Saturday, December 21, 2013

Dino Bores: WALKING WITH DINOSAURS


The instantly, blessedly forgettable Walking with Dinosaurs is an 87 minute film based loosely on the concept of the 1999 BBC documentary series that featured CGI dinosaurs in nature photography of our present-day world standing in for their prehistoric one. It was a nature documentary that tried to imagine the past, and was popular enough to spawn an “Arena Spectacular” full of animatronic creatures that toured the world. The new film has more in common with Disney’s Dinosaur, a 2000 feature that did the same trick – real footage with animated dinosaurs – but added a narrative, avoided narration, and let the dinosaurs talk to each other. Neither one of those projects were in any way perfect, but this new Walking with Dinosaurs is the worst of both smashed together in one nearly unbearable experience. It features nonstop babbling of grating docu-style narration, annoying modern colloquialisms, heaps of lame attempts at humor, and a story that features nothing worth thinking about or getting invested in.

After a brief live action frame story about a paleontologist (Karl Urban) taking his niece and nephew with him looking for fossils, a time traveling bird (John Leguizamo) guides us through the story of a baby Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (Justin Long) who bumbles around the wilderness with his herd. One day, they all migrate south. After much literal plodding and a few moments of predator and prey jostling, Patchi gets separated from the herd, along with his bully older brother (Skyler Stone) and a girl Pachyrhinosaurus (Tiya Sircar) who is along to be in a love triangle that’s more like being traded between them as if property. After much more plodding around, their not so incredible journey leads them back. Then, just when I thought that was the end of the story, it cruelly continues for another twenty minutes or so. It’s not just that the plotting is simple and painfully predictable. It’s done without an ounce of imagination in sight, a clash of intentions, perhaps.

It’s obvious the movie is trying to serve two competing ideas of what it should be. It tries to be both something like an educational opportunity and a generic children’s movie and fails on both counts. It’s two kinds of terrible mixed together such that I could never get comfortable with what kind of mediocrity I was watching. Whenever we meet a new creature, the frame freezes, the name of the dinosaur pops up on the screen, and a child’s voice reads it to us, along with some accompanying facts. As if the story didn’t feel endless already. Then there’s the dinosaurs, who are something approaching photoreal in their animation. They stomp around, grunting and growling at each other through unexpressive snouts and beady little eyes. No big attempt is made to make these creatures into anything like actors in the movie. They just root around being big, blank animals. When they talk, their mouths don’t move. We hear the voices booming on the soundtrack but they’re just standing around blinking at each other.

Most of the dinosaurs remain silent, but for our three leads and the bird. I suppose that’s a blessing, but it makes for a confusingly silent soundscape. Combine that with the inscrutability of the scaly mugs, and it feels like someone dubbed in the voices at the last minute. Not that it would play any better without them, but it would’ve lessened my desire to be given a mute button. The storytelling proceeds in a terrible clash of insufferable narrators. Leguizamo’s bird is always distracting with off-hand self-aware comments like, upon looking at a nice forest, “Don’t get too attached. It’s going to be an oil field.” Long’s dino is a whiny simpleton with an obvious character arc, but he chimes in from time to time as well, talking back to Leguizamo’s narration.

Many moments revolve around the dumb little dino getting pooped on or talking about poop. Other moments involve him falling over or something and when he first meets the girl of his species of his dreams, Barry White enters the soundtrack. All that’s the comedy, I guess. Still other times, dinosaurs are stalked by bigger, scarier dinosaurs, sometimes escaping, many times not. The predators tear into their limp prey viciously. The movie features both poop jokes and teeth gnashing at greater than required levels. At one point, the awful humor and bloody circle of life collide, when Leguizamo says one kind of dinosaur has no natural predators right before it’s eaten before our eyes. “I think I jinxed him,” he says.

The co-directors are Barry Cook, who also co-directed Mulan, and Neil Nightingale, who has produced nature documentaries for the BBC and PBS. The screenplay, such as it is, was written by John Collee, who wrote Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Happy Feet. I don’t know what went wrong here, but they all clearly should know better. Walking with Dinosaurs is interminably irritating, trying desperately to be all things to all people – educators, small children, and dinosaur fans alike. And in the end, it’s much closer to nothing for nobody. The biggest joke of all is when we return to the frame story to find Urban’s aloof tween nephew has been so inspired by the story we just heard that he has a newfound love of paleontology. He stares off into the middle distance, smiling with wonder. Sheesh, if this dumb story is all it took, wait’ll he hears a good story.

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