Imagine an average, healthy woman.
Now pretend she gets extensive cosmetic surgery — collagen implants, eye lift, botox, the works.
But it’s a botched operation, leaving this woman a grotesque imitation of beauty standards.
That’s what WALKING WITH DINOSAURS is.
A BBC mini-series was transformed for American audiences and it’s a horror show.
My problem isn’t just with the movie, but the cultural forces that transformed it.
THE ORIGINAL MINI-SERIES
The 2013 American film is based on a BBC mini-series. It was the most expensive British television program ever made (and it shows, the series is visually stunning.) The program combined live-action locations with computer-generated creatures to create the closest thing we could get to a nature documentary about dinosaurs. Kenneth Branagh narrated the series, providing insights into the environment and habits of pre-historic reptiles.
Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
THE CHANGES AND THE CHECKLIST
Significant changes were made to “reach a wider audience.”
The dinosaurs were anthropomorphized, making them obnoxious archetypes that are easily recognized by viewers of modern kids’ movies. There’s the scrappy runt Pachyrinosaurus (voiced by Justin Long). He’s a good- natured kid learning his way in a scary world of giant beasts and flying creatures.
His best buddy is an energetic Alexornis. It’s the wise-crackin’, fast talkin’ sidekick role that’s been voiced by the likes of Gilbert, Gottfried, Bobcat Goldthwait, even Eddie Murphy. Here we get John Leguizamo (who some kids might recognize as the voice of Sid the Sloth in all those ICE AGE movies.)
Many of these changes feel like they’re coming from some checklist of mainstream kiddie movies.
- the generic little guy hero
- Bossy old brother
- Mandatory love-interest
- A brave parental sacrifice
- One character compares himself to a ninja (?!)
- A scene feature ironic use of music by Barry White
The jokes would feel played out in any post-SHREK world. But in this very stylish “documentary” film they’re terribly forced.
STORY OR WHATEVER
Maybe the reason this pains me is that there’s a profound disparity between the magnificent visuals and the sloppy script.
And that suggests a few things:
1. Story, character and dialogue take a backseat in mainstream entertainment.
2. The powers-that-be assume audiences will respond to a bunch of poop jokes and familiar character types.
I’m depressed as a professional writer, because the writing was an afterthought. (The feature film was planned to be a “silent movie” without dialogue, the script certainly feels slapped on.)
I’m insulted as an audience member, because the movie-makers think I’m so dumb that I’d want this would-be Dreamworks movie.
I’m outraged as a parent, because economic forces are determined to short-change my children with shoddy entertainment.
A TRADITION OF CHEAP KIDDIE ENTERTAINMENT
Before we go any further, I should point out there’s no “lip-flap” in WALKING WITH DINOSAURS. Characters’ mouths do not move, like on THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE. (At least the trains provide basic expressions to convey emotion.)
90 minutes of “telepathic” dinosaurs is a jarring dramatic experience.
During the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a film by exploitation king K. Gordon Murray.Throughout the 1960s Murray bought the rights to half-a-dozen of low-budget Mexican Fairy Tale movies then re-dubbed them into English. He’d screen his Americanized versions of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD or MOTHER HOLLY at weekend Matinee shows — and make a bundle in the process.
Again, this type of rampant, greedy model succeeds best when adults overlook quality in children’s media.
You can’t help but feel like WALKING WITH DINOSAURS lends itself to being re-dubbed into dozens of languages, starring the “Non-union Mexican equivalent” of Justin Long.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
The corporate overlords who designed this film clearly wanted to have it both ways: an educational film about the Cretaceous period AND a by-the-numbers family comedy.
It didn’t really work. The finished movie isn’t enlightening (aside from the handful of moments when the screen freezes and a child’s voice pronounces the names of dinosaurs.) And, I’m being subjective here, the movie isn’t entertaining. Even by kids’ movie standards.
Let’s all remember that we should pick a side, stick with it. Make the best possible thing that isn’t also trying to be another thing. (Unless novelist David Mitchell is reading this. Dude, you have mastered the art of blending genres and I’d hate for this blog post to derail your post-modernist journey.)
Side-note: On this blog I’ve showed some amused admiration for shameless cash-grab movies.
For example, low-budget movie studio THE ASYLUM made TRANSMORPHERS just in time for the big-budget TRANSFORMERS movie. Or the Korean film company that debuted A*P*E just as the 1976 KING KONG was being released. But those crude little movies know where they stand. The filmmakers don’t think they’re fooling anyone (aside from some confused grandparents shopping for DVDs at the 99-cent store.) But I get the impression the makers of WALKING WITH DINOSAURS really do think they’re pulling one over on the public. And maybe that’s why I’m compelled to call “bullshit” on their greedy exercise.
It could be I’m worried about my own writing career.
I’ve had a cartoon show in development hell for 2 years now. I worry that my show could be compromised by industry cynics, turning my series into something as condescending and heartless as the dinosaur movie.
Or maybe I’m worried that my show is already that bad.
Or what if the bastards are right and people really do want the modern-kiddie movie checklist.
a collection of tweets I’ve made about WALKING WITH DINOSAURS over the past 2 weeks.
Well, it sure feels good to get this off my chest. And I can’t imagine I’ll ever feel so much disdain for another movie for the rest of my life.
(Kevin turns on the TV and see ad for this monsturd…