'Walking With Dinosaurs' fairly accurate, says expert, except for that sound track

Scene from BBC Earth's film "Walking With Dinosaurs." Beware that blasting sound track.
Scene from BBC Earth's film "Walking With Dinosaurs." Beware that blasting sound track. (Twentieth Century Fox)
Posted: January 15, 2014

If you ignore the blasting sound track, studded with a really odd mix of music, BBC Earth's 3-D spectacular Walking With Dinosaurs, the film version of the 1999 BBC TV show, is a pleasing, sometimes awe-inspiring rendition of life among some of the less-celebrated dinosaurs of northwestern North America.

The music's not great, the jokes are corny, and sometimes the voice-overs aren't much better, especially the unaccountable Hispanic accent John Leguizamo gives to the dino-age bird Alexornis.

Compared to all preceding dinosaur features, however, Walking With Dinosaurs stands out for verisimilitude. True, that's not the highest bar to top. But we've come a long way from the iguanas in costume that inhabited, say, the ill-advised 1969 western-fantasy flick The Valley of Gwangi. Even the gold standard for dinosaur movies, Jurassic Park (which should more accurately have been named Cretaceous Park), was replete with wild inaccuracies.

As an adviser to director Steven Spielberg, I did point out the film's myriad paleo-goofs and was told, justifiably, to shut up. Rather, the movie sought to be faithful to Michael Crichton's novel, not to evolution.

For its part, BBC Earth has bravely avoided the big-budget dinosaur movie stars. T. rex, triceratops, and their famous companions are nowhere to be found. They're five million years too late for this party. The little-known cast is select but accurate, whether the ungainly, horned herbivorous heroes Pachyrhinosaurus, rex-ish villain Gorgosaurus, or nasty bit-playing Troodon scavengers. Soar-into-your-face pterosaurs provide the best 3-D tricks. And a mass walk-on of migrating duck-billed Edmontosaurus provides an awe-inspiring parade of dinosaur pageantry.

All are rendered in fine detail, from scaly-skin dinos to fibrous-quilled birds and, somewhat less convincingly, our hairy little mammal ancestors. Animal Logic, the Australia-based animators, were justly proud of Quill, the program allowing for skin to move independently of the underlying musculature, making these dinosaurs look especially convincing on the move. Only in close-up and on their rubbery sprints do the dinosaurs fail to impress.

In looks, with one notable exception, the animals conform to what we know (or, more often, what animators can get away with, since science has no idea). The exception, a big one, is the key villain, Gorgosaurus. Its hide is familiarly sleek and reptilian. Only, we now have evidence that T. rex relatives sported feathers. So Gorgosaurus should have been at least downy.

But there's a reason bad guys with feathers haven't been seen on screen since Felicia Jollygoodfellow in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's hard to fear a dinosaur wearing a boa.

Where Walking With Dinosaurs strays furthest is where it walks: the mountainous Alaskan wilderness. Glacial streams, snowcapped summits, piney forests, and grassy meadows all make lovely tableaux for the Mesozoic melodrama. And today's Alaska makes a spectacular backdrop - as well as a tax incentive for the Alaskan-based production partners, Evergreen Studios.

Only problem is that, conifers excepted, such scenery did not exist in dinosaur-age Alaska. Think woody outskirts of Seattle instead. Rainy and cool. No grand Rockies. Or much grass. And not much snow or ice.

But fidelity to environmental fact would have cost Walking With Dinosaurs its most stunning scene - in which the migrating herd of "Pachys" takes a wrong turn onto real (and scientific!) thin ice, with the most disastrous results since the Teutonic Knights broke through the Neva River in Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky.

In full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I met with the film's producers early in the production planning. The sound track is not my doing. In fact, I suggested the flick be silent - a voiceless, nonanthropomorphized Watership Down for dinosaurs. They were even less interested in my input than were the Jurassic Park filmmakers.

But by all means, see Walking With Dinosaurs. It should be seen. But not heard.

"Dino" Don Lessem, author and dinosaur explorer, was adviser to "Jurassic Park" and Disney "Dinosaurs" movies.

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