Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Guest review: Walking with Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular

Dr. Adam Stuart Smith is back with another review, this time covering Walking with Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular. Dr. Smith is a paleontologist, plesiosaur expert, and curator at the Nottingham Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall, as well as running The Plesiosaur Directory. and The Dinosaur Toy Blog and Forum.

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A pack of ill-mannered Utahraptors at Walking with Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular

Walking with Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular is a live-action touring show of life size dinosaur puppets, based loosely on the TV show of the same name. Presented by Global Creatures in association with BBC Worldwide, it first did the rounds in 2008-9. However, due to popular demand the dinosaurs are ‘back for another bite” (as the publicity tagline reads). I was living in Ireland, one of the few countries to miss out on the tour, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend this time around. I should say before I get going that I’ll be indulging plenty of details in this review, spoilers if you will, so if you’re planning on going to the show (although the last day of the UK tour has been and gone), and want to keep the details a surprise, then probably best to skip to the conclusion.

The show is structured similarly to the original series of the show, beginning in the Triassic and ending in the Cretaceous. There’s an actor-narrator, Huxley The Palaeontologist, whose role is to set the scene and provide nuggets of information along our journey, although he also comes in handy as a scale bar when the dinosaurs show up.

I’d seen enough online footage of the dinosaur puppets in action to know more or less what to expect. The smaller dinosaurs are people in suits, while the larger ones are hefty constructions attached to a mechanical bases. These contain a ‘driver’ and several puppeteers to control the movements. All of the dinosaurs are pretty snazzy, an amazing achievement. Their movements are fluid and graceful and the range of motion is extensive. Their fleshy parts wobble back and forth when they move, and when several dinosaurs take the stage together they’re all well coordinated and choreographed, interacting with each other as much as puppets can (not really very much to be honest). Some tiny baby dinosaurs (Plateosaurus) make an appearance too, presumably radio-controlled, and they worked really well, evoking lots of coos from the audience.

Still, a small quantity of suspension of disbelief is required. I found myself noticing the tight-glad knobbly knees of the human operators, and despite best efforts to camouflage the mechanical bases of the larger dinosaurs, they are still obvious. As such, I can’t say I was ever entirely immersed in the experience. However, that might be more to to with the pitfalls of experiencing the show as part of a group of thousands, the majority children, waving flashing T. rex head glow sticks. I was even treated to some uninvited audience participation from one of the youngsters in my immediate vicinity.*

The lumpy charms of Ankylosaurus

Allosaurus, facing down a thagomizer

Anatomically, the dinosaurs aren’t bad. Each is recognisable as the species it’s supposed to represent, although they haven’t quite hit the nail on the head with all of them. Most of the creatures look like slightly blobby versions of their on-screen counterparts. The Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Torosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Ornithocheirus all have that WWD look. The Tyrannosaurus, Plateosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and Utahraptors, far less so. The only species in the show that does’t also appear in the original WWD series is Liliensternus, which takes the role of Triassic predator occupied by Coelophysis/Postosuchus in the TV series.

What inaccuracies did I notice, apart from the slightly cartoony appearance? Well, the gait of the smaller dinosaurs is limited by the stride of their human operators, so they have a sort of ungainly shuffle. The head of the Stegosaurus looks oversized, the dromaeosaurs are featherless, the Brachiosaurus have stunted arms. It’s difficult to be too critical of these errors given the obvious underlying technical and theatrical constraints involved, although no scientific advisor is credited in the show programme (£12 - crikey), so maybe that would have helped.

The "stunted-arms" of Brachiosaurus

I was most impressed with the small details. A clutch of Plateosaurus eggs hatching before our eyes (how did they do that?), a brachiosaur stripping off and gulping down a leaf (I worked that one out), the snap of a Torosaurus horn mid-battle. These touches of realism were vital for providing a sense of interaction between the dinosaurs and their environment, and really made it for me. There’s also some welcome humour sprinkled throughout the show. After a big build up, a juvenile Tyrannosaurus squeaks onto the scene raising a few chuckles. Of course, mummy then comes along, but the happy family meet their doom shortly thereafter when the meteor strikes - not so funny. It’s ups and downs.

There’s a scene with an Ornithocheirus that differs from all the others because the model is basically static. They shake it about a bit on some wires while a video screen behind it shows passing landscapes to provide the illusion of motion and swooping. I was urging it to break free of its suspensions and soar about the arena. I was also also hoping for a marine reptile or two to do the same, but none ever make an appearance. I’m surprised they didn’t turn the set into the watery home for a Liopleurodon - they surely must have considered it.

Actually, the most impressive aspect of the entire show for me was the set, which is something I wasn’t anticipating. I guess I was all geared up for the dinosaurs themselves. The set starts off in the Triassic, all bland and rocky, with a single mountain in the centre of the arena representing Pangaea. As the show goes on, the set transforms in real time. Pangaea breaks up to become two and then three ‘islands’, which the dinosaurs navigate around. Vegetation springs up before our eyes: horsetails, ferns and trees sprout up, seemingly from nowhere, and then later in the Cretaceous Period, flowers bloom. This was achieved with some wonderful inflatable work and the resultant time-lapse effect was stunning, and all in keeping with the narrative. The stirring score, produced especially for the show, is also noteworthy, and added considerably to the spectacle of the event.

The obligatory Tyrannosaurus

In conclusion, I highly recommend Walking with Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular. The story is engaging, exciting, funny at times, even. The show as a whole is entertaining, educational, and the closest you’ll ever get to seeing a living dinosaur in the flesh (birds are what now?). So, it really did live up to its name - spectacular.

*“They’re only dancing!...what dinosaur’s next?...it’s gonna KILL him!...I want to see a different dinosaur!...It’s behind you!...RAHHHHHHH!”. An unwanted and distracting running commentary in my right ear constantly undoing any atmosphere. Kids, eh? I suppose they can be forgiven, though be frank the adults weren’t much better...“What do you think the Stegosaurus will do now; play cards, watch telly, paint his plates with nail varnish?”


  1. The sets and staging do sound impressive, from what you describe.

    That T. rex certainly looks different from its original WWD counterpart. Something quite JP-inspired about that head, too...

    1. It is probably due to how bad the original WWD Rex was. I mean, just look at the appalling head on that thing! The Arena show had improved the model, but then over sized it. Looks like you can't win sometimes :(

    2. Oh, I agree the original had a most peculiar head indeed.

  2. "There’s an actor-narrator, Huxley The Palaeontologist,"

    As in Thomas Huxley?

    "An unwanted and distracting running commentary in my right ear constantly undoing any atmosphere. Kids, eh? I suppose they can be forgiven, though be frank the adults weren’t much better..."

    Maybe it's different for live shows (although I've seen videos of live shows in which similarly rude ppl were treated to "Shut The F Up *clap* *clap* *clapclapclap*" chants by everyone else), but I'd think that that'd be just as inappropriate as talking during a movie.

    "The head of the Stegosaurus looks oversized, the dromaeosaurs are featherless, the Brachiosaurus have stunted arms."

    Don't forget about the pronated hands of the theropods.


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