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★★★✩✩

Walking With Dinosaurs

Directed by Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale

Starring John Leguizamo, Justin Long, Tiya Sircar, Skyler Stone

Rated PG

Now playing

Walking With Dinosaurs draws on what is currently known in paleontology to tell a coming-of-age story about a young Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (Justin Long), who tries to win over his crush, Juniper (Tiya Sircar), while being bullied by his brother, Scowler (Skyler Stone). The directors, Barry Cook, who is best known as an effects animator with Disney, and Neil Nightingale, who was the executive producer of several nature documentaries, teamed up to create a fictional extension of the acclaimed BBC miniseries of the same title. The 3D computer animated dinosaurs roam a beautiful live background filmed in Alaska and New Zealand while they face predators, fires and teenage drama.

“For the first time in movie history, audiences will truly see and feel what it was like when dinosaurs ruled the Earth,” claims the website for the film, so audiences are bound to compare the technical aspects of this film to what was cutting edge in Jurassic Park. While tropical mists in Jurassic Park cloaked any less than perfect CGI, Walking With Dinosaurs shows us everything they could — and couldn’t — do. The movements and musculature of the dinosaurs are superbly animated, so some of the uncanny aspects can be forgiven, such as how the dinosaurs don’t squash the soil where they step, making them seem weightless. However, some of the humor betrays the otherwise painstaking realism with gags that are not physically possible: it’s hard to explain how the sapling gets threaded through the hole in Patchi’s bony frill as he tries to bend it to the ground and it springs back on him. Less realistic animation can rely on exaggerated slapstick humor, but here it only breaks our suspension of disbelief.

The dinosaurs interact with each other, but their mouths do not move, which preserves the dignity of the animation style and also probably avoids landing the characters in the uncanny valley. Instead, the voice actors say what the animals are communicating in some other way, much like other animal films like Milo and Otis. The body language of the dinosaurs is well animated, but the voice actors are so talented that they could have almost done the story as a radio program, especially John Leguizamo as Alex, the Alexornis (an ancestor of modern birds). Leguizamo absolutely nails an extended cutaway about the Gorgosaurus. There are also cutaways to introduce the other dinosaurs that are educational without being intrusive, and anyone who loved learning about dinosaurs in elementary school will enjoy them. But the quality of acting and animation makes the lack of heart in the story and dialogue all the more obvious.

It’s almost unbelievable how emotionally flat Walking With Dinosaurs is in contrast to another movie that comes to mind when tracing the cultural heritage of this film. The Land Before Time tells a story of dinosaur friends fighting to survive famine and has a heartbreaking scene where Littlefoot’s mother dies. But here, nothing is said after Patchi and Scowler witness their father’s death except “he’s not coming back”, and nothing at all is said of their mother or siblings. It’s as though they couldn’t remember that they had any. Perhaps the filmmakers gave the dinosaurs only the emotional range appropriate for species with brains of their size. It might have been too much to show the gutted corpse of their father being pecked over by scavengers, but they could have done something to convey the loss to us, perhaps letting a shadow fall across Patchi and Scowler as they come out of hiding. The film certainly doesn’t shy away from gross-out gags with feces and vomit, but it shies from death even while showing predators hunting and killing. Perhaps showing death but otherwise avoiding the subject was meant to create an ambiance of danger for what is otherwise a “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back” plot. The overarching message of the story is never give up, but, if you must die, die for a reason, but the film never makes an emotional connection that can truly deliver that message.