In 1999 the BBC presented an ambitious six-part series entitled, “Walking with Dinosaurs.” Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, each episode consisted of overly contrived stories, but the series exposed viewers to realistic renditions of dinosaurs, along with Earth’s changing climate during the 200 million years the series spanned. More than 700 million viewers watched numerous species depicted on both land and sea, and some, myself included, returned for repeat viewings.
Capitalizing on both the BBC’s reputation and our general admiration for its groundbreaking series, BBC’s production company attempted to create a kid-friendly “Walking With Dinosaurs” for the big screen.
A present day live-action scene opens the film and telegraphs the string of bad decisions to come. Karl Urban appears as fossil enthusiast Zack all but kidnaping his niece Jade and nephew Ricky (Angourie Rice and Charlie Rowe) for their help at a remote dig site.
After parking somewhere in the Alaskan wilds, Zack and Jade soldier on down the trail while stick-in-the-mud Ricky is allowed to remain behind at the Jeep. He possesses no means of protection against man or beast, a point underscored when Ricky is cornered by chatty crow Alex (voiced in a strong Latino accent by John Leguizamo). Alex claims a window has opened into the distant past, and Alex proves it by morphing into a prehistoric parrot before Ricky’s eyes.
Alex then takes flight, admonishing Ricky to keep up. The lad cannot, since the film fails to produce the magic required for a human boy to glide high above the Alaskan forest.
Not surprisingly, the focus shifts to Patchi (voice of Justin Long), a newborn Pachyrhinosaurus scrambling for a meal of grass regurgitated by his mom. The feisty runt of the litter, Patchi shows he’s no pushover when squabbling for a share of the food with his alpha sibling Scowler (voiced by Skyler Stone).
Alex, who serves as the film’s narrator, assures us that one day Patchi will be a legendary Pachyrhinosaurus hero. For now Alex’s warning of impending danger makes no impression on Patchi, who is attacked by a predatory flightless bird. Predators lurk on the fringes, but Patchi remains happy-go-lucky and is optimistic about his friendship and future with young female Pachyrhinosaurus Juniper (intoned by Tiya Sircar).
Although only Patchi, Alex, Juniper and Scowler are given dialog, their incessant chatter is peppered with anachronistic words including “gross, bro, poop, dude and awesome.” It appears that most of the dialog was added post production, since the dinosaurs’ mouths rarely move when they speak.
The action includes several fatal attacks by the fearsome Gorgosauraus (resembling Tyrannosaurs Rex), but the camera remains at a discreet distance, avoiding any show of bloodshed. Neither injury, nor the death of loved ones has more than a brief effect on Patchi, whose main concern is remaining close to Juniper.
Much of the story is co-opted from “Bambi” and “The Lion King,” though screenwriter John Collee has failed to duplicate the wit or intensity associated with superior family films. For the sake of dino-loving little ones, parents may choose to grin and bear it — some perhaps grieving the extinction of the “Walking with Dinosaurs” franchise.