Who wouldn't be fascinated by the idea of discovering real, live dinosaurs out there in the jungle? The BBC's 2001 television production of The Lost World brings out Conan Doyle's cast of adventurous characters who set out to find those dinosaurs: the eccentric Professor Challenger (Bob Hoskins), his rival scientist Professor Summerlee (James Fox), the daredevil Lord Roxton (Tom Ward), and of course the young newspaperman Edward Malone (Matthew Rhys) who comes along to chronicle their journey.
Despite taking pains to be titled specifically "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World," The Lost World does take some fairly significant liberties with the story. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the original novel is a pure adventure story, with both the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, and some of the elements that Conan Doyle included might not go over as well with modern audiences as they did with his early 20th-century readers. The Indian bearers, for instance, are given a significantly smaller role in the film than they have in the novel, which allows the filmmakers to bypass some of the rather stereotyped characters that Conan Doyle has among his cast of Indian and "half-breed" workers. Two new characters are introduced: Reverend Theo Kerr (Peter Falk) and his adventurous niece Agnes Clooney (Elaine Cassidy), who gives the program something distinctly lacking in the novel: a female character of substance.
The conclusion of The Lost World also departs to a significant degree from the wrap-up of events in the novel; the resolution of the love interest storylines is given more play, as is to be expected given that the female characters were actually significant to the story, for one thing. There's also a gentle hint that the tendency of the general public is to be mindlessly and destructively exploitative, leading to a conclusion that's reasonable in its own way, though different from Conan Doyle's ending of the novel.
The 19th-century style of scientific expeditions, such as we get in the original novel, followed the theory of "if it looks interesting, shoot it and bring back the body in the name of science." Admittedly, before the advent of portable cameras, this was a more necessary technique, but also one that's repulsive now that science has advanced to more unobtrusive and sustainable ways of gathering data. The film version of The Lost World maintains a generally period-accurate take on this, as the expedition is well-stocked with guns and does use them on occasion, but it's sufficiently restrained that we can view Professors Challenger and Summerlee as reputable scientists rather than heavy-handed collectors of dead specimens.
The highlight of the program, of course, is the dinosaurs. The computer-generated dinosaurs were created by the same team who did the dinosaurs for Walking with Dinosaurs; to be more specific, they're evidently the same dinosaurs as in Walking with Dinosaurs re-done to fit into a different environment, so there's nothing new here. The dinosaurs themselves look very realistic, though their integration into the live-action scenes is not as well-done as it could be. All in all, they're impressive, and younger viewers in particular are sure to be impressed.
I haven't had anything particularly bad to say about the program, yet I also haven't given it particularly high marks. On the whole, The Lost World succeeds in its aim to present a straightforward and entertaining adventure story, but it does have a faint aura of cheesiness throughout the production. There's something about the program that prevented me from taking it entirely seriously, but it's low-key enough that I had to wrack my brains a bit to pin down some reasons why. One issue is that the production appears fairly limited in scope, as if working under stringent budgetary restraints. The cinematography is very tight and focused on the foreground, with characters and scenes generally framed by nondescript jungle foliage or generic rock backgrounds; only rarely does the camera use a different angle or pull back to give a broader view of the surroundings. Given the intended "epic" feel of the expedition, it doesn't help that visually much of the footage might just as well have been shot in a studio set with potted plants. Then again, I suspect that this is lamentable side effect of the fact that while the film was shot in a widescreen aspect ratio, it has been pan-and-scanned for the U.S. DVD release.
Another part of the problem is that the cast of characters is, uniformly, caricatures: there isn't a single realistic, well-rounded person in the bunch. That's not entirely the fault of the film, since the characters in Conan Doyle's original novel are just as cardboard, if not more so, but it doesn't help.
There's one glaring problem with The Lost World right at the start. The packaging specifically claims that it's presented in anamorphic widescreen, but that is incorrect: it's actually a pan-and-scanned 1.33:1. This is inexcusable, considering that the film's original aspect ratio is widescreen, and the Region 4 release of the DVD is in fact anamorphic widescreen. A&E evidently simply took the pan-and-scan version that had been shown on U.S. television and slapped it onto DVD rather than getting the original material.
It's painfully obvious that the film is missing approximately one-third of the image. Overall, most of the shots have a cramped and claustrophobic look to them; the occasional shoulder or ear at the edge of the picture indicate where a character was trimmed out of the scene, and most of the time, a full dinosaur doesn't actually fit into the image. One particularly telling example is when the characters are looking at a cave painting of an iguanodon, in which both the head and tail of the creature are lost in the material that's cut from the sides of the image.
Apart from the butchery of the pan-and-scan cut of the film, the image looks very good, and would get high marks if it had been presented in its original aspect ratio. Colors are vibrant and accurate, and the print is clean and free of noise or print flaws.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is adequate, with dialogue coming across cleanly in a variety of situations. The music score is nothing to write home about, and is a bit overly noticeable at times. There really isn't any surround or spatial separation of sound effects in the track, which is a bit of a shame given that the dinosaurs could have livened things up considerably in the right soundtrack.
The Lost World is packaged in a nicely-designed two-disc boxed set, with the first disc containing the feature and the second disc entirely devoted to bonus materials. The highlight of this disc, interestingly, is not specifically about The Lost World at all: it's a History Channel program on dinosaurs, titled Dinosaur Secrets Revealed. This 90-minute feature takes a look at the changing knowledge of dinosaurs over the years, offers interviews with working scientists on various aspects of paleontology, and offers an up-to-date view of current scientific theories about dinosaurs. One of the main themes of the program is how ideas have changed about what dinosaurs looked like and how they behaved; the CGI dinosaurs in The Lost World reflect the modern understanding of dinosaurs rather than the limited amount that was known in 1912 when Conan Doyle published his novel.
Kudos should go to whoever thought to add this documentary to this set. The Lost World will primarily appeal to a younger audience, with its straightforward action-adventure plot and larger-than-life characters along with the impressive dinosaurs themselves. Including the documentary makes it easy for young viewers to take the step from enjoying the fictional presentation to learning some fascinating real facts about the subject.
In addition to the History Channel documentary, there is a 21-minute promotional-style featurette on the making of The Lost World, a brief section of cast biographies and filmographies, and a short biography and bibliography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It's a disgrace that U.S. viewers have been presented with a pan-and-scanned version of a production that in other regions is available in its original aspect ratio, anamorphically-enhanced to boot. The Lost World is certainly less enjoyable in this way, as the overall effect of the piece is damaged by losing part of the image. It's a shame, since it's a production that's reasonably entertaining, especially for family viewing. Anyone who can stomach watching a pan-and-scan version may want to consider renting it, in large part on the strength of the documentary that is included on the second disc. Otherwise, skip it and wait for a release with the correct aspect ratio of this production.