A secret world is about to be revealed.
Xenozoic Tales, minus the Cadillacs. (Comics fans will get the reference.) One of the most expensive projects ever mounted for American television, and filmed on what were reported to be the largest exterior film sets ever constructed in Europe, Dinotopia represented a brachiosaurus-sized roll of the dice for Hallmark Entertainment, the American Broadcasting Company, and ABC's corporate parent, Disney, which burned a fortune on computer-generated thunder lizards previously (the animated Dinosaur) only to find both the public and the critics less than enthusiastic.
Aired over three nights, the six-hour Dinotopia miniseries promised computer-generated special effects the like of which had never before been attempted for the small screen.
What did the Nielsen ratings reveal? You liked it. You really, really liked it. Dinosaurs sell. And the Mouse King smiled.
Facts of the Case
Teenaged half-brothers ("our father had an active social life"), sensitive intellectual David (Wentworth Miller from The WB's Popular) and brash, rebellious Karl (Tyron Leitso, Snow White: The Fairest Of Them All), are celebrating their father's birthday by taking a trip with the old man (Stuart Wilson, Vertical Limit, Enemy Of The State) in his private plane. When a freak storm erupts, the tiny aircraft splashes down in the ocean and sinks—though the boys manage to escape, they're unable to rescue Dad, who goes down with the ship. When the weather breaks, David and Karl find themselves beached on what appears to be a lush tropical island.
The boys almost immediately encounter a eccentric peglegged Brit named Cyrus Crabb (David Thewlis, who played tortured poet Paul Verlaine opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse)—if you can't figure out what kind of character this guy will be from his name alone, you haven't been reading your Dickens. Cyrus leads the newcomers to a nearby village, where they see firsthand why the place is called "Dinotopia": human beings live cheek-by-scaly-jowl with prehistoric creatures, like the ankylosaurus that's running roughshod through the main street of downtown until a young woman named Marian Seville (Katie Carr) cures its toothache. Marion is headed for Waterfall City, and Karl and David accompany her there on the bus—only, in Dinotopia, the bus is a brachiosaur wearing body armor to protect it from marauding T-Rexes.
It turns out Marion's estranged parents (your parents would be estranged too if your mom was the Borg Queen) are members of Dinotopia's ruling class: daddy Waldo (Jim Carter, Shakespeare in Love) is Mayor of Waterfall City and Speaker of the Dinotopian Senate, while mother Rosemary (Alice Krige, wise and matronly without her Borg implants) is matriarch of a farming community on the far side of the island. It also turns out that the brothers can't go home. Dinotopia is a time-warped roach motel—people from the outside world occasionally check in (the last newcomer arrived during World War II) but they can't check out, thanks to the razor-sharp reef that encircles the island (reminiscent of the impassable Deadly Desert surrounding Oz in L. Frank Baum's stories).
Under the mentorship of one of the handful of saurians who's mastered human speech (Zippo the librarian, voiced by Lee Evans from There's Something About Mary and Mouse Hunt), the boys struggle to adapt. David attends school with the human children and upon graduation becomes a Junior Birdman under Oonu (Colin Salmon, M's Chief of Staff in the three latest Brosnan Bond films), the captain of a flying squad whose pilots ride pteranodons. For his part, Karl just wants to find a way out of this wacky joint. The audience, meanwhile, hopes in vain something will happen to justify their mammoth (snicker) investment of time. That something, ultimately, has to do with the dwindling power of the mysterious gems called "sunstones" that both provide life to the Dinotopian world and maintain the delicate balance of harmony between the humans and their reptilian neighbors.
In the years since Jurassic Park made the dinosaur flick an official subgenre, has there been another really good one? (That's assuming you believe Jurassic Park itself was really good, which may be assuming facts not in evidence.) The Lost World: Jurassic Park? Been there, done that, rode the thrill ride. The Land Before Time and its interminable sequels? Even for most dino-crazed kidlets, one drink from that well was enough. Disney's megabuck CGI opus Dinosaur? Eye candy with a retread plot. Jurassic Park III? Please.
Studios appear to labor under the delusion that simply having dinosaurs, especially nifty virtual-reality dinosaurs, in a movie is enough. You don't actually have to do anything interesting with them or tell an interesting story about them. Dinotopia continues this forlorn tradition: lovely to behold, but the tale's not sold. The lizards look great, no question, but the viewer has to endure almost three hours of endless, painful non-events before getting to the comparatively exciting final installment. Yet another case to be made for the swift demise of the miniseries format: it's a lame excuse for filmmakers to burn four hours telling a story that ought to be wrapped up in two. Director Marco Brambilla is capable of fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat action (witness his Demolition Man), and screenwriter Simon Moore has penned credible work before (he scripted The Quick and the Dead, as well as the British miniseries from which Stephen Gaghan's screenplay for Traffic was adapted). Here, though, they're getting paid to deliver three nights' worth of dinosaurs and that's what they do, regardless of whether the material warrants it.
The cast doesn't help any. I haven't seen a collection of thespians this lifeless in many a moon. The three youthful leads—Tyron Leitso, Wentworth Miller and Katie Carr—display emotional ranges that, on a scale of zero to ten, top out at about one and a half. The two half-brothers aren't supposed to care for one another very much (they were raised separately, we're told), but no convincing sparks ever fly between them. The love triangle involving the boys and Marion carries all the current of a used-up penlight cell. And you'd have thought they'd at least shed a tear or two when their old man vanishes into Davy Jones's locker, but nada—Dad might as well have run down to the corner market for a pack of smokes for all the anguish his progeny muster up. The veteran cast members likewise sleepwalk their way to fat paychecks, with the exception of David Thewlis, who manages to wring an extra quarter-tone out of his one-note villain.
Now about those dinosaurs. They're not quite at the level of sophistication you've seen in the Jurassic Park trilogy, but they compare favorably with the creatures in Dinosaur, and for television, they're quite effective. The saurians' weakness is that they don't always integrate seamlessly with the human actors. In those awkward moments—and they occur frequently—the effect more resembles Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than Jurassic Park. The filmmakers made an unfortunate decision, doubtless spurred by the network suits with an eye on the disposable income in the pockets of the juvenile crowd, to give one of the dinos a voice. There's no solid thematic reason why the character Zippo should speak—it's established that the saurians have their own language that humans can learn to interpret, and that the non-talking dinosaurs can comprehend, if not articulate, homo sapiens lingo. With his anthropomorphic features and the instantly recognizable Lee Evans uttering his dialogue, Zippo seems out of place in this world. (He strongly resembles the gecko advertising mascot of a well-known insurance company.)
I have to admit that Dinotopia does a commendable job of keeping its massive budget onscreen. The sets, particularly the exteriors of Waterfall City and the Canyon City home of the Skybax squadron, are remarkable. Like the CGI dinosaurs, the stunning matte backgrounds occasionally fