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The release of the BBC's 1999 series Walking With Dinosaurs was even more of a wet dream for terrible lizard fans (young and old) than was the release of Jurassic Park. No dramatic set-up, no plot, no Jeff Goldblum, just six half-hour episodes with dinosaurs, dinosaurs and more dinosaurs. Pretty successful series, too, spawning the Allosaurus special, Walking With Monsters, Walking With Prehistoric Beasts and Walking With Cavemen. And now all this educational good stuff is collected in one box set (sure there are numerous other Walking With ... collections - including one cobbled together for American television and hosted by Ben Stiller, but who's counting)!
In pre-historical chronological order, Walking With Monsters: Life Before Dinosaurs comes first. Following the lead of Dinosaurs, Monsters utilizes truckloads of CGI and some judiciously placed animatronic puppets to give us the rundown on some real old news. We start 530 million years ago as jellyfish-like creatures embark on a 200-million-year journey towards having eyes. By the third and final half-hour episode we're kicking it in the harsh deserts of 250 million years ago, and laying the groundwork for dinosaurs to come. This entertaining and visually ravishing series creates mini-narratives (using tons of research) through each episode to speculate on how these creatures behaved and evolved. Gargantuan insects are a highlight from Monsters, while there are also plenty of critters (like Dimetrodon) that this old-school dino lover thought were real dinosaurs, but are actually considered pre-dinosaurs.
Walking With Dinosaurs was shopped to various computer animation joints as three solid hours of Jurassic Park-style animation (which had like only 12-minutes of the stuff). Programmers gasped in fear, while lizard lovers got all gooey. But in the end, the results are beautiful, frequently sun-drenched and gorgeous. The documentary-style narratives employed in these six half-hour episodes are engrossing enough that you forget to just gape at the dinosaurs, instead becoming emotionally invested in the series. It's an odd way to sell science, but it makes this series utterly watchable. We hit the highs from the big three dinosaur eras; Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, following life-cycles of Diplodoci, mating-games of Pteranodons, grubbing-down with Tyrannosaurs and other fascinating subjects. Though CGI for Dinosaurs is the clunkiest of the set, it's still delightful to watch.
The half-hour subject Allosaurus: A Walking With Dinosaurs Special, capitalizes on the early success of Dinosaurs with an in depth look at Big Al, one of the title creatures, as he goes from being a wee lad to (SPOILER ALERT) being dead on a riverbank, and then put together again millions of years later in a museum. I'm not sure why the Allosaur seems to have usurped the cool-dino crown from T-Rex, (he doesn't even have a band named after him) but this interesting glimpse into his possible lifestyle proves he's got some leading man chops (and chompers) of his own.
Walking With Prehistoric Beasts boasts the worst logo design of the grouping, looking like someone at the Wolf Shirt factory made it. In ways, however, this is the best selection of the bunch, with these six half-hour episodes dragging in a few cavemen and other proto-humanoids, and mostly mammalian creatures that are somehow easier to relate to. And even with numerous bags-full of fur to animate, the CGI starts to look really sharp here, with movements of big cats being particularly life-like (while movement of a particularly large plant eater is still a bit robotic). Extra value is given when the Giant Sloth (Megatherium; 5 tons and 20-feet tall) makes an appearance to very slowly kick ass.
Our last stop in pre-history finds us Walking With Cavemen for two nearly one-hour specials (this is the USA Discovery Channel version, the British version was four half-hour episodes). Narrative documentary-style becomes particularly effective now, as these bipeds are pretty easy to relate to. Longtime narrator Kenneth Branagh (who voiced all other series) retires, being replaced by Andrew Sachs, a more British-sounding (and more pedantic) tour guide. Though not as easily digestible as half-hour chunks, these programs sport a great deal more transparent science backed up by fossil records, and (with our nearness to the subject) underscore the unique pageantry of evolution. CGI gives way mostly to relatively goofy ape suits and finally facial applications, so by the series conclusion our belief in the reality of these fictionalized narratives is well cemented.
Once past the lure of endless CGI dinosaurs (you kids born in the late '80s won't understand the importance of this) something has to help us choke down the science. That's where entertainment value comes in, and why we're not so much given a description of dinosaur life, but taken through mini-soap operas. Ever thought the life of a bowling ball-sized tarantula could be emotionally affecting to watch? This scenario (from Monsters) proves it isn't, but as the various series progress, the plots do indeed get more engrossing and dynamic. Tragic tales of baby dinosaurs try to jerk tears, mother-son struggles on the savannah for a pair of huge horse/rhino-like creatures are engineered to tug at your heart, and by the paradigm-shifting introduction of hominids it's impossible not to be involved. And of course things like earth-shattering Tyrannosaur battles, rabble-rousing Sabertooth tussles and massive Mammoth hunts work hard to keep you cheering from the couch.
The dark side of this equation is science - or apparent lack-thereof. The Walking With series employed the time and research of hundreds of scientists, archaeologists and others, supplying us with tidbits of information for a panoply of prehistoric creatures - many of which are quite new to me. But with 'human interest' stories surrounding each animal, anthropomorphizing each by way of, say, Diplodocus love, those tidbits get lost. Admittedly I wasn't watching with a pop-quiz in mind, but if asked what I'd learned from each series, I'd draw a lot of blanks.
But regularly (excluding the Cavemen series) I'm jerked into skeptic mode by the narration. There are too many moments to count during which I shouted at my screen "how do they know that?" Weird theoretical notions which seem hard to prove (Diplodoci leaping up and shoving down trees for food struck me as being hard to verify, but what do I know?) are presented not be saying 'we believe' or 'maybe' but simply delivered as facts in a simple story. More circumspection and acknowledgement of theoretical aspects of dino-science would relieve a slightly pandering tone. Then again, with Sachs' brain-bulking narration for Cavemen, many of these problems are alleviated.
The entire series revolves around the 'you are there' concept, of course, and the BBC wants your stay to be exciting and real. It's why lumbering beasts, skittering ten-foot long centipedes and monstrous hyenas are constantly rushing the camera. At first camera-angles don't get more daring than looking up at the bellies of a herd of herbivores marching by - a subtle but effective trick. Eventually tricks become cutesier; sometimes an animal will hit the camera, breaking a lens or knocking it over, Blair Witch-style. Worse are a few late-game Matrix-inspired camera tricks. Unconscionable is blurred monkey-sex (ala COPS) considering the amount of Paleolithic poontang that's gone before. It feels like a joke, but a very British (and not very funny) one.
The Prehistoric Earth collection is fantastic for kids infatuated with dinosaurs, and truly engrossing and entertaining for adults, regardless of predilection - even if the CGI thrill has worn thin. (Except for some startlingly realistic mammal examples, the puppets don't always help - mostly they just remind you that nothing you're seeing is real.) Expect to get hyped-up about prehistory, and possibly eager to do some book-learnin,' because the emphasis here is on entertaining sensationalism - it's certainly effective, and delightful to envision what the earth was like before we put all this crud on it.
Prehistoric Earth is presented in 1.78:1 ratio, Anamorphic and Enhanced for Widescreen TVs. Each series looks pretty fantastic, with searing, saturated colors that (for what it's worth) look natural, and dazzle the eye. For a collection with monstrous amounts of CGI, you'd hope digital mastering for this collection would do that work proud. Mission accomplished. Compression artifacts are absent, and everything (where intended or possible for the technology of the time) is clear and sharp. Live action filming is mostly grain-free, too, and overall this is a great looking package that seems tailor made for HDTV.
English Dolby Digital 2.0 sound works nicely for the armchair viewer, though obviously will seem a little short for those many of you rocking the 5.1 and up. That said, it sounds great, with everything mixed nicely for maximum listen-ability and balance. No recording defects are evident, and the mix of music, sound effects, narration and (later) caveman grunting is perfect. Thunderous sauropod stomping, dinosaur roars, cascading volcanic boulders and insectile skittering are all given a satisfying stereo treatment for a nicely enveloping experience.
Each previously released DVD from this group of series comes with a goodly amount of extras. Pack them all together in one box set, and you've got goodly extras galore (with a few missing bits, and new additions). Of course each disk comes with Previews (only one or two) for other BBC documentaries (Planet Earth, for instance) or programs, (Torchwood, for one) Closed Captioning and English Subtitles. Let's take a little look-see at the rest, shall we?
Disc One contains the 28-minute making-of featurette Trilogy of Life. Quick acknowledgement is made of the research from hundreds of paleontologists that went into creating the first three Walking With ... series, (Dinosaurs, Beasts and Monsters) which this brief featurette covers. Clearly the series had been in hot water from the get-go concerning its presentation of theories (however exactingly researched and nearly iron-clad) as narrative/documentary fact. After watching this compelling short with its focus also on the synergistic way each series was put together (storyboarders, writers, technicians etc. influencing each other) I'm less inclined to quibble. Interviews, clips and behind-the-scenes shots form the groundwork of this featurette.
