“Walking With Dinosaurs” is a good movie that takes one step too many.
Pitched on imdb.com as “the first time in movie history” that “audiences will truly see and feel what it was like when dinosaurs ruled the earth,” “Walking With Dinosaurs” follows the adventures of a herd of prehistoric beasts as they migrate through a stretch of future North America. And to be fair, the fantastic visuals almost pull off the film’s lofty promise.
The story builds around a Pachyrhinosaurus called Patchi (voiced by Justin Long), so named for the hole in his head left over from an early encounter with a predator. The Pachyrhinosaurus is a slow-moving, four-legged veggie-eating type, constantly on the defense against meat-eating predators, and Patchi is the runt of his litter. Patchi is hopelessly outclassed by his older brother, Scowler (Skyler Stone). For some reason, a cute Pachyrhinosaurus from a neighboring herd named Juniper (Tiya Sircar) thinks the hole in his head is cute, so life isn’t all bad.
Over the course of their travels, Patchi and company have to deal with threats from both inside and outside of the herd, and all without the guiding hand of Patchi’s father, who is killed early on by a Gorgosaurus during a forest fire. The coming-of-age theme builds a nice little character arc for our protagonist, even if the plot feels similar to “The Land Before Time.”
It’s clear that the people at 20th Century Fox want “Walking with Dinosaurs” to feature a strong educational vibe, made evident by the expository freeze frames that introduce every new dinosaur with its scientific name and meaning. But the only lesson most kids are going to come away with is that dinosaurs must have been telepathic, because none of their mouths move when they speak. To be sure, they open wide to roar or make traditional animal noises, but all their conversation comes off as interior dialogue that the other dinosaurs are able to understand.
For one thing, this makes it hard to figure out which character is supposed to be speaking. But combine that with a script full of awful one-liners, and you’re left feeling like you’re watching a “Mystery Science 3000” film where someone forgot to add the silhouettes of the wise-cracking aliens in the corner. (Lest any reader worry about the bias of the writer, the children at the film’s prescreening laughed about two more times than I did during its 87-minute run time.)
Here we have a serviceable, if derivative, story with a message about overcoming adversity, buoyed up by some impressive CGI animation integrated into gorgeous real-life settings. Yet for all of its visual feats, you can never quite get around that disconnected dialogue, especially the persistent chatter from a prehistoric bird-narrator voiced by John Leguizamo that approaches Jar-Jar levels of irritation. Strip it away, and you have an entertaining and creative documentary that kids could easily follow. Something that might actually feel like “the first time in movie history” humans get to walk with the dinosaurs.
“Walking With Dinosaurs” is rated PG, and rightfully so. While its dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence is never as brutal or gory as the animals’ razor-sharp teeth might suggest, it is much too dark and intense for small children, and thanks to its 3-D presentation, there are plenty of “jumping out at the screen” moments as well. Parents and people with weak stomachs should also be aware of some fairly graphic jokes involving regurgitation and dino feces.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.