Friday, January 10, 2014

Old vs New: Dinosaur vs Walking With Dinosaurs

A long time ago, artists, paleontologists, and filmmakers came up with a visionary idea: a movie based entirely on dinosaurs. Other movies have had dinosaurs in them, but were centered on humans and their interactions with the dinosaurs.  This project, as proposed, would be a natural drama, similar to wildlife projects like the Bear where the animal did not speak but would nonetheless have their story told. Set in the end of the age of Dinosaurs, they would focus a great clash between the protagonist and his theropod archenemy.  Alas, things went sour. Executives meddled. The project is delayed and sunk in development. The original team is told that it’s all over. Then, years later,  a trailer will capture the imagination of the audience. In lush, state of the art effects, it looks like the original epic will finally arise from development hell into its glory. And then a second trailer comes out, this one with conversations and sending hopes spiraling down. Then the final product is released to mixed reviews at best, a box office failure and a very bad product.

This happened twice in my lifetime.


The first time was the Disney film, and I’ve already reviewed that disaster. The second time, the film came out only a few weeks ago, and having to compete with a marketable, overhyped Disney musical pretty much sank it on arrival.  It’s fascinating that such a even happened once. It’s both stunning and depressing that it happened twice.  In Doug Walker’s excellent Nostalgia Critic web series, he occasionally compares originals with remakes in episodes he calls “New vs Old”. While “Walking With Dinosaurs” is not a remake of “Dinosaur”, and both are frankly remakes of the far superior Land Before Time, I think I shall adopt his format for a critical comparison of these two films.

First things first, let’s talk about the lead character. In the Disney film, he is an Iguanodon named Aladar, voiced by D.B. Sweeney. In the second film, he is a Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi, voiced by Justin Long. There’s not much to either character-an earnest young guy with stout morals, great courage, and passionate to his ideals. No depth, no development. Each has a moment of despair near the end, but it passes quickly. They each show a deal of naïveté, but that proves to be a strength rather than a weakness.

On one hand, Aladar’s more of a traditional hero-orphaned, raised by wise aliens, and becoming a leader because he cares about others. Patchi’s more comical, being the runt of the family and his idealism is played for laughs until his courage and tenacity overcome the odds.   In my opinion, these quirks make more sense. Aladar’s main struggle is an external one, convincing other dinosaurs in the rightness of his cause and a personal rivalry with the herd’s tyrannical leader. Patchi’s simply works better because of his handicaps. He’s small, unlucky, clumsy, and a weakling. His growth into a hero is more gradual, and fueled by his friendship and romance with the other characters. With Patchi, you see the whole story of his youth and adulthood. Aladar’s childhood is skipped entirely and he’s very well-adjusted for a dinosaur among sifakas. Patchi’s childhood settles the storyline into the traditional coming of age story.  In the end, I care more about Patchi simply because the odds were against him from the start and his experiences give him a little depth besides just being a nice guy. Advantage; Walking With Dinosaurs.
The supporting cast is trickier, since they’re very different. Walking With Dinosaurs has Patchi share his story with a smart-aleck mentor and companion, Alex the Alexornis, his boisterous bruiser brother Scowler, and friendly and understanding love interest Juniper.  Dinosaur has his foster family-comic relief Yar, mother mentor Plio, comic relief brother Zini, and little sister Suri, his love interest the thoughtful Neera, the elderly duo of Eema and Baylene, the tyrannical leader of the herd Kron, and his flunky Bruton. It’s harder to do a direct comparison because of this numerical disparity

 In terms of sidekicks, Alex comes out the strongest-he’s both funny and wise, unlike the lemurs who are either one, the other, or neither. The antagonist is more difficult to determine. Kron is a brutal dictator who rules the herd with an iron fist through ferocity and self-confidence. Scowler’s a bully, too, but he’s also playful and has a connection to Patchi. He’s more of a dumb jock than a true villain. A good comparison would be the inevitable fight and brutal beatdown by the antagonist for the hero usurping the control of the herd. Kron is trying to kill Aladar, but he’s always hated him, and the rescue by Neera  helps establish her character but also makes the fight less consequential. Meanwhile, Scowler’s sudden brutalizing of Patchi is a bit shocking, considering that they had very little initial antagonism, even with Scowler leaving Patchi and Juniper earlier in the film. In this one, Patchi has to get out from the brink of defeat himself-no one rescues him. Alex gives him a pep talk that inspires him to rise up from certain death, making it really more momentous with the plot. In the end, while Kron is a better villain, Scowler is more realistic and fitting to the story.

The love interests are both one-dimensional. While Neera has character growth as she learns from Aladar to stand up to her brother Kron, it’s just an extension of the romance. Both are simply to be romantic interests. As for the romances themselves, I have to give the edge to Walking With Dinosaurs. The romance starts between Patchi and Juniper when they’re young, and they form an abiding friendship with Patchi winning her over by his loyalty to her. Meanwhile, Aladar and Neera spend basically a few days before they commit to each other, and Neera falls for Aladar because of his empathy towards the elderly.

