Movie: I've been a fan of dinosaur movies since watching Godzilla movies back in the 1960's. Seeing the fantastical beasts bound around, destroying buildings and eating people was always "cool" to me. As time passed, I also learned to enjoy such classic works of literature as Gulliver's Travels and appreciated the themes the diverse types of entertainment offered me as an impressionable child. I never fully outgrew such things and with the advent of the Jurassic Park movies and television shows like Lost World, I was even willing to accept the limitations of the lower budget shows in order to get my "fix" of dinosaurs. A few years back, another source of such fantasy was aired on television, derived from a couple of picture books of such high quality that I wondered if author/artist James Gurney might've shared a similar childhood as myself. The books in question, as well as the series I'm speaking of, is Dinotopia: The Complete Series.
The original concept was a secluded island that had escaped the ravages of time. A place where dinosaurs continued to evolve, along side humans, and formed a utopian community where each member contributed to the society as able, and for the benefit of all. The technology was set at about the mid to late 1800's level and the books are very high on my list of recommendations for those of you who enjoy art combined with creativity. It should come as no surprise that the books were made into a short mini-series that did well enough to merit a weekly series. The mini-series and later weekly series changed certain aspects of the books (imagine that) and had the story revolve around a father and two sons that crashed in their small plane onto the island. They were befriended by the locals who included a variety of dinosaurs and miscellaneous characters; soon to be enlisted in an adventure to restore some powerful energy crystals (sunstones) that keep the Tyrannosaurus Rexes from attacking villages. The series being reviewed here picks up a month after these events took place.
Keeping in mind that the series was cancelled after less than half the episodes aired, much like the vastly superior Firefly (admittedly, most of that shows' episodes aired though), and was given about as much chance to make it as Dilbert, but was it really as bad as pretty much every thinking person claimed? In a word, yes. The episodes were seemingly written by committee and the production values much lower than you'd expect of a prime time show (it was filmed in Budapest). Here's a quick breakdown of the scenes, along with their airdate, in the order they are placed in the DVD set. I believe this is the order they were supposed to be shown, as indicated by something I read by one of the creative minds behind the series.
The show started off with the following prologue each week: "My boys and I flew into a strange storm and crash-landed on this incredible, uncharted island. A lost civilization, built by humans and dinosaurs living in peace and harmony with sunstones to keep them safe because it's not a perfect world. There are predators and outsiders and it's all hidden by an uncrossable, stormy reef. I guess we're here to stay."
Episode One: Marooned: November 28, 2002:
This episode re-established the premise behind the series as a utopia inhabited by sentient dinosaurs and humans that have lived together for generations upon generations. A Council comprised of various members of the community rules the land and even though the cast is different than the preceding mini-series, the events taking place in that series are part of the show's continuity. Tyrannosaurus Rexes are running in herds for some unknown reason, destroying everything in their path, and they're enroute to Waterfall City.
Episode Two: Making Good: November 28, 2002:
The rebels figure out the reason behind the strange action of the Tyrannosaurus Rexes and use their new power to take over the island. Only David and Karl seem capable of stopping the madness that ensues.
Episode Three: Handful Of Dust: December 5, 2002:
Cortez, an alchemist that has been driven mad by his search for eternal youth, stumbles onto a way to actually reverse the aging process. The downside to the elixir is that it requires the tail spikes of Stegosaurs and he goes on a killing spree to obtain the vital ingredient. The cast must find a way to find out the man's identity and stop the wholesale slaughter of the stegosaurs before any more are needlessly killed.
Episode Four: Le Sage: Unaired
Le Sage and her band of misfits have cornered the market on a leafy medicine that is sorely needed by the residents of Waterfall City. Never one to pass up an opportunity, she tries to work out a deal. Unfortunately, the only people who understand capitalism are Le Sage's group and the newcomers. The brothers hatch a plan to save the day but trouble seems to follow them at every step.
Episode Five: Car Wars: Unaired:
Zippo decides to run for Mayor against long time office holder Mayor Waldo. With the help of young Mr. Scott, modern-day politics enter the sheltered land of Dinotopia and everyone is the worse because of it. At the same time, Frank decides to build a primitive form of automobile, and sell it to anyone who wants one. Dinotopia is unprepared for the innovations of the outside world and the story deals with the consequences of such things.
Episode Six: The Matriarch: December 19, 2002:
Rosemary, the leading lady of Waterfall City and keeper of the nursery, finds herself at wits end when a dinosaur egg is missing. Further complicating matters is that someone tried to replace it was a Tyrannosaurus Rex egg which promptly hatches and causes even greater problems. Can the cast figure out what happened and who's responsible for the problems in time for the celebration?
Episode Seven: Night Of The Wartosa: Unaired:
Marion and Karl go on their first date but he's a bit hesitant that things will go wrong. He makes a deal with a strange man that sets him up with a spell whereby he will relive the date over and over again until he gets what he wants, something like the mainstream movie Groundhog Day. The best laid plans of mice and men go astray and poor Karl finds out that letting things happen naturally makes a lot more sense than relying on magic in affairs of the heart.
