For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with dinosaurs. I’m not sure if it’s because of their massive size, their strength and speed, or the fact that they were mostly wiped out, leaving behind a legacy hidden only in their skeletal structures, but whatever the reason, I loved to read about them, study them and watch movies about them. One of my favorite dinosaur movies growing up was The Land Before Time; its genuine sweetness and message about finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places was executed with just the right amount of humor (You smell me?), fright (Sharptooth!) and love (poor flat head… err… Littlefoot). So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I was hoping for the same type of warmth and joy while watching Walking With Dinosaurs. Sadly, it was neither.
The movie is an adaptation of a BBC series (which, I must point out, I’ve never even heard of, much less seen before) that follows young Patchi, a Pachyrhinosaurus who wants nothing more than to fit in. He is the runt of the litter (as the narrator, a prehistoric bird with flaming red-tipped feathers, tells us) and early on gets a hole bit into his frill by a predator. At first, I wondered if this was done simply to distinguish him from the other dinosaurs, since none of them really seem to care that it’s there; Pachi being the runt seems to be enough for constant ridicule. But there is a purpose for it in the end, albeit a slightly arbitrary one.
As the dinosaurs migrate back and forth from their home to a winter feeding ground and back again (and again… and again), Pachi falls in love with another Pachyrhinosaurus named Juniper (voiced by Tiya Sircar) and runs afoul of a Gorgosuarus (who, like all evil dinosaurs it seems, doesn’t talk like the good guys do). When Pachi and his jerk of a brother, Scowler (voiced by Skylar Stone), are separated from their pack, they join Juniper’s pack and fight to see who can become the greatest pack leader of them all.
The story is meant to invoke a sense of pride in watching the underdog rise up against all odds to do what’s necessary for his family, but it never reaches the level of sincerity needed to elicit that emotion. Like the dinosaurs, the movie simply meanders about, hoping that Pachi’s various adventures (which, mind you, never go anywhere beyond showing that the world can be a dangerous place) will coalesce like Jell-O. But each new danger only lasts a few minutes before Pachi is once again safe, leaving one to think, does this movie really have a purpose?
Based on the screenplay, I’m not sure the writers could answer that question definitively. Yes, the beats for this type of story are all there (young outcast finds his courage and strength to stand up to the bullies of the world), but there is no meat on the bone to make it all work. They simply throw out a few delectable morsels (as in the moment when Pachi is about to give up, but learns, through the actions of his father, that he has to fight to make things right) and then ask for your hand in marriage, hoping you’ll ignore the narrative chaos that slams together four incoherent narrative styles.
The first is the story of a dad (Karl Urban) taking his kids to find the rest of the remains of a dinosaur whose tooth got knocked out. His son, Ricky (Charlie Rowe), though, is too involved with his phone to care about finding out what happened. That is until a crow named Alex (voiced by a winning John Leguizamo), tries to convince him otherwise. (And for the life of me, I had no idea crows were telepathic!)
This immediately makes it seem that the movie was going to be told from Alex’s point of view to help Ricky (and the audience) believe in the the magic of what can be found from a simple bone. And, for the most part, it does. But after Alex magically transforms himself into the aforementioned prehistoric bird to take us back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Pachi (voiced with as much zeal as possible by Justin Long) suddenly becomes a narrator alongside Alex, completely abandoning the original concept and making the book-ends almost moot in nature.
The third narrative structure is the actual dialogue between the main characters, who talk only with their minds, a la Homeward Bound. Having one or the other narrative style would have been fine, as they both work in their own right. In one particular example, Scowler leads the pack of Pachyrhinosaurus over an unstable frozen lake. The scene was beautifully executed without the use of narration. As Pachi searches for a way to keep the pack safe, the drama, the intrigue and the danger are spotlighted through the dialogue.
On the other hand, Leguizamo and Long are hysterical together as the narrators, bickering as if providing some pseudo-commentary track on a DVD. But that constant squabbling bleeds through to the actual dialogue, so jumping back and forth between the two (and to have Alex and Pachi communicate with one another in both) comes off as a bit confusing to the point where it might become unclear as to when other characters might be able to hear their playful banter.
Perhaps if the directors, Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale, had chosen a completely separate voice to narrate the story (Karl Urban, for example, telling his kids a fanciful tale of how the tooth was broken), all three structures could have lived in harmony, and may have also helped the fourth narrative style—stopping the action like an old roadrunner cartoon to display the name of a new dinosaur—fit in better as well. For instance, if Karl Urban had been narrating the story, his daughter could have been the one to ask about the dinosaurs and get an explanation rather than having some random kids read off the text that has been superimposed on the screen.
Of course, this style may have been complimenting the show that it’s based, adding an educational twist to the proceedings, but I feel that if the film makers truly wanted to make us feel as if we were walking with dinosaurs, they could have done so with no dialogue or narration whatsoever, letting the visual effects (most of which are strikingly beautiful) tell the story through action and reaction.
The Land Before Time was (and still is) iconic because, even as an adult, the writing is powerful. The same can’t be said for Walking With Dinosaurs, which doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be Homeward Bound or Milo and Otis in the way it tells its tale. And although it was fun in some places, intriguing in others, and had good intentions, overall it remained real stagnant in its execution.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Grudge Match, 47 Ronin, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Wolf of Wall Street. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.