In one of the many extras supplementing this massive boxed set, it's revealed that in addition to tens of millions of dollars that were spent on the physical production, over 400 paleontologists were consulted for historical accuracy. And yet one question kept nagging at me as I watched this set comprised of the CGI-heavy Walking With series which has aired on both the BBC and Discovery Channel: how do they know this? How do they know that the small weasel-like creatures ate their young to prevent them from being similarly consumed by the first bird-like dinosaurs? How do they know that the male crocodile-like reptiles that pre-dated the dinosaurs by millions of years engaged in weird jumping behaviors when they accosted each other? These and a truckload of other similar queries just kept eating at me throughout this series, despite the portentous and authoritative narration of Kenneth Branagh in all but one of the documentaries, which just reeks of "this is how it is." Now I'm not disputing that every fact in this voluminous series isn't true, or at least believed to be true, but I can't help but think of how often just in my lifetime paleontologists have revised what they previously thought of as "the truth," leaving me wondering how this group of documentaries is going to be viewed, say, ten years from now. The reason I bring this all up is that each of these visually arresting pieces has absolutely no "talking head" segments--they are, with the exception of the Cavemen episodes which feature heavily made-up humans (one hopes, anyway), comprised solely of CGI recreations of what life was like untold millennia ago, with Branagh simply giving us the ostensible "facts, and just the facts."
Overview: While no expense has been spared on any of these efforts, digital imaging technology is such an aggressively evolving medium that even efforts from a few years ago can seem out of date. All of the Walking With features rely almost solely on CGI, as mentioned above, and that is both a boon and a bust. The boon is nothing this ambitious has ever before been attempted in series television, even though these documentaries are, taken separately, short-form, consisting of between two and six episodes each. The bust is, a lot of the animation is patently fake looking, and in the Cavemen episodes, where live actors interact with CGI beasts, it's just laugh out loud ridiculous at times. That's the downside, for those of you who want photo-realism every step of the way. The upside, which far outweighs it, is that this set is such a compendium of information, at least as we think we know it today, that any shortcomings in an occasional cartoonish creature traipsing across the screen are left behind, like dinosaurs after a meteor explosion, in the dust of a million little factoids, most of them fascinating.
This boxed set is sequenced chronologically, so that the various series are not in the actual order in which they were produced. The set includes:
Walking With Monsters (titled "Before the Dinosaurs" on the DVD disc itself). This three episode series goes back to the dawn of time, at least Earth-wise, when our home planet was a lifeless rock spinning in the vast reaches of space. According to the first episode, another planet known as Theia collided with Earth (and a chunk of Theia became our moon), finally creating the conditions in which life can evolve. The first episode starts solely with life in the water in the Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods, with a bunch of strange, frankly scary looking creatures that do little other than attack smaller lifeforms and, occasionally, each other. A sort of gigantic scorpion becomes one of the first sea-creatures to venture onto land, setting up the remaining two episodes. The episode next deals with the Devonian era, as more and more amphibians are able to survive both in and out of the water. Episode Two moves ahead several million years and deals with such land creatures as gigantic spiders as big as the human head. Also appearing are various proto-reptiles, including two females that fight viciously over a nesting area for egg laying. The third and final episode is set in the late Permian era, when the supercontinent Pangaea held all land-based life. Most of the one earthly continent was desert, but that didn't mean life wasn't amazingly abundant. This episode, similarly covering hundreds of millions of years, makes the slow transition from early reptile life into the more widely known dinosaur era.
Walking With Monsters, as all the series in this set, includes CGI of varying quality. While a lot of the water based creatures are well rendered, some of the land-based reptiles are frankly cartoonish. The cartoon element is enhanced by many moments (used throughout the series) when the CGI creatures interact with the "camera." The first use of this is when one of the undersea creatures smashes into the "lens" and breaks it, and I hoped for a moment this would be an isolated incident. Unfortunately, similar sequences pop up every few minutes, with creatures spewing mud on the "lens," knocking the "camera" sideways for a moment as they pass, and so on. It will probably be delightful for children, but I found it simply annoying after a while.
The series does benefit from a nicely standardized format, with subtitles telling us where in the world we are and what the timeframe is. There are also several bridging sequences where one creature is shown, the timecode changes rapidly (as in hundreds of millions of years in a few seconds), and the evolutionary changes the creature underwent during the passing centuries is quickly displayed. While these moments are by their very nature extremely brief overviews, they nonetheless provide some compelling visual examples of natural selection and the evolutionary process.
Extras: A Making Of Trilogy recounts the efforts going into the first three series. The shortcomings of the CGI are at least hinted at by the man who ended up doing them: he first refused, thinking doing something of this magnitude would be impossible. After reconsidering, thinking that some other CGI house would reap the accolades, he relented, only to realize his first hunch was probably correct.
Next up, chronologically speaking, is probably the best-known of all the series contained in the set, Walking With Dinosaurs. This six episode arc takes us from the pre-dinosaur realm of the previous series, starting with the late-Triassic period, about 220 million years ago. Each of the subsequent episodes moves forward in time, sometimes a relatively few million years, sometimes by leaps and bounds, until the sixth has us ensconced in the late Cretaceous period a mere 65 million or so years ago.
