I can sum up my thoughts on Walking With Dinosaurs 3D in just two words. If you know anything about the history of this production, you probably know what they are:
Walking With Dinosaurs, named after the television miniseries released by the BBC in 1999, departs from the naturalistic, documentary-style presentation of its namesake in favor of a more traditional narrative. The story follows Patchi (Justin Long), a Pachyrhinosaurus who struggles as the runt of his litter. Growing up in Late Cretaceous Alaska (the Campanian Stage for all you paleo-nuts out there) presents many challenges to our intrepid ceratopsian (one of Triceratops’ frilled, horn-faced relatives).
Whether its running from packs of formidable Gorgosaurs, which are like T. rex but smaller and faster, or being dominated by his bigger brother, Scowler (Skyler Stone), Patchi certainly has a hard time of it. But through curiosity and determination – you know, the traits dinosaurs are most famous for – he survives the annual migrations and grows up to be a fine, upstanding member of Mesozoic society.
As an adult, Patchi faces all new challenges, like competing with his more physically impressive brother over the lovely hand (er, manus) of his childhood friend and love interest: the fair Juniper (Tiya Sircar). The Enantiornithine bird, Alex the Alexornis (John Leguizamo) provides commentary all the while, leading us directly into the film’s biggest problem.
Only four of the characters have any voiceovers at all: Patchi, Scowler, Juniper, and Alex. Yet somehow, with only four voices, they manage to fill every darned second with useless, utterly superfluous, and downright annoying remarks. From references to things that won’t exist for another 70 million years (like ninjas), irritating amounts of poop and fart jokes, or telling the audience in words what the movie is already showing through action, the movie doesn’t clam up for even a second.
At least, that’s what it feels like. The dialogue has no substance and contributes nothing to the story or its characters. It comes across as a last-minute decision by studio executives with no faith in the power of the moviegoer’s brain, and too much faith in the talent of lazy writers.
I wonder why.
Well, as it turns out, and according to pretty much everyone who worked on the movie, that is what happened. The filmmakers conceived of, wrote, shot, animated, and edited the film with no voiceovers whatsoever. The result reportedly played out as a fairly naturalistic, if somewhat stylized, portrayal of the dinosaurs in their natural habitat. According to a Facebook comment made by paleontologist and consultant, Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., the film was mostly finished back in March. Unfortunately, the studio decided the film needed more exposition, and so they introduced Alex’s narration. From there, they decided to add the three other cast members, who they – and I’m not kidding – last month.
This is obvious if you look at the product. From the design of the animals to their 3D rendering, it’s blatantly obvious that the artists, animators, and filmmakers cared deeply about creating these creatures. In particular, extremely talented lead artist David Krentz’s keen understanding of dinosaur physiology and behavior shines through regularly. Despite some anthropomorphization, these animals are fairly true to what we know about the fossil record.
Many paleontologists were involved until the 11th hour to make sure the animals were as true to life as they could be, and it shows. Hardcore dinosaur fans will appreciate the full-fledged wing feathers on all the maniraptorans, and the glorious layers of pterosaur pycnofibers rippling in the wind. Troodon is also correctly identified as an omnivore, and the Azhdarchids engage in some most-welcome terrestrial stalking. For those of us who care, this sort of accuracy is important.
All of this careful dedication culminates in animals that simply feel real. These are without a doubt the most realistic dinosaurs ever depicted on film; sorry, Jurassic Park, but your featherless Velociraptors just don’t cut it anymore. In WWD 3D, I was aware of so many little details of life that added so much to the animals’ realism. I could see the underlying musculoskeletal anatomy in action as the Pachyrinosaurs moved, and felt as though I could reach out and stroke the hard, pebbly scaled hide of the Edmontosaurus.
All of this tireless work meshes badly with the aforementioned voiceovers. These additions end up undermining the artists’ intentions, yielding a movie that is more frustrating than anything else. Back when the first trailer released for this movie, I was thrilled that it didn’t feature any talking animals. Finally, I was going to get to see dinosaurs as they actually were, and not as movie monsters or cartoons. Disney’s largely forgotten Dinosaur from 2000 suffered a similar problem, but the decision to include voiceover in that movie was made early enough to do real lip-syncing. Meanwhile, the animals in WWD 3D are apparently telepathic.
Apart from these two aspects of Walking With Dinosaurs, there’s not much else to say. There’s a completely unnecessary human framing device about a paleontologist (Karl Urban) taking his niece (Angourie Rice) and teenage nephew (Charlie Rowe) to a fossil site. Their story is fairly simple. The music is mostly unremarkable, as well, although some songs actually hurt the film as they contrast with the tone of the story.
Something else worth noting is that the movie does suffer from some unfortunate sexist implications. The Pachyrhinosaurus in the movie form harems, with a dominant male having access to all the females in the herd. They are essentially his property. Had the movie been kept in its original incarnation, this would have been understandable. After all, a lot of herding animals today do tend to follow this behavioral pattern, and other species are not obligated to obey human social mores. But when you factor in the human voiceovers, suddenly Juniper’s submission to the two male leads becomes more than a little uncomfortable to watch.
Your enjoyment of Walking With Dinosaurs 3D really depends on how much you like dinosaurs. Whether you’re more interested in the science behind the scenes or the spectacle that takes center stage, the creatures of this movie are awesome in the most proper sense of the word. It also depends and how willing you are to ignore the voices and appreciate the animation. If you aren’t, then there’s nothing to gain whatsoever in seeing it.
There are so many better movies out, and so many better ways to learn about dinosaurs. Some might say that this movie still works for children, but I find that attitude patronizing; just because their brains aren’t fully developed yet doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy well-written film, nor that they should have to settle for lesser material. And judging by their disinterested expressions, the kids sitting next to me in the theater were in complete agreement.
Verdict: Movie Fail