I think what tips the edge here are the two elder dinosaurs in Dinosaur. Voiced with character and spark by Della Reese and Joan Plowright, they’re genuinely a treat to watch. You really get to like them through their banter, quips, and even moments of inspiration. Eema the Styracosaur is the voice of common sense, while Baylene brings up Aladar from his point of despair through a genuinely effective speech.  They’re likeable characters with a lot of charm, and that’s something both films needed with their rather dull leaders.  Advantage, Dinosaur.

An interesting comparison is the effects. Dinosaur managed to get quite a few rave reviews because of its ambition and spectacle, while the sheer number of special-effects films today made those in Walking With Dinosaurs far less unique and less of a standout. On one hand, Dinosaur’s special effects have dated, especially the facial animations and lemurs. On the other, another ten years might make Walking With Dinosaurs seem dated in terms of effects. On one hand, Dinosaur’s animation gives the animals real character in their body movement. On the other, Walking With Dinosaurs has the character move very realistically, and often like real animals.  In the end, though, 10 years can do a lot, so I have to give the edge in effects to Walking With Dinosaurs simply because they’re better. Feathers are better, fur is better, skin and scales and eyes and action are all better. It may be commonplace nowadays, but the effects are still far better in the newer film. Advantage, Walking With Dinosaurs.

Music has always been an important part of cinema, and here it’s no different. This one is fairly easy. The music in Walking With Dinosaurs is fairly generic-unlike the namesake documentary, there isn’t much effort to distinguish it from other movies. The use of pop songs is simply surreal and doesn’t add much at all to the proceedings but confusing. Does a baby dinosaur falling in love with another fit with Barry White? What does Fleetwood Mac have to do with a herd of Edmontosaurus? And I’m just saying the memorable pop songs-the others are just obnoxious.  Dinosaur clearly wins this one; the score is by James Newton Howard, and while very derivative of Hans Zimmer’s Lion King score, it’s a very epic work.  While there’s no thematic material and the music often repeats the same motifs and sequences, it’s still very big and booming and epic, like what a dinosaur film score should be.  Advantage, Dinosaur.

The main clincher, of course, is the story.  Both stories are rather chimeric. What is Dinosaur? A coming of age story? A political drama? An action film? A romance? A morality play? The narration bookending the story doesn’t help much at all. What is Walking With Dinosaurs? A nature film? A Disney-style adventure? A comedy? A documentary since there are insets explaining the nuts and bolts of each animal? The human-based sequences about a boy appreciating his paleontologist uncle don’t help much either.

There’s no much in the way of character arc- Patchi and Aladar’s journeys are more physical than anything else. The plot development is pretty predictable and we’ve seen these stories done time and time before. The romances don’t really work. The comedy can be funny, but the jokes don’t come in fast enough or funny enough to make either a real comedy. Both have their fair share of action scenes, but  are very brief. There’s no songs by the characters. None of the heroes die-Bruton and Bulldust aren’t developed enough to really count. Even the main villains, the big predatory dinosaurs, aren’t that effective or dramatically intertwined with the rest of the story. The dialogue in both is predictable, trite, and in both cases more appropriate to situation comedies than to an actual drama.

The main difference, for me, is that Dinosaur’s executive meddling started early, so they have less excuse. It was trite from the beginning, with little of the proposed product shining through. Disney executives called it an experiment in special effects, not in storytelling.  Meanwhile, Walking With Dinosaurs was edited almost at the last second. The terrible dialogue, inexplicable songs, and human bookends were shoehorned in at the last second. While the coming of age story underneath is still not complex (and still having poop jokes), it’s still a great film underneath it.  The dialogue is really the most hated and obnoxious aspect of each film, so here’s an experiment: can you watch the film without the dialogue? In Dinosaur, the answer is no. In Walking With Dinosaurs, it’s definitely yes for the simple fact that it was almost released before it was hacked to pieces.  Dinosaur is rotten to the very core. Walking With Dinosaurs, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, has the remains of a fine movie about it.  Advantage, Walking With Dinosaurs.

Is Walking With Dinosaurs a good film? No. Is it an enjoyable film? Somewhat. I came in expecting the worst thanks to the reviews, word of mouth, and the trailer, so while I was prepared for the empty half of the glass, the full part was a pleasant surprise. This is a major difference from Dinosaur; I was so excited it was all I could think about for weeks and weeks, so when I saw in theaters I was crushed.  In the end, Walking With Dinosaurs is not a good movie; of the four films I watched in theaters 2013, it was definitely the least. But also in the end, it’s far sight better than Disney’s attempt and a marked improvement. The box office and critical failures are bitter blows to any hopes of further dinosaur epics, but there is still hope. Considering how far it got without the executive meddling, a great movie was almost released. Perhaps this time the producers and executives have learned their lesson



3 comments:

  1. Maybe this is one of those films that interested amateurs will re-organize with a better soundtrack and make it into a proper film, taking advantage of the great (so I've heard) graphics and design? They've done this with Star Wars and the Matrix. The latter was much improved, IMO. This is Disney though, so that kind of thing would be illegal.

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