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WALKING WITH DINOSAURS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Postosuchus, Ornithocheirus, Diplodocus, Coelophysis, Liopleurodon, Opthalmosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex
Director: Tim Haines and Jasper James
Audio:  Dinosaurish Digital Stereo with English narration by humanoid Kenneth Branagh
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: anamorphic widescreen, 1.78:1, color
Studio: BBC Video
Features: PIP behind-the-scenes footage (disc 1); "making-of" documentary and trailers (disc 2)
Length: 180 minutes
Release Date: February 12, 2002

"It was a green-eyed, green-horned, flyin', purple people eater!" - Sheb Wooley

Film *** 1/2

Okay, admit it, you love dinosaurs.  It doesn't matter how old you are or what language you speak...deep down, you know you love dinosaurs.  No need to feel embarrassed about it, either!  After all, it's just one of those things that has been instinctively engrained into all of us as children.  Dinosaurs - good.  Peas - bad.  Very simple.

This elementary fact explains why all those Japanese rubber monster movies, as laughable as they are, are such guilty pleasures.  It's why each new chapter in the Jurassic Park movie franchise continues to draw big crowds.  It might even explain why kids seem to love a certain smushy-squishy, singing, purple dinosaur so much.  We don't honestly think Barney would be as popular if he were a purple ostrich, do we now?

The bottom line is, dinosaurs will always attract an audience because of the way they stir our imaginations.  There is something inherently fascinating about the concept of these massive and sometimes ferocious monsters once walking the earth.  So, a few years back, when BBC productions, in association with the Discovery Channel, proudly unveiled their documentary Walking with Dinosaurs, it naturally caught television audiences by storm.  The documentary was so well-received, even winning several awards, that it spawned a mini-sequel (Allosaurus) and an actual sequel about prehistoric mammals (Walking with Prehistoric Beasts).  The secret behind the success of Walking with Dinosaurs was its meticulous combination of natural environments, selected for their resemblance to prehistoric fauna, with sophisticated animatronics and incredible computer graphics to completely recreate the world of dinosaurs. We see these giant creatures in their "real" habitat, as though we were watching the latest "Nature" program on public broadcasting.  We watch the dinosaurs as they hunt, as they mate, and as they socialize.  And we do not have to endure Jeff Goldblum's pitiful acting, either (funny, it's always the lawyers that get eaten by dinosaurs, never the mathematicians...).

Three years in the making, Walking with Dinosaurs presents these giant lizards as realistically as possible, given our limited knowledge about them.  No one truly knows how dinosaurs behaved or what they really looked like.  All we have is speculation, drawn from old fossils or prints in the sand, and extrapolation, based upon the actual social interactions of living animals.  Nonetheless, the creators of this documentary consulted many paleontologists in an earnest attempt to adhere to the latest theories on dinosaur appearance and behavior.

The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary is divided into six parts.  Each episode is approximately 30 minutes in length and focuses upon a different age in the long reign of dinosaurs.  I have the quick goodies on the episodes below, so read on:

Episode 1:  New Blood - It is the early Triassic Age, a time 220 millions years in the past.  On the singular land mass of Pangaea, the dawn of the dinosaurs has begun.  The first dinosaur we notice is a funny little critter, Coelophysis, which resembles a big roadrunner.  Nevertheless, this peculiar creature is one of the ancestors of the enormous giants that will eventually rule the world.  For now, though, these early dinosaurs remain subservient to the other ancient reptilian species that walk the land.

Episode 2:  Time of the Titans - Welcome to the Jurassic Age!  No, there's no T-Rex here, but there is a cute baby diplodocus.  This episode follows her development from hatchling to young adult as she seeks shelter in the forests (from carnivores and deadly fires) until she is large enough to defend herself.  It is a fascinating exploration of the social behavior of dinosaurs, particularly the sauropods.

Episode 3:  Cruel Sea - This episode starts most impressively.  We see a huge land predator browsing along the coastal waters for an easy fish meal.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge mouth appears out of the waters and grabs the entire dinosaur in one bite!  Gosh!  What was that?  Well, it was Liopleurodon, the largest predator ever to live on the surface of this Earth.  In this episode, we learn all about this deadly leviathan as it ruled over primordial seas also populated by ancient sharks and the dolphin-like opthalmosaurs.

Episode 4:  Giant of the Skies - Once upon a prehistoric time, during the early Cretaceous Era, flying pterosaurs dominated the skies.  Ornithocheirus was the largest of them all.  This episode follows one such flying reptile on its last great odyssey, a journey that begins in South America and ends along the coastal regions of a young Europe.

