Sunday, December 29, 2013

Missing Kenneth Branagh

I never thought I'd miss Kenneth Branagh quite as much as I do now. Nevertheless, having solemnly journeyed to my local Shiny Multiplex Enormodome to see the Walking With Dinosaurs movie, it's the slightly over-earnest tones of thespian Kenny that I long for. For you see - and forgive me if you've heard this already - WWD 3D features dinosaurs that talk. And talk. And talk.

Talk v teeth. Image from here.


Apparently the victim of test screenings attended by morons and/or jittery studio heads, WWD 3D is, as every other review thus far has noted, a film spoiled by disastrous dire-logue. If only the apparently telepathic dino-speak were occasional, they might have got away with it. Alas, the pachyrhinosaur protagonists of the piece see fit to yammer away over absolutely everything. It's as if the writers are afraid that kids today are so psyched up on refined sugar and Moshi Monsters that they'll lose interest if so much as a minute passes without a character sounding off.

What's most galling about it, for us dino geeks, is that underneath the dialogue-by-machine and misplaced pop music, there is an absolutely stunning piece of palaeoart in motion. Make no mistake - these are far and away the most accurate dinosaurs yet to appear on film, and more than that they are a convincing presence in the world they inhabit. The backgrounds are live action, and yet the CG animals appear completely at home. They are also rendered with the utmost love down to the tiniest scaly (or feathery) detail, which is hardly surprising given the artistic talent involved. Animals only have to walk into frame for one to be struck by the realistic movement of muscles beneath skin, and when they bellow, their flesh strains and their guts shake beautifully. The feathered animals - and there are plenty of them, including dromaeosaurs and troodonts - are gorgeous, and easily the best yet seen on screen.

It's a pity, then, that the animals aren't allowed to simply be animals. As has been noted elsewhere, it's often dishearteningly obvious that the film was never intended to have such extensive dialogue. Of course, there is a very light level of anthropomorphism evident in the character design - real reptiles never have such expressive, mammalian eyes (with white sclerae and all) - but the animals nevertheless have a highly realistic appearance, and were all real-world contemporaries. Disney's Dinosaur this ain't, and a little artistic license is certainly forgiveable to sell the narrative to an audience with a built-in mammalian bias.

What's less forgiveable is the characters' need to narrate every aspect of their lives, as if children in the audience would be too stupid to figure out what's going on, or what the characters' motives are. I'm not known for being especially fond of children, but I feel the need to stick up for them here - they're really not that dumb. Furthermore, most child dinomaniacs want to see dinosaurs being dinosaurs - fighting and stomping and just looking grand - not chatting away like schoolkids. Even when protagonist Patchi goes nose-to-nose with his bullying brother Scowler - a perfect moment to let the audience revel in the spectacle - Scowler persists in chastising Patchi for "trying to steal his girl". Awful, cringeworthy stuff.

At various points, the creatures' constant chatter jars with what was obviously intended to be an animalistic response to a situation. When Littlefoot's mother dies in The Land Before Time, he is, as an anthropomorphised cartoon character with a human personality, expectedly distraught. When (spoilers) Patchi's father is killed by a tyrannosaur right in front of him, he and his brother appear to breezily brush it off within about five minutes. It doesn't make sense - but it would have done if the characters didn't speak, and were treated more like animals. Likewise for a stampede scene, in which the characters appear to blindly panic in contradiction of the dialogue - like animals would.

The simplistic plot would be a breeze to follow without the dialogue, and it's clear that this is what was originally intended. Take the speech away (save perhaps for John Leguizamo's surprisingly likeable narrator), and I have no doubt that a far more charming film would result. Tellingly, the audience's favourite moments at the screening I attended were completely dialogue-free (including an amusing trio of bickering azhdarchid pterosaurs).

There is much to savour in this film. Dinosaur enthusiasts will delight in the (all too brief) opportunities to gaze upon stunning vistas teeming with impeccably realised and researched prehistoric lifeforms. The dinosaurs are impressive, the landscapes are impressive - it's a visual treat. The artistic and scientific talent behind this film do deserve our support, and if it weren't for the moronic jabbering, I'd recommend it unreservedly. As things are, I'm crossing my fingers for a 'dialogue-free' option on the DVD. Or perhaps a replacement Kenneth Branagh track.

15 comments:

  1. Personally I did not care for John Leguizamo's narration, as there was no consistent tone with it. I understand that since he was also a character in the film that he would not be an unbiased narrator, but it's just jarring to go from somewhat serious to a humorous tone in such a short space of time.

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  2. When it gets onto DVD or some streaming service, one will presumably be able to mute the sound track. Of course, that involves losing the big screen effect, but from what I've read that will be a small price to pay.

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  3. I'm thinking of wearing ear protectors to the cinema.

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  5. I saw the movie earlier today. After about 5 minutes of the Dinosaurs talking, I did what any other teenager my age would do and pulled out my earphones. I found it far more enjoyable with me listening to The Lord of the Rings Soundtrack than I did while I was listening to the character's voices...

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    1. Someone should make a compilation of tracks to listen too while watching Walking with dinosaurs, with The Jurassic park theme for the pretty scenes, Lord of the rings for the migration and Jaws for the Gorgosaurus scenes.

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  6. I loved the TV series of Walking with Dinosaurs, and thought Kenneth Branagh was a wonderful narrator. It's a pity the script spent so much time telling us the animals were all doomed though. And Mr. Branagh spent a lot of time sounding tragic.

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    1. Like I said, he was slightly over-earnest (although better in the sequels/spin-offs, such as Walking With Monsters, in which he sounded like he was having rather more fun).

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    2. Walking With Monsters is great. "THE ARTHROPODS ARE BACK!" All it needed was a punctuating "baby!"

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  7. And to think that when the first trailers came out, the biggest worry some people had was that the animals would use generic stock roars instead of original sounds specifically mixed for the film. If only that was still out biggest problem...

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    1. If that were the largest problem with the movie I'd be on my knees giving thanks that we got such an amazing film.

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  8. I went to the movies and saw it last week. I thought it was pretty good. It wasn't great, but the talking didn't bother me that much.If we had to take out the words, I would at least keep the narrator's voice. But what was with the Daspletosaurus info thing? It didn't really fit in with the movie or the television series...

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  9. The descent of man...

    1999 = Each Diplodocus drops over a ton of dung on the prarie every day. This attracts yet more insects, especially the dung beetles. Millions of years from now the descendents of these beetles will clear elephant dung off the African grasslands, but their peculiar lifestyle started here in the Jurassic, with the dinosaurs...

    2013 = "OH MY GOSH!!! DID YOU JUST TAKE A POOP SHOWER!?!!?

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    1. I re-watched The Ballad of Big Al the other day, and yeah...apart from the CG looking a bit ropey now, I was stunned anew by how the animals actually acted like, er, animals. Plus, nature's properly red in tooth and claw (there's even a bit of cannibalism). I might have to write a post about it.

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