Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Cinema File #296: "Walking With Dinosaurs" Review

Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether the creative failure of a movie is the fault of the filmmakers themselves, or the meddling of executives. Other times, it is incredibly easy to tell this, as is the case with the new childrens' film Walking With Dinosaurs, a live action/CG hybrid that essentially serves as two completely different movies airing at the same time, depending on whether or not you have the sound on. A unique visual style boasting sometimes breathtaking imagery and an interesting blend of real locations and computer generated creatures is rendered almost unwatchable by some of the most annoying and unnecessary ADR punch up dialogue in recent memory, in a clear and regrettable example of post production tinkering gone horribly wrong.

Walking With Dinosaurs follows the epic journey of a Pachyrhinosaurus from his birth as the runt of the little to his eventual ascendance as leader of his herd. I make a point not to note the unbearably cutsie name given to this rhino-like protagonist, because I prefer to pretend that like all real animals in the wild, he remains nameless, and that at no point did a wacky Spanish bird voiced by John Leguizamo fly in to tell me what his name was or anything else about him. I certainly didn't need any of this information, as the film works well enough on its own without the voiceovers, originally designed to be a silent study of imagined pre-historic nature. Not being entirely shallow, I do not require my non-human characters to be anthropomorphized in order to engage with them, but then obviously I'm not in the target audience for this movie.

But then, I'm not sure what the target audience of this movie ever was, or at what point it changed from fans of naturalistic animation to whoever the hell this juvenile nonsense would appeal to. At some point, after all the animation was done, the film was apparently re-edited and re-dubbed with character voices, placed over action obviously meant to convey the story without dialogue, so that all the newly voiced characters have room to do is explain what they are doing as they are doing it, in case the movie was ever going to be showcased in a film festival for the blind. That is, the blind and devoid of good taste, as in addition to the pointless exposition spouted every other line or so, every line in between is some lazy pun or poop joke. Because that's what's best to capture the majesty of dinosaurs. Remember that scene with the poop in Jurassic Park? Wouldn't it have been awesome if every humorous beat afterwards called back to it?

For a film like this, butchered after the fact into something so unlike its original intended form, it goes without saying that it simply didn't have to be this way. As it was made, this could have been a bold experiment in storytelling, at least in the context of modern animated movies aimed at children with famously low attention spans. If successful, it could have ushered in a new paradigm for how we gauge just what mainstream audiences would be willing to tolerate in terms of subtlety and deviation from formula. In defense of those who decided to end the experiment before it started, I doubt a voiceless version would have broken box office records, but I can't imagine they thought this "salvaged" version could have done so much better. Of course, we know it didn't, and my contention that the artsy take would have been worth a shot is seen through the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but I have to wonder when this kind of complete overhauling has ever helped a film?

Like many kids, I grew up with a deep abiding fascination with dinosaurs, and judging by the success of the recent 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, that love of all things prehistoric is not lost on the current generation of youngsters. That Walking With Dinosaurs fails to claim the mantle of modern dino-centric fantasy isn't its greatest sin, as those are big shoes to fill even for a good movie. The biggest problem with this film is that it came so close to being great, only to have its potential squandered by the shortsightedness of people who obviously had no understanding of why this subject is so beloved. The impulse to force creative and original ideas into easily recognizable and relatable boxes is understandable, but no less tragic when the result is the loss of something possibly magical, and in this case, the only saving grace is that my eventual DVD copy will play on a television with a mute option.

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