Thursday, March 07, 2013

Planet Dinosaur

I’ve been a little out of the loop on this type of release, but when looking for the latest news on the anticipated remake of Walking With Dinosaurs, I discovered that there was a newer, similar documentary released by BBC about a year and a half ago called Planet Dinosaur. I was surprised that our public library didn’t have a copy, but I requested one, and they bought it, and after a few weeks of processing, I finally now have it in my hot little hands. It took about three days to watch all of the half-hour episodes (because my free time to do so in the evenings is greatly reduced lately) but last night I finally finished watching the movie.

As some of you may (or more likely not) know, I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with these types of documentaries. Walking With Dinosaurs, as the first, had a number of issues, including really ugly art direction and creature design, fairly primitive CGI, and a lot of sensationalist and inaccurate reportage (especially related to the vastly inflated sizes of Liopleurodon and Ornithocheirus.) But, all in all, I liked the show a lot, and just wish that it looked better.

When Dinosaurs Roamed America, the Discovery Channels answer to the BBC hit, had exactly the opposite problem—by and large it looked better (although the CGI was still primitive, and many creatures looked too “plastic.”) The narration, on the other hand, is so incredibly bone-numbingly stupid, that it makes the program difficult to watch. Dinosaur Planet was a follow-up that did little to fix the issues with its predecessor, and sadly kinda crapped out on the design of the dinosaurs themselves, with ridiculous looking titanosaurs with squashed flat torsos and Daspletosaurus and Maiasaura models that are just incredibly ugly, covered with all kinds of ornamentation and weird shapes that make it difficult to see how the skeleton could be put inside the computer model. And the appearance of an attempt to tell dramatic narratives with cheesily named characters was not really very welcome, because—again, really stupid.

BBC continued to try and one-up their original production, with an add-on about Allosaurus, and then the two series with a time-traveling naturalist Nigel Marvin giving the whole thing some cohesion. Chased by Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Park had their problems (the former had slightly improved, but still ugly computer models; the latter used real cut-rate animation and lots of repeated sequences, but at least generally looked better.) A handful of other documentaries with CGI dinosaurs continued to come out, including Clash of the Dinosaurs, which is also quite good (although infamous for using quote-mining to make experts appear to state things that they don’t, in fact, believe.) This one had really good CGI, but rather little of it, including lots of interspersions with talking heads and lots of repeats of the same sequences, sometimes with filters on them to change the color or lighting slightly.

It was overdue that another longish, multi-episode, “living” presentation of dinosaurs, focused more on showing the animals in their environments rather than talking heads, was done. It had been a while since one had come out, and all of the ones in existence were old and dated, both in terms of their CGI and art direction, and in terms of their paleontology. Rumors of a remake of Walking With Dinosaurs seemed like it might fill the gap, but that got delayed and then transformed into a 3D theatrical release (and it still isn’t out yet, by the way.) So, discovering that Planet Dinosaur slots into that gap is a nice find.

And in general, I like this one. It tends to look quite a bit better than most of the previous efforts. In fact, to date, it’s probably the best looking of the bunch (which the possible exception of Clash of the Dinosaurs, which had too little CGI to really count, sadly.) It also had a lot of new discoveries and finds integrated into the narrative. And, it focused less on trying to be sensational, and more on trying to be accurate and interesting. In fact, although I think the earliest two episodes are probably the weakest, it managed to turn out to be possibly my favorite dinosaur documentary to date.

It did have some problems, though. Like the earliest of its predecessors, the producers decided that having someone famous narrate was important (here we have John Hurt.) Much like John Goodman in When Dinosaurs Roamed America, John Hurt doesn’t know how to pronounce dinosaur names and got quite a few of them wrong, or at least unusual. Pronouncing Diplodocus with the accent on Dock rather than Plod is perhaps not wrong, merely strange, but pronouncing Daspletosaurus as if it were Desplatosaurus is not (and after a while, that SPLAT started to really annoy me.)

I’m still looking forward to the updated Walking With Dinosaurs, but in the meantime, this nicely sates my appetite for good CGI dinosaurs. I was also relatively happy with the science of the program. They obviously took some efforts to base their “narratives” on actual, specific, fossil finds, which is really cool. And they didn’t take short-cuts—it’s common to put Giganotosaurus and Argentinasaurus together, for instance, but they did not (they correctly paired Argentinasaurus with Mapusaurus, the large carnosaur that would have lived in the same time and place.)

It seems that they went out of their way to avoid showing old standbys T. rex and Triceratops, which was perhaps a little surprising, but then again; maybe they decided that both were a bit overplayed by now. And having a Morrison formation segment, but leaving out all of the sauropods and instead focusing on Camptosaurus, of all critters, also seemed unusual.  I also would really have enjoyed seeing some Triassic stuff—in fact, with all the discoveries of stuff going on in the Triassic, there’s an awful lot of interesting things that could have been done there about the roots and origins of dinosaurs. A missed opportunity, for sure.

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