Director: Barry Cook, Neil Nightingale
Cast: John Leguizamo, Justin Long, Tiya Sircar
Length: 87 minutes
Walking with Dinosaurs is probably the most expensive Saturday morning cartoon you’ll ever see. Budgeted at $85 million, the film is vibrantly detailed with a plethora of believably rendered CGI beasts, but its sub-Lion King template and eye-rolling fascination with poop humour sully the picture’s ambition to be taken seriously as an educational tool. Regurgitating a familiar underdog routine, Walking with Dinosaurs might satisfy the very young, but anybody older than eight is liable to be left bored and embarrassed by its simple-minded plot machinations and unending obsession with Mesozoic rear-ends.
Set in the late cretaceous period, Walking with Dinosaurs follows Patchi (Justin Long) a young Pachyrhinosaurus on the journey from youth to adulthood. Traversing huge swathes of country in line with migratory habit, Patchi and his herd encounter a diverse range of alternative species, feeding alongside other docile herbivores and evading monstrous predators. Accompanied by his winged pal Alex (John Leguizamo), Patchi strives to become a respected member of the Pachyrhinosaurus community, hoping to win the heart of female Juniper (Tiya Sircar) and respect of cocksure sibling Scowler (Skylar Stone).
The production notes cite the acclaimed 1999 BBC miniseries of the same name as an influence, but the documentary aesthetic that dictated its televisual predecessor has been jettisoned in favour of something more Disneyfied. Walking with Dinosaurs certainly looks the part with its professionally rendered creatures and impressive depth of field, but the plot trajectory feels recycled and rushed. Very little character development takes place, yet the movie clearly wants to be more than a special effects show reel, wedging in recycled story beats and The Land Before Time style drama to create the illusion of legitimate storytelling. I’m not sure whether laziness or lack of confidence is to blame for the generic nature of the set-up, but either way the results are frustrating. A pleasant visual experience becomes corrupted through monotonous screenwriting and cheap comedy, the film incorporating oodles of juvenile humour into its tonally uncertain structure. One poop joke might have been forgivable, but the film becomes positively committed to churning out an array of witless bodily function gags, even during moments of supposed threat. When a solidly crafted T-Rex-esque antagonist is attempting to chomp its way toward the heroes, is a fart gag really the way to go? I’d have thought no, but the film-makers clearly have other ideas.
A pleasant visual experience becomes corrupted through monotonous screenwriting and cheap comedy
The characters appear to communicate through some sort of telepathy (none of their mouths ever move to match dialogue), which seems like a conflict between Hollywood and an attempt to remain reverent toward its realist source. It’s a distracting addition that cheapens an otherwise lavishly arranged movie, filled with well photographed landscapes and diligently applied 3D. Technically I can’t lobby many complaints at the film’s direction; Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale handle the scope and digital demands of the concept adequately. They certainly don’t share an expert grasp of storytelling or understanding of emotionally accessible characterisation, but they’ve painted a believable prehistoric universe.
The picture uses a framing device involving a misplaced Karl Urban trying to convince his niece and nephew that dinosaurs are cool. It’s unconvincingly played and pretty unnecessary, but it cements the film’s mandate as a schoolroom device coated in top tier FX lustre. Urban eventually succeeds in extolling the majesty of the past to his young companions, something Walking with Dinosaurs never smoothly accomplishes. With a handful of popular family oriented blockbusters already on release, I imagine this thing will go extinct fast.