This series does an admirable job of showing huge, literally eon-taking climate changes that forced old forms of life to adapt and new forms of life to spring up. Starting with the almost entirely arid opening (in fact the first episode deals largely with the first dinosaurs attempting to survive in these conditions), Walking With Dinosaurs takes us through that famous Spielbergian Jurassic era when lush forests started taking over until millions of years later volcanic activity started to interfere with "normal" dinosaur life. Dinosaurs spans the gamut of lifeforms, including land-based, winged and undersea, showing the amazing diversity of life within this one class. Each episode tends to focus on one or two varieties of dinosaur, some of them tiny, lizard-like creatures, and others, like the infamous T-Rex, that would tower over some of today's skyscrapers.
Extras: No extras on this particular DVD, but see Allosaurus, below.
I was delighted to finally hear Branagh state "we can recreate what might have happened" in the opening sequence of Allosaurus: A Walking With Dinosaurs Special, which, at only 30 minutes or so is considerably shorter than most of the other features in this set. This special attempts to recreate the life of "Big Al," an allosaurus whose fossils were found in Wyoming. Starting as an incredibly vulnerable "small tyke", whom other allosauruses (including eventually its own mother) see as food, Al weathers the elements and other aggressors to finally make it to adulthood. There's nothing really new presented here that isn't covered in the main series itself, but its focus on one individual gives this a more intimate feel than some of the longer form works.
Extras:: Allosaurus has a host of excellent extras, including a documentary on the "big guy" himself, "Big Al Uncovered." There's also an excellent "Making of Walking With Dinosaurs," with an emphasis on the CGI effects. The two best extras are "Extreme Dinosaurs: Science of Giants," an excellent 48 minute overview of the entire multi-era life of the creatures, and a great David McCullough special, "Living With Dinosaurs," which explores modern-day descendants of our ancient friends, like crocodiles and turtles.
Walking With Prehistoric Beasts consists of six episodes detailing the rise of the species that coexisted with dinosaurs for millions of years, but which ultimately superceded them and became the dominant lifeform on the planet: mammals. In some ways this is the most fun of the "creature" episodes if only for the fact that we begin to recognize some nascent life forms that will evolve into animals we see regularly today. Much like its predecessors, it takes us on a multi-million year journey, this time from the Eocene Era, approximately 49 million years ago, to the late Pleistocene, 30,000 years ago, a mere blink of an eye in paleontological terms.
While some of the CGI in this series is among the most poorly done of any of the group (probably, again, only because it more resembles life forms we can compare it to), Beasts does contain some great (and often outright scary) descriptions of such voracious creatures like killer whales and the infamous sabre-tooth tiger. Though the emphasis is on animal mammalian life, the fourth episode introduces us to Australopithecus, the first apes to walk upright and the natural transition point for the Cavemen series which follows.
Extras: Both Beasts and Cavemen have some of the most plentiful extras of the entire set. Beasts boasts two Making Of documentaries, one focusing on actual "beasts," the other on the more figurative kind, our ancient primate ancestors. It also features some longed-for expert commentary, cutting back and forth between paleontologists and behind-the-scenes footage of the series being shot. There are also a photo gallery, storyboards, fact files, and production interviews rounding out the extras.
Walking With Cavemen, a two-episode series, starts out, like Allosaurus, with the life story of a hominid named Lucy, supposedly after the creature once dubbed the "mother of us all." While this episode has the personal impact of an individual story, with some visceral moments as Lucy confronts one life threatening challenge after another, the series really takes flight in the second episode, which deals with an early "apeman" family as it attempts to hunt a wildebeest. This episode does feature quite a bit of full frontal nudity of both sexes, if you are bothered by such things. Some of the makeup is good, if not Rick Baker excellent, but, as stated above, the interactions between the burgeoning humans and their CGI prey is just outright silly. The series does gain some emotional heft as we move into Neanderthal times and our forebearers begin exhibiting more patently human behavior like painting. The series ends with the birth of the first "real" human, though there's no convincing reason given for this sudden evolutionary step forward. This is the only series contained in this set not narrated by Branagh, but Robert Winston's more playful readings actually impart a bit of fun to the proceedings not evident in Branagh's more stentorian tones.
Extras: Cavemen had probably my favorite extra on the whole set, as silly as it was: in the "On Location" extra, which has a plethora of sub-selections available, there is an absolutely hysterical interview with two proper British ladies made up as apes as they attempt to eat their lunches. Also included in this bountiful selection are Production Interviews, a really interesting examination of two sequences as they journey from storyboard to animatronics to finished version, a separate featurette on Animatronics, Storyboards, Musical Score, Fact Files, and a Photo Gallery.
Note: These are the original, unedited, BBC versions, and so contain some graphic imagery (such as the cannibalism mentioned in my opening paragraph) that were edited from the US broadcast version. I recommend none of these documentaries for children younger than 8 or so.