Episode 5:  Spirits of the Ice Forest - Before it became ensheathed in a large block of ice, Antarctica used to hold lush forests and many dinosaur species.  What sort of paleontological treasures would we find if we could melt all that ice?  You will find out in this episode!  Learn how dinosaurs adapted to survive the extreme changes of seasons in this remote region of the ancient Earth.

Episode 6:  Death of a Dynasty - It is a period in Earth's history 65 million years ago, the late Cretaceous Age.  The last of the Great Lizards freely roam the volcanic wastelands.  Have you been waiting for Tyrannosaurus Rex?  You've finally come to the right episode!  These predators solve problems the old-fashioned way - they eat it.  As a bonus, there's even my favorite dinosaur, ankylosaurus, a walking boulder with a sledgehammer for a tail if ever there was one.  And if you don't already know, this episode will also reveal most demonstratively the leading theory on how dinosaurs eventually came to be extinct.

So there you have it, three hours of gripping, rollicking entertainment!  Who says documentaries have to be boring or pretentious?  Check out Walking with Dinosaurs, satisfy your inner child, and even learn something new today!

Video ***

Oh, the humanity!

Walking with Dinosaurs is over three hours long!  So, what did the folks at BBC video do for this 2-DVD set?  They squeezed the entire documentary onto the first disc, then shoehorned another half-hour of featurette material onto the same disc for good measure.  That second disc?  It only contains a 50-minute "making-of" documentary and two short trailers.  Nothing else.  Okay...huh?  What stegosaurus-brained exec came up with this brilliant plan?  If the BBC was going to make the effort of producing a 2-DVD set, wouldn't it have been logical to spread the documentary over 2 DVDs?

The video we end up with is consequently not as magnificent as it could be.  Night scenes are terribly grainy, and sometimes the images are too soft (mostly in the computer renditions of the dinosaurs).  There are also a few scattered compression artifacts.  That's a pity, because at its best, this image quality looks absolutely spectacular, and its minor problems could have been solved easily by spreading the documentary over two DVDs.

At least the special effects visuals are quite good.  While the computer animation does not always blend perfectly with the real settings, for the most part, the illusion is convincing enough.   The animatronics dinosaurs, used for close-ups, look amazing and very realistic.  The CGI dinosaurs are a nice facsimile, though their appearances run the gamut from mostly spectacular to occasionally humdrum.  They do not always seem to interact quite right with the environment and sometimes, their skin textures appear blurry or fuzzy.  Ah well, this is the BBC after all, not Industrial Lights and Magic.  It does not really matter - after a while, we simply accept these creatures as real flesh and blood.

At any rate, you will not hear the kiddies complaining, so 'nuff said, three stars, and let's move on to....

Audio ***

I hope you like the sound of Kenneth Branagh's voice.  You will hear it a lot.  He seems to enjoy adding a bit of dramatic flair to his gripping narration, too.  Who better to talk about dinosaurs than a scenery-chewing Shakespearean actor?

Also, what would a documentary about dinosaurs be without a lot of roaring?  Have no fear, the folks at BBC Video do a fine job here.  The dinosaurs do a lot of roaring, grunting, growling, and even squeak once or twice.  It's a hoot!  What more can you ask for in Dolby Digital?

The audio is truthfully only Dolby Digital stereo 2.0, although minor portions of it are in 4.0 (despite the packaging assertion that it is in 5.1).  Still, overall, it sounds very nice and transports you right into the primordial world of the dinosaurs.

Features ***

The disc 1 featurette is fragmented and scattered all over as a picture-in-picture feature.  To view it, you need to watch the documentary until a pop-up window appears.  The entirety of the material within all these pop-up windows amounts to about 24 minutes.  While it's mildly diverting footage about how some shots were created, unfortunately there is no actual way to see this footage outside of the documentary.

Disc 2 has two promotional trailers plus a documentary on the making of Walking with Dinosaurs.  This making-of documentary is a cool look at the process of bringing these dinosaurs to life.  The documentary reveals the intense computer work that was involved and gives us a peek at the numerous models that were employed for both the CGI effects and the animatronics work.  Several of the paleontologists who were consulted during the production also discuss the accuracy of the film's details as well as some current theories concerning dinosaur behavior.  All in all, it is a fun documentary and is even interspersed with cute out-takes of the CGI dinosaurs doing silly things.

One last word - check out the first promotional trailer before you watch Walking with Dinosaurs.  It is so superbly crafted and edited that it will leave you salivating for more!  Fortunately, you do not have to wait -  all you need to do is pop in that first DVD and you will be whisked away into a real dinotopia.

Summary:

Walking with Dinosaurs is an enjoyable and educational look at those big lizards that we all love so much.  It's a pity that learning can't always be this entertaining!