Ninety-nine years ago, the pioneering animator and cartoonist Winsor McCay made a movie about a dinosaur named Gertie, and in the process kicked off the longest-running animation odyssey in film history: the dream of bringing prehistory back to life. For as long as cartoons have been made, dinosaurs have again walked the earth.
Walking with Dinosaurs, the latest attempt to reanimate our lumbering forebears, does so using the latest tools of the animation trade – computer-generated imagery – tools that not coincidentally came of age when Steven Spielberg entered dino territory 20 years ago with Jurassic Park. It’s evolution reverse-engineered as popcorn spectacle, and testament to technology’s defiant refusal of extinction: As long as it can be programmed back to life, nothing is ever extinct.
Unfortunately, the only thing that dies harder in the movies than natural selection is careworn cliché, and Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale’s movie about a plucky, lovestruck pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi subjects our long defunct earthly ancestors to a fate arguably worse than extinction: a life lived in a world of cheese.
In the beginning, so to speak, the pachyrhinosauruses are living a peaceful, quiet and frolicsome life, until a threat to this idyllic calm compels a dangerous migration across a prehistoric Alaska populated by all manner of far less benign life forms. Indeed, as each new creature is introduced, it is helpfully identified (via voice-over and on-screen text) by its proper scientific name and dietary habits – kind of like those freeze-frames in old Roadrunner cartoons – and those are rarely of the vegetarian persuasion. Basically, everything on the planet wants to eat Patchi.
It could be because Patchi, as plump and bouncy as he is, is something of a prehistoric delicacy, but I suspect it’s also to shut the guy up, because Patchi, like all the pachyrhinosauruses in this movie save for the adult ones, is a wise-cracking motormouth of the first order, surpassed in sheer verbosity only by his prehistoric bird-like buddy Alex, who is (incessantly) voiced by John Leguizamo.
Now, I can’t bring much scientific authority to the table here, but I strongly suspect that dinosaurs didn’t talk, or if they did they didn’t speak English and make endless cracks about poop, vomit and other matters of particular comic fascination to contemporary six-year-olds. Then again, we can’t know exactly what kind of sounds dinosaurs made, so maybe they did indeed use terms like “bro,” “dude” and “awesome,” and possibly they did convivially commune with toothsome prehistoric birds with Latino accents.
But where my disbelief was most strenuously suspended was in watching Patchi’s own personal evolution from dorky little pachyrhinosaurus pup to heroic leader of the herd, a passage that involves not only becoming the smartest, strongest and wisest p-saurus in all of prehistoric Alaska, but winning the affection of the cute girl p-saurus – named, with particular prehistoric poise, Juniper – he’s carried a candle for practically since he first hatched.
He’s a hero for the Cretaceous era, that is, but for the ages as well: the same kind of hero that strikes us as heroic today as it apparently did way back when, and that’s all fine and good until you try to reconcile it with this movie’s stated claims to a certain kind of immersive, 3-D-enhanced authenticity, wherein we’re supposed to be granted a privileged access to what life might have been really like for dinosaurs when they ruled the earth. Because if this is the way dinosaurs really lived, we might be worried, for it’s possible they died out for sheer lack of imagination.