivering one-note, hammy, unfunny dialogue. Even the movement and body language of most of the dinosaurs feels so calculated and contrived that they would still feel anthropomorphized if the only human voice was the narrator's.
In addition, the storytelling is neutered and childish. For instance, an important figure in Patchi's life is killed, but his actual dying moments are set off-screen and told to us by Alex, who doubles as the film's narrator. Later, the story grinds to a complete halt so that the same irritating bird can give us a lesson on Gorgosaurus, half of which he devotes to ridiculing its short arms. And throughout its entirety, the film shies away from bloodshed--despite the numerous theropods and pterosaurs that try to eat Patchi--but has the gall to feature a scene in which an Edmontonia defecates on him.
This film is nothing like BBC namesake, and in terms of quality, is its polar opposite. Yet had the film's makers infused their characters well-developed, believable human personalities and motivations (as well as even marginally better voice talents), the final product would not be so dire and the humanization of the dinosaurs might even be commendable. Films like The Lion King, Babe, or Finding Nemo are not accurate depictions of the lives of lions, pigs, or clownfish, but are still engaging and poignant films because their animal protagonists have strong personalities, compelling story arcs, and good voice actors bringing them to life. In contrast, Patchi is an annoying goodie-two-shoes, saddled with an equally peevish sidekick, an insultingly underdeveloped love interest, and an irredeemable jerk for a brother.
Outside of the half-baked humanization of its characters, there is actually very little I can find to criticize this film for in terms of scientific validity. Almost all the creatures featured lived in or near modern-day Alaska 70 million years ago, and physically none of them stuck out to me as looking inaccurate or inconsistent with our current perception of them. The Troodon, Chirostenotes, and Hesperonychus are all covered in feathers, for instance, a trait found in some of their close relatives and thought to be present in most small, bird-like theropods. I will note that horns and frills of the Pachyrhinosaurus in this film were more like those of one of the two Albertan species of this genus (P. lakustai) rather than the one known from Alaska (P. perotorum); however, this is an understandable error, as completing digital animation for a movie can take years and since the Alaskan species wasn't described until 2012.
I should stress, however, that I am not a professional paleontologist and would be happy to hear about any glaring inaccuracies that I somehow missed.
Beyond these life-like recreations, and the possibility that it may make more kids life-long dinosaur lovers, there is almost nothing else to by which to recommend Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie. Go see the original BBC series instead, or if you have children too young for that program, The Land Before Time.