How to Ruin Dinosaurs

Imagine that you’re standing in front of a dinosaur skeleton in a dim museum hall. Let’s say that it’s a  Stegosaurus, that great armored dinosaur of 150 million years ago. The animal is both absurd and beautiful. A tiny head on a bulky body held up on pillar-like legs, decorated with polygonal plates and tipped with a set of short tail spikes.

As you’re admiring the Jurassic wonder, someone walks up and starts offering a running commentary on the skeleton. “I bet Allosaurus got the point” they say with a nod to the reconstruction’s intimidating thagomizer, taking a single beat before turning to the plates and continuing “Looks like mister stegosaur was trying to compensate for something, eh?” You try to ignore the bad-puns and dud one-liners, but you just can’t block out the yammering. All the inane comments have totally ruined the fantastic scene you came to see. And that is exactly how I felt while watching Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.

While the feature film carries the title of the famous fossil franchise, Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is a different animal than the documentary that preceded it. The original series narrated the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs through a mix of science, speculation, and silliness. (The Diplodocus ovipositor  is still seared onto my memory.) Walking With Dinosaurs 3D was supposed to use the same formula to concoct a silent feature, with slightly anthropomorphic dinosaurs playing out the tale of a male Pachyrhinosaurus in Late Cretaceous Alaska. Explanation and narration was kept to an absolute minimum. But that was before worried producers turned what could have been a cinematic spectacle into a film more grating than any Land Before Time sequel.

Instead of letting our heroic Pachyrhinosaurus “Patchi” communicate in the dinosaurian language of hoots, grunts, and bellows, the filmmakers decided to have the persistent ceratopsid prattle off some awful dialog voiced by Justin Long. “She likes me, and my hole!” is an actual line from the movie that isn’t any less cringe-inducing in context.  Tiya Sircar voices one-dimensional love interest Juniper, joined by Sklyer Stone as brash brother Scowler and John Leguizamo portraying the movie’s embarrassing “sassy ethnic character” trope, Alex the Alexornis. The movie’s predators don’t talk, of course. A mother Gorgosaurus saying “Hey, I’ve got to feed my kids, too” while dropping a hadrosaur leg into a nest just wouldn’t play.

None of the voice-overs were necessary. The entire movie was planned to be silent, with each character having their own personalities and stories told through carefully-directed visuals. You can still see this film playing out as the voice overs tarnish it. The magic the visual team wove in recreating the valleys and forests of Cretaceous Alaska is totally dispelled by the words the characters are thinking at each other. (Their mouths don’t move, so it must have been selective telepathy.) A moment when an injured Juniper collapses on the beach could have been a poignant and tense moment of a young dinosaur possibly meeting her demise. But that emotion can never take hold because whoever oversaw the 11th-hour changes wanted to have the dinosaurs talking about nothing at a constant clip.

Dialog ruined the dinosaurs. The special effects artists and visual team explored dinosaur lives while keeping a strong narrative, and their efforts were totally undermined whoever tried to punch up the script. I have no patience for the argument that such voiceovers should be expected in a children’s movie. No. The Land Before Time and You Are Umasou are both dinosaur movie’s for children, and both use dialog to explore issues of family, loss, and identity. The words of those dinosaurs have meaning. The dialog in Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is vacuous and not only lacks emotional weight, but actually drains any emotions the audience might feel for the characters. It’s safe and stupid – a film that asks children to just watch and not think or even feel.

There is a way to save Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, though. Give viewers to option to watch the film without the dialog. I sincerely hope that the home release has an option to see the film as it was meant to be, letting visuals and sounds of the reconstituted dinosaurs tell the story. Dinosaurs have never looked so good on the big screen, and a silent version could be a classic dinosaur epic that helps inspire children to keep searching for the astounding connections between the Earth as we know it and lost worlds preserved in stone. Sometimes it’s best to let dinosaurs speak for themselves.