Episode Eight: The Big Fight: December 26, 2002:
Frank's latest innovation is a sporting event to get things stirred up, a boxing match. He gets his son David to fight one of Le Sage's goons and before long, even the peaceful citizens of Waterfall City are clamoring for the fight to begin. Will the fight go on as planned or with the authorities stop it as a brutal exhibition of violence?
Episode Nine: Contact: December 12, 2002:
Karl finds a shipwrecked boat on shore and manages to get a radio working. Before too long, he receives a distress call from someone and has to decide if helping a stranger is more important than getting off the island.
Episode Ten: Lost & Found: Unaired:
Karl is hurt when he falls from a skyback while trying to prove his manhood. He is captured by a group of people straight out of the old west that have never heard of talking dinosaurs or Dinotopia. When his family and friends try to find him, the citizens of the town catch them as well and soon put them all to the ultimate test, talk to some Tyrannosaurus Rexes or become dinner.
Episode Eleven: The Cure, Part One: Unaired:
While on a surveying mission, Karl is bitten by a poisonous mosquito and lingers near death. Rosemary knows of a forbidden way to send David to the modern world to seek medical assistance but the Council forbids it. When Le Sage hitches a ride with him, all heck breaks loose and the mission is further complicated by 26 jumping in at the last minute too.
Episode Twelve: The Cure, Part Two: Unaired:
The team find themselves in Budapest (where the series was filmed) because Le Sage's strong will overrides David's during the mystical journey. She soon finds out what a world full of opportunists like she is like, as well as the fact that her pure living cripples her in the real world. Will David manage to save his two endangered companions and still find a cure for Karl and if they make it back, how will he be able to explain it to his father?
Episode Thirteen: Crossroads: Unaired:
Life in Dinotopia gets more complicated when the secret of the transportation device leaks out. With David seeking to stay and Marion wanting to follow Karl, no matter what the risk, will things turn out okay or will all of Dinotopia feel the after effects of the adventure?
What can I say about a show so bad it was cancelled before it had a chance to air? In truth, small children may like this one but there was some off camera, implied violence that may be too much for smaller children and the sanitized world of Dinotopia, complete with communist theory intact, may be a bit weird for them too. I'm rating this one as a Skip It based as much on the presentation as the content. No unique extras, poor picture and sound quality, and a box that makes you have to hold one disc while removing another (the overlapping DVD case that no one likes and barely holds the discs on (even mine were off the spindle), all combined to show me how much care was put into this one.
Picture: The picture was presented in the standard 1.33: ratio full frame, as originally shot. This being a recent television show on a major network, and financed by a major corporation (Hallmark), I had high hopes for the picture quality going into it. Sadly, the picture was lacking in most ways. There was a lot of grain, a bunch of video noise, and the colors were washed out in a great many scenes. The sharpness also seemed weak and the detail missing; something I found surprising. The DVD transfer itself appeared to be responsible for some of the problem, perhaps jamming so much material on three discs was not such a good idea. The picture was better looking than VCD quality but not by much.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of either a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround English track or a more conventional 2.0 Dolby Digital English track. The 5.1 track was the better of the two but neither was particularly impressive. Admittedly, there was some minor separation between the channels but the dynamic range was limited and that separation never even approached the kind of sound it should have had. To sum it up the best way I know how, it sounded like a syndicated cable show from the mid 1990's.
Extras: The extras were pretty good for such a short-lived series. They started off with a short promotional clip from a video game Jr. Scene it? This is a game on DVD where you get clues and try to figure out the answers before your opponents. It looked to have promise, based on what was shown here, but I'm told the movie version is only fair to play. The majority of extras are included in the next section of the last disc under "features".
It started with a short "Discovering Dinotopia" that lasted the better part of a half hour. This was based on the original series, which had different cast members, and should've been included in that DVD set instead of this one.
The next feature was "Witness From Dinotopia". It was similar to the first feature but from the perspective of a resident of Waterfall City stuck in the outside world, trying to get back into his homeland. It was also derived from the first series rather than the weekly version that made up the DVD set.
The next featurette was "26 Hatches" and this showed the technical aspects of the mechanical creature used to represent the baby dinosaur. It was only about three minutes long but still informative.
The next feature was "Dinotopia Creative Team Interviews", which was under four minutes of sound bites and clips about the series from the behind the scenes crew.
The final feature was a two and a half minute feature called "Creating Dinotopia's Dinosaurs", which focused on the CGI used to create the majority of critters in the show.
Lastly, there were a few trailers and a paper insert that was mostly coupons and advertisements. I wish there could've been a better insert, much like the ones in so many boxed sets these days but considering that the extras were all based on the first mini-series and not the weekly series, I shouldn't have expected much.
Final Thoughts: I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did in reality but the limitations were just so apparent, so often, that I'd be remiss if I steered you towards it. The series even ended with a cliffhanger but I think changing the original authors concepts so much put this one behind the eight ball from square one. Is it any wonder that they couldn't get the original cast back to reprise their roles when the writing, direction, and technical values were so weak. If you really liked this show, I can only ask that you email me why and clue me in since the wooden performances by the cast (the one exception being Lisa Zane as Le Sage), the poor direction, and lousy CGI bothered me from the first scene of the first disc.
For shows that have better utilized science fiction/fantasy and/or humor, check out the following: