Walking with Dinosaurs transports audiences millions of years back in time to the Late Cretaceous, where dinosaurs of all shapes, sizes and temperaments roam the planet – ranging from the bulky, passive and bony-plated tank Edmontonia to the meter-long, sneaky and agile bird-like Hesperonychus, and the large, aggressive, razor sharp-toothed carnivore that is Gorgosaurus.
Patchi (Justin Long) is small and weak for a Pachyrhinosaurus, but what he lacks in physical strength he makes up for in high spirit and wide-eyed optimism. Encouraged by the paternal Alexornis bird, Alex (John Leguizamo) – who has a symbiotic relationship with Patchi and his kind – the young dinosaur does his best to keep up and survive in this ancient world – one where danger and tragedy lurk around every corner, yet hope and love continue to blossom.
Directed by Barry Cook (Mulan, Arthur Christmas) and Neil Nightingale (the creative director at BBC Earth), Walking with Dinosaurs is named after the BBC’s acclaimed 1999 mini-series. The 3D full-length feature is an attempted marriage between an informative and entertaining documentary (accessible to the under-10 crowd) and a conventional family-friendly animated feature narrative. However, the end result is a rocky and ill-advised wedding.
The (pre-)historical documentary aspects of the film are solid enough, on their own. Walking with Dinosaurs‘ central plot thread is occasionally interrupted with freeze-frame sequences where the various creatures onscreen are identified by their scientific names and qualities. Generally speaking, this doesn’t happen so often that it distracts from the storytelling (with exceptions, of course), and it provides useful information for viewers of all ages in a manner that’s entertaining. Problem is, there’s more verbal explaining of what various dinosaurs’ behavior and physical capabilities are like, but not so much in the way of using the film medium to show them in motion.
Sadly, Walking with Dinosaurs all but falls flat on its face when it comes to providing an engaging story and characters. The film is book-ended with live-action sequences set in the present and revolving around a young brother-sister pair and their paleontologist uncle (Karl Urban (?!), in a throwaway role), but the purpose behind this framing device is lost on the plot: a watered-down derivation of elements from previous ancient-world animated features – be they Disney’s Dinosaur or Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time.
Long makes a valiant effort to infuse Patchi with an endearing personality, as does Tiya Sircar (The Internship) as Patchi’s love interest, Juniper, and Skyler Stone (Accepted) as our protagonist’s headstrong older brother, Scowler. However, the script by John Collee (Happy Feet) provides the cast with onscreen counterparts that are, by and large, flat characterizations based on outdated stereotypes. In addition, the cast is saddled with dialogue that sometimes feels painfully unnecessary – as though the actors were being paid to talk by the minute.
Indeed, between the constant rambling of the dinosaurs and John Leguizamo as Alex’s narration/commentary (which, on its own, isn’t bad), it’s not an exaggeration to claim that someone is talking for around 95% of the running time (it feels nonstop). That becomes very grating to listen to, and it shows a lack of confidence on the filmmakers’ part in the pure visual storytelling. Plus, it suggests that the folk who made this movie cynically presume that kids in the audience have extremely limited attention spans (and will lose interest if everyone onscreen stops babbling for more than a mere ten seconds).
Walking with Dinosaurs features highly-detailed CGI representations of extinct small critters and massive rumbling beasts alike, though the animation is a notch below what is generally considered photo-realistic by modern standards. Likewise, the physics engine for their movement is okay, yet somewhat underwhelming. Basically, even though they’re twenty years older, the dinos in Jurassic Park still feel more authentic by comparison, with regard to how they impact the environment around them.
The live-action footage in the film (composed of exteriors captured in New Zealand and Alaska) is equally respectable – if somewhat unremarkable as a whole – while the 3D is shot for a combination of depth and the occasional pop-out visual that should please the juice box crowd. However, taken as a whole, the 3D factor does enhance the interactive feel of the feature, so it’s worth recommending on those grounds (assuming you go see the film in theaters).
Ultimately, the problem with Walking with Dinosaurs is that it unfolds like a decent 3D documentary screened at a museum theater – which ultimately makes it a C-grade theatrical feature.
That said, children will probably enjoy themselves watching the film, but parents might want to consider bringing a pair of earplugs along (or, alternatively, just staying at home and seeking out the superior Walking with Dinosaurs mini-series narrated by Kenneth Branagh for their kids to watch instead).
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Walking with Dinosaurs:
Walking with Dinosaurs runs 87 minutes long and is Rated PG for creature action and peril, and mild rude humor. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.