The skull of Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis.
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Photo by Sebastian Bergmann, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
The skull of Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis.

How to Ruin Dinosaurs

Imagine that you’re standing in front of a dinosaur skeleton in a dim museum hall. Let’s say that it’s a  Stegosaurus, that great armored dinosaur of 150 million years ago. The animal is both absurd and beautiful. A tiny head on a bulky body held up on pillar-like legs, decorated with polygonal plates and tipped with a set of short tail spikes.

As you’re admiring the Jurassic wonder, someone walks up and starts offering a running commentary on the skeleton. “I bet Allosaurus got the point” they say with a nod to the reconstruction’s intimidating thagomizer, taking a single beat before turning to the plates and continuing “Looks like mister stegosaur was trying to compensate for something, eh?” You try to ignore the bad-puns and dud one-liners, but you just can’t block out the yammering. All the inane comments have totally ruined the fantastic scene you came to see. And that is exactly how I felt while watching Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.

While the feature film carries the title of the famous fossil franchise, Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is a different animal than the documentary that preceded it. The original series narrated the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs through a mix of science, speculation, and silliness. (The Diplodocus ovipositor  is still seared onto my memory.) Walking With Dinosaurs 3D was supposed to use the same formula to concoct a silent feature, with slightly anthropomorphic dinosaurs playing out the tale of a male Pachyrhinosaurus in Late Cretaceous Alaska. Explanation and narration was kept to an absolute minimum. But that was before worried producers turned what could have been a cinematic spectacle into a film more grating than any Land Before Time sequel.

Instead of letting our heroic Pachyrhinosaurus “Patchi” communicate in the dinosaurian language of hoots, grunts, and bellows, the filmmakers decided to have the persistent ceratopsid prattle off some awful dialog voiced by Justin Long. “She likes me, and my hole!” is an actual line from the movie that isn’t any less cringe-inducing in context.  Tiya Sircar voices one-dimensional love interest Juniper, joined by Sklyer Stone as brash brother Scowler and John Leguizamo portraying the movie’s embarrassing “sassy ethnic character” trope, Alex the Alexornis. The movie’s predators don’t talk, of course. A mother Gorgosaurus saying “Hey, I’ve got to feed my kids, too” while dropping a hadrosaur leg into a nest just wouldn’t play.

None of the voice-overs were necessary. The entire movie was planned to be silent, with each character having their own personalities and stories told through carefully-directed visuals. You can still see this film playing out as the voice overs tarnish it. The magic the visual team wove in recreating the valleys and forests of Cretaceous Alaska is totally dispelled by the words the characters are thinking at each other. (Their mouths don’t move, so it must have been selective telepathy.) A moment when an injured Juniper collapses on the beach could have been a poignant and tense moment of a young dinosaur possibly meeting her demise. But that emotion can never take hold because whoever oversaw the 11th-hour changes wanted to have the dinosaurs talking about nothing at a constant clip.

Dialog ruined the dinosaurs. The special effects artists and visual team explored dinosaur lives while keeping a strong narrative, and their efforts were totally undermined whoever tried to punch up the script. I have no patience for the argument that such voiceovers should be expected in a children’s movie. No. The Land Before Time and You Are Umasou are both dinosaur movie’s for children, and both use dialog to explore issues of family, loss, and identity. The words of those dinosaurs have meaning. The dialog in Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is vacuous and not only lacks emotional weight, but actually drains any emotions the audience might feel for the characters. It’s safe and stupid – a film that asks children to just watch and not think or even feel.

There is a way to save Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, though. Give viewers to option to watch the film without the dialog. I sincerely hope that the home release has an option to see the film as it was meant to be, letting visuals and sounds of the reconstituted dinosaurs tell the story. Dinosaurs have never looked so good on the big screen, and a silent version could be a classic dinosaur epic that helps inspire children to keep searching for the astounding connections between the Earth as we know it and lost worlds preserved in stone. Sometimes it’s best to let dinosaurs speak for themselves.