Miniseries: Dinosaur Revolution

Monday, December 17, 2012

Torvosaurus and Rhamphorhynchus in "Dinosaur Revolution"
Produced by Creative Differences. Executive producers, Dave Harding, Erik Nelson, Alan Eyres, Brooke Runnette; supervising producer, Richard Ross; directors, David Krentz, Nelson; supervising director, Ricardo Delgado; writer, Nelson; FX supervisor, Douglas Martin; senior editors, Randall Boyd, Paul Marengo; music, Mark Leggett. 60 MIN. Narrator: Rick Robles

The title notwithstanding, there's nothing particularly revolutionary about "Dinosaur Revolution," which lustily attacks everybody's favorite extinct beasts with for-the-most-part impressive CGI effects and a cheeky storytelling approach that owes a sly debt to the old Disney nature films. Produced with limited narration and talking heads, the filmmakers anthropomorphize the dinosaurs in what amount to mini-vignettes, a conceit that works fitfully, and improves in subsequent hours. Even with its flaws, given the enduring fascination with the subject matter, the results ought to exhibit considerable dino-might for Discovery.

In a way, "Revolution" owes as much to "Fantasia" as it does to "Walking With Dinosaurs," its most obvious ancestor. The main innovation here is trying to infuse individual dinos with a touch of personality, or at least get you mildly invested in their fates.

As for the "Revolution" part, it's really just a fancy way of saying we continue to learn surprising new things about the way dinosaurs lived (nurturing young, hunting in groups), and that far from an evolutionary dead end, their legacy continues within innumerable avian species.

Effectively using realistic backgrounds behind the animated beasts, the first hour of this four-part program (airing back-to-back installments on successive Sundays) promises "startling new conclusions" about how dinosaurs lived, but delivers relatively little.

Fortunately, producer/writer/co-director Erik Nelson and his team hit their stride in a second hour devoted to life around the watering hole -- where, much like modern Africa, the circle-of-life means predators hunt the plant-eating herds, with survival on the line. The most crowd-pleasing hour is probably a final installment highlighting everyone's favorite monster, Tyrannosaurus Rex, along with the meteor strike that eradicated dinosaurs. (Admittedly, that last aspect's kind of a downer and probably not terrific for young kids, feeling a bit too much like a big, scaly version of "The Road.")
To their credit, the producers don't sugarcoat the delivery, and challenge the audience to follow along by telling these stories visually (with periodic dollops of blood as limbs and heads get munched), as opposed to relying on the narrator or scientists to spell out every little detail.

Still, the most dramatic and comedic flourishes within the vignettes tend to take viewers out of the nature motif a bit by occupying an awkward place between animated "characters" and documentary that, pardon the expression, is neither fish nor fowl.

That disclaimer notwithstanding, even dinosaur aficionados will probably learn a few things, and there are enough solid moments of action to keep the program entertaining. Moreover, unlike Fox's upcoming drama "Terra Nova," there are no annoying teenagers in this world. (As a footnote, it's also nice to see anything scheduled during this window not related to the Sept. 11 anniversary.)

Seeking to differentiate itself, Discovery has upped its ambitions in recent years with documentaries like "Life" and "Planet Earth." Even if "Dinosaur Revolution" doesn't quite rise to that level, it's a creditable stab at offering viewers a taste of life on a prehistoric planet.

Film: Dinotasia


Bucking the dominant trend of nature docs, Dinotasia eschews anthropomorphism almost entirely. While contemporary wildlife films, exemplified by Disneynature titles such as African Cats and Chimpanzee, tend to make their non-human characters relatable by endowing them with decidedly human qualities, David Krentz and Erik Nelson's computer-animated look at the age of the dinosaurs refuses to falsify its subject by ascribing inaccurate motives to its players. 

This decision to avoid treating the dinosaurs as surrogate people for easy identification is both the film's boldest move and the source of much of its problems. As we watch the CGI dinosaurs enact what largely amounts to a vicious struggle for survival across a series of time-hopping vignettes, the lack of narrative gives the various episodes a certain shapelessness, even as they're held together by a pending asteroid-based apocalypse that the film keeps alluding to and by Werner Herzog's gleefully doomy narration.

Yes, the Grizzly Man director is on hand to intone, in his inimitable style, about "the savage indifference of nature," as if the constant scenes of tyrannosaurs ripping each other's heads off weren't proof enough. Herzog's role, though, exists less to advance the plot (except in so much as he delights in the coming of that fatal asteroid) than to provide thematic heft, discoursing on the Earth's cycles of life and death and chaos and order.

Despite the somewhat crude computer animation, at least by contemporary, post-Avatar standards, and the sameness of much of the episodes, Dinotasia has no shortage of memorable imagery, whether it's a one-armed tyrannosaur with a face like a death's mask running rampant or bright red raptors teaming up to take down larger prey. There's little sentimentalizing the creatures here; these dinosaurs are no cuddly creatures for kids. Instead, Krentz and Nelson present a vision of brutal violence that enacts itself senselessly and repetitiously, oblivious to the larger apocalypse that awaits.

It's a consistent worldview and probably an accurate one, but it results in a film that only excites in fits and starts. While some variations and side-trips keep things lively (including a magic-mushroom freakout by one dino), the doc's focus on the eternal struggles of life and death places definite limits on the sweep and diversity of the vignettes. By punting the more traditional narrative strategies of nature films, Dinotasia usefully de-sentimentalizes the genre, but by almost entirely avoiding any overarching plotting at all, the film becomes a stubbornly episodic exercise that frustrates nearly as much as it excites.