WALKING WITH DINOSAURS – Blu-ray review

When Fox got back into the animation game in 1994, I and probably half the world envisioned the kind of spirited competition the studio gave Disney during the Golden Age of cartoon shorts. But that hasn’t materialized. After the promising theatrical debut of “Anastasia,” only the “Ice Age” films and “Rio” could be called hits.

The problem isn’t the animation, which has been accomplished and, at times, jaw-dropping. It’s the concepts and the writing, and there isn’t a better illustration of that than the film version of “Walking with Dinosaurs,” which was released in theaters as “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D.” Produced by BBC Earth and Evergreen films, this animated feature has gorgeous CGI artwork and effects and tells an interesting-enough story, even if it does lumber a little too close to Disney’s “Dinosaur” (2000). But Fox bought the distribution rights and decided that instead of a voiceover narration like the TV series that spawned it, they would make the dinosaurs talk in order to better connect with audiences.

That misstep makes the difference between an accomplished film in the 7 out of 10 range and the dumb and derivative one we get here, which merits no more than a 5 or 6. There’s something incongruous, even sacrilegious about taking BBC Earth’s austere images and serious lessons on dinosaur types and behaviors and adding talking creatures, wise-guy narration, a goofy tone, and juvenile humor (sometimes the scatological sort).  I feel sorry for the BBC Earth crew, because the Fox brass pretty much (insert “funny“ scatological phrase here) on their film.

What BBC Earth originally proposed would have worked much better: using the kind of voiceover that Disney gave its True Life Adventures. Those animals didn’t talk, but they were still given personality by the voiceover and the character-storyline approach to nature films.

But you know the film is in trouble when Fox tacks on a live-action frame in which a teenage boy is reluctant to go fossil hunting with his uncle and sister and is visited by a talking crow who tells him that each fossil has a story behind it—then morphs into a prehistoric bird in order to narrate the one behind the Gorgosaurus claw that brought them back to that site. And when that bird is a fast-talking, constantly joking, Latino-sounding wise guy, the descent into clichés and sophomoric writing begins.

Set in the Cretaceous period, “Walking with Dinosaurs” tells the story of Patchi (Justin Long), the inquisitive runt of a group of Pachyrhinosaurus hatchlings whose life begins with a close call—being carried off by a predator. Despite being rescued, he carries the scar—a hole in his frill—that will enable us to tell him from the rest of the herd.

Had we gotten the same kind of voiceover as the TV series, I don’t think too many people would have complained about how similar the plot was to Disney’s “Dinosaur.” But when you add goofy gags and voices and clumsily insert lessons on dinosaurs, you draw attention to the fact that you have a dinosaur considered weak, at first, who finds a love interest that’s broken up when the leader of the herd forces her to go with him, then the group is threatened by meat-eaters, and the hero manages to come to the rescue of the herd after the leader makes a huge miscalculation. The plot isn’t identical, but there are enough crossover points to make it less fresh than it might have seemed had our focus been more on the incredible animation.

BBC Earth cranked it up a notch in producing dinosaurs that look real as can be and move even more fluidly than they did in the TV series. The mammals and birds aren’t as accomplished—more animatronic looking, really—but they thankfully don’t surface in the narrative that often. I wish I could say the same about dumb writing.

“Walking with Dinosaurs” has a runtime of 87 minutes and is rated PG for creature action and peril and mild rude humor.

Video:
“Walking with Dinosaurs” is available on 3D Blu-ray and also Blu-ray combo pack. I’m reviewing the latter, which has a flawless AVC/MPEG-4 transfer and a visual presentation that’s even more impressive than the TV series. Detail has so much texture and “pop” to it that you find yourself marveling constantly at what the animators were able to accomplish. Gradations of color within dinosaur skins really give them a believable complexity, and representations of fire and water are every bit as accomplished as what we get from Disney. “Walking with Dinosaurs” is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio.

Audio:
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in English Descriptive and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish. As with the video, the audio sparkles, offering plenty of rumble and heft and a strikingly clear soundtrack that seems perfectly mixed.

Extras:
As if to confirm how outraged BBC Earth was by the addition of goofy voices, one of the bonus features is actually the original version of the film sans opening and closing live-action sequences on the 3D combo pack, so if you are wanting to hedge your bets, that’s probably the way to go. It’s actually going to be the preferred way to watch for adults and older children. Alas, though, it only comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

Everything else is geared toward the kiddies. An Ultimate Dino Guide gives the lowdown on 11 species featured in the film (helpful, because it seems as if we continue to get new dinosaur species thrown at us in every new movie), while an Interactive Map shows the range of various species. The interactive part is simply a click-on that gives another paragraph of info. Then there’s Match the Call, a game that requires the player to identify sounds, and a Nickelodeon Orange Carpet Dino Rap featuring Benjamin Flores Jr. (“The Haunted Hathaways”). It’s also possible to select Dinosaur Trivia Track, which gives subtitled info on the dinosaurs as the film plays. I can envision some people watching on mute with this track.

Bottom line:
Though it may trod familiar ground, “Walking with Dinosaurs” is actually an entertaining film if you can look past the ridiculous running commentary from the bird narrator (John Leguizamo). But it takes a lot of concentration to be able to do that—or else you have to be young enough to be in synch with the humor, because basically Fox took a concept with wide appeal and reduced it to children’s fare. If you like the BBC Earth production, you might want to get the 3D version, which includes a cut of the film before Fox messed with it.

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