Disc Three takes up the extras mantle with featurettes for Walking With Dinosaurs and Allosaurus. Big Al Uncovered, at 28-minutes starts things off with an in-depth look at the amount of research and effort that went into creating the startlingly detailed look at Big Al's life. From vintage news footage describing the discovery of Al's nearly complete skeleton to the reason researchers feel they know exactly how and why Al died, it's a great companion piece (with all the ingredients you'd expect; interviews, behind-the-scenes, animatics) for the original special. Even goofy cameos from Big Al in contemporary footage are a little amusing. The Making of Walking With Dinosaurs shares space on disc three. From digging in the fields to sculpting maquettes, it's all here. If there's something you were confused about - "how do they know that?" - chances are those bases are covered. Of particular interest are discussions concerning efforts to animate realistic motion for creatures never seen. Extreme Dinosaurs: The Science of Giants is a 48-minute documentary with bits and bobs of animation from the Walking With series. However, the focus seems almost independent, looking at archaeological mysteries from ancient Patagonia, most particularly: is it possible that mega-carnivores and giant sauropods mixed it up in a deadly way? It's a notion long fantasized about but generally considered impossible, until now. Lastly Living With Dinosaurs takes another 48-minutes to tell us more about dinosaurs through the habits of those throwbacks still living with us today. Alligators, lizards and turtles are the prime suspects in this enriching look that bolsters in interesting fashion the stories we've seen in the series.
Disc Five runs with the extras baton for the Prehistoric Beasts series, including two 50-minute Making-of Documentaries; Triumph of the Beasts, and The Beasts Within. Both documentaries take the same tack as any other making-of featurettes from any of these series. Interviews, behind-the-scenes, animatics and field-footage detail exactly how much work, science and research went into each episode, as well as letting us in on some of the more esoteric aspects. What would you do, for instance, if asked to pick a few interesting creatures from a multitude of largely unknown choices, for this series? A credits sequence nod to Monty Python proves that if you keep at the goofy prehistory humor game long enough, you'll hit gold. 11-minutes of Storyboards (about 2-minutes per episode) will probably interest a select few in the audience, while 32 one or two-page, text-based (with neat size charts) Fact Files give you some details about each beast that you may have missed or really wanted to know. Lastly, 23-minutes of relatively engaging Production Interviews wring the last bit of knowledge out of a handful of producers and filmmakers.
Disc Six throws a grip of extras our way, all relating to Walking With Cavemen. On Location gives us five interviews on 'set' or 'back stage.' The Series Producer talks for two minutes about weather difficulties, and the Movement Director takes seven minutes to talk about how she choreographs the movements of each type of caveman. Physical Effects reps take two minutes to tell us (among other things) what their edible bone marrow is made of, while an Actor takes three minutes to describe some aspects of becoming Boisei. Finally, we get to have two minutes of Lunch With Boisei - a truly surreal experience. 22-minutes of Production Interviews take about 15 minutes with a pair of bigwigs, three minutes of real fun with an actor, and four minutes with the director of the animatronic dinosaurs, who gives us some interesting stuff in a truly charming manner. Storyboards to Animatics to Film shows the progression of two scenes (four minutes total) including cavemen bringing down a gigantic Elk and ambushing a Wooly Mammoth. Three pictures are on one screen, two small ones for the storyboard and animatic, and a larger one of the finished product. Again, the appeal is limited, I'd guess. Next, straight-up Animatics for the same two scenes are presented in widescreen. With the previous extra, animatics are interesting in seeing the changes in editing (and color correction) that took place before the final product hit the screens. And then, self-navigated Storyboards for those two scenes are available, with four panels per screen, over about nine screens for each sequence. Are there really that many storyboard fanatics in the DVD buying world? Let's forge on, and enjoy the Original Score, presented from a menu screen on which you can select individual cues. It's actually darn good music. Three-to-eight pages of short text paragraphs constitute each Fact File for six featured cavemen, (yes, I know it's an antiquated term) helping you understand more about these dudes, stuff you might have not fully absorbed due to all the drama in the stories. The last tiny bang for your buck is a self-navigated Photo Gallery with 34 stills from the series. I'm tired ... you?
Prehistoric Earth takes us on a breathless, visually ravishing tour of earth from half a billion years ago to just 10,000 years ago. Along the way, through the magic of CGI (and some animatronic puppetry) we meet countless critters from primal jellyfish to Homo erectus. Thrilling to look at, with numerous mini-dramas, these Prehistoric Earth tales will glue you to your couch (and if you're a fanatic like me, have you coming back again and again). The whiz-bang approach to paleontology, without overt nods (excepting extras) to the fact that all this work amounts to well-researched theories, leaves something to be desired, however. All of these series have been previously released and packaged together many ways - a little new is added here, (and some is taken away - concerning extras) but if you're new to the Walking With world (or have only one other series from the collection already) and are really psyched by it, this chunky six-disc, 16-hour collection is Recommended.