18 thoughts on “How to Ruin Dinosaurs

  1. Brian, you failed to talk about the great aspects of this movie, though, and only focused on the negative, for which I feel the need to touch on a few major points:

    Dinosaurs are back on the big screen! Think of how many kids will be inspired to pursue paleontology because of this movie! I remember the visuals of Land Before Time more than I remember the dialog, and I have a suspicion that this will be the case with Walking With Dinosaurs.

    Walking With Dinosaurs introduces kids to a whole new world of Mesozoic animals–Pachyrhinosaurus, Alexornis, Gorgosaurus, Edmontosaurus and little Alphadon. It’s not your average Triceratops vs. T.rex story. As a science educator, I’m SO happy to see animals other than T.rex and Triceratops on the big screen. This not only educates the kids who see it, but also the parents who take their kids to the movie, have to buy the toys, books, etc. WWD has done a wonderful job of introducing the public to a whole new vocab of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs they’d never heard of before. At the museum, I’m already seeing the effect of WWD and how excited kids are to tell me about the dinosaurs they learned about in this movie.

    The art is PHENOMENAL–scales and feathers portrayed in BRILLIANT color instead of the usual drab greens and browns, thanks to inspiration by paleoartist Luis Rey and David Krentz. Alexornis’ feathers were so realistic that I feel like I could have reached through the screen and touched him. Not only were the CG feathers extremely life-like, but Alex’s behavior! The animal behaviorist in me was screaming with delight at how bird-like his movements were.

    The moral of the story is that cheesy dialog is one small “mess-up” in the midst of the best (and most accurate) dinosaur movie made to date. In a world where Discovery Channel has stooped to convincing the public that mermaids are real, this is refreshing! As someone who spends every day myth-busting public misconceptions of how “brontosaurus didn’t exist” (I wish I were kidding), WWD is going to educate the public about an amazing array of dinosaurs that need “voices” and have yet to be known.

    Hopefully future movie-makers will take notes from these terrible reviews and leave the last-minute dialog at the door next time.

  2. [my comments below are reposted from Brian’s Facebook feed]

    A few thoughts relevant to all of this:

    1) The dialog was bad, but based on the reviews and blog posts elsewhere lamenting poop and fart jokes I expected 90 minutes of Seth MacFarlane-type humor. Gotta say, some of the laments from paleontologists and non-paleontologists were a little overwrought.

    2) That said, if movie critics don’t like the movie, that’s a bad sign, no matter how great the visuals are (and nearly all complimented the visuals, as Brian does here).

    3) The sad thing is that the tanking of this film may prevent another realistic-style dinosaur movie from being made for some time. I also suspect it means the WWD website–which was quite excellent and frequently sought articles from paleontologists (me included)–will be shuttered sooner rather than later. Some good folks who did good work (and had no involvement with the late changes) may well be out of a job.

    4) On the positive note, it does give a little boost of interest for paleo (although it could have been a bigger boost if the movie had been better). It gave me the opportunity to talk about paleontology and evolution to an audience in my hometown, a place that is hours from the nearest paleontology museum and in an area where most “science educators” from the coasts traditionally ignore.

    5) Finally, let’s not take an overly rosy view of the original WWD. An excellent show in many respects, don’t get me wrong, but it was miserable at letting the audience know what was fact and what wasn’t. It is also probably partly to blame for the “just add CG” philosophy that permeates documentaries these days.

  3. This is I feel about almost every show on network tv right now. What happened to interesting and educational narration about the behavior and biology of animals. God bless David Attenborough.

  4. Turn the sound off for home view, or bring earphones to the theater — sound-effects bellows are almost as annoying as this voice over appears to be..

  5. Your remarks are very apropos for a man who does frequently stand in front of a Stegosaurus in a (very well lit) museum hall and offer comments. I will be more circumspect in the future! Thanks.
    All best,

    Jerrold Alpern
    AMNH Tour Guide

    P.S. I have not yet seen Walking With Dinosaurs either in 2D or 3D.

  6. I was quite disappointed when I found out that they added voice-overs to the dinosaurs. Kids aren’t vacuous and stupid; I’m quite sure they would enjoy the movie without the dinos talking. Walking with Dinosaurs is largely hypothetical, but it does give some idea what the lives of these remarkable creatures were like. Including the lives of large theropods. Instead, this movie sounds kind of cutesy or something. Sad.

  7. Obviously the voice overs are the most egregious alteration in the film. It is additionally interesting (and frustrating) that anatomical changes also get made in these films because risk-adverse producers think audiences won’t believe the real anatomy. For example, the heads on the azhdarchids were the correct size originally (because Dave Krentz drew them as such) – the final version had the heads reduced. Presumably because the weirdness of real pterosaur proportions seemed too “risky”. Weird things also happened to the forelimbs of the ceratopsians (again, after the original concept art had it correct). The models still look awfully good, though.

    [For readers that don’t play with pterosaurs often, azhdarchid skulls are typically 3.5-5 times longer than the shoulder-hip length of the animal. Quetzalcoatlus sp. matches this trend, which yields skull length estimates for the large Quetzalcoatlus northropi, and similar animals, of 3-3.5 meters. Shoulder to hip length would be about 0.65-0.70 meters]

  8. I think this is a tragedy. If the film was as boring and frustrating as iv’e been led to believe, then it very well may have enforced the erroneous assertion that dinosaurs are just “kids stuff.” It has probably made dinosaurs unattractive to hordes of now previously dino-crazed children.

  9. I’ve loved dinosaurs since boyhood. I’ve visited Dinosaur museums all over the world. I have shelves of dinosaur books. I read everything I can about them. I’ve subscribed to Prehistoric Times magazine for years. I’ve had my paelo art published. I’m currently working on a Dinosaur themed card game.

    I saw one trailer for this movie depicting a Gorgosaurus attack…

    …It made me HATE dinosaurs.

    Never ever let your children near this monstrosity!!!!!!!!

    (I can’t bring myself to see this film, I would rather be waterboarded.)

  10. I thought the movie was great and I think it is great that all of the academics and wannabes are complaining. It makes more folks want to see what the fuss is about. I also like it because it gives me a chance as a science teacher to discuss fact and fiction on a fun format that keeps my students’ attention. How many other movies do you all complain about because the gun shoots too many bullets? The car disobeys the lays of physics? The truths of space travel totally rule out the possibility of what is on the screen? Go for a walk. Count to ten. Relax. It’s a movie!

  11. All the pterosaurs looked absolutely horrible, nothing about them was accurate. And yes, the voiceovers were cancer causing, and I do hope they give the option of no narration when the BD’s are released.

  12. Here’s an idea! How about the idiots that made the decision to add the voice overs publically admit to it so we can all take the rise out of their stupidity for ever more? They really do deserve to be exposed for their incompetence and their destruction of what could have been a rather good film!”

  13. Personally I think a barrage of letters to whomever is in charge of distributing the DVD will greatly enhance the likelihood of a dialogue-free feature being present on it. I would remind them that they’ll be sure to sell a lot more DVDs if they include such a feature, and perhaps recoup some of the losses that their decision to include voiceovers in the first place cost them.

    I’m a little unsure as to whom the proper recipients of that message should be, though.

    Incidentally, I found at least one petition (directed at 20th Century Fox) advocating a dialogue-free option on the DVD. Don’t know how much difference it will make, but I thought I’d share it just in case anyone else would be interested in signing it:

  14. Mr. Switek summarized the ordeal I went through when I first watched the film with my kids.

    Fortunately, someone in charge read Mr. Switek’s review and/or the aforementioned petition.

    Both the US and the UK 3D Blu-ray disc feature the human and dialogue-free “Cretaceous Cut” which reveals what the filmmakers tried to achieve.

    It’s pure “Jurassic Park” and transports the viewer back in time to watch dinosaurs in their natural habitat with no distracting dialogues or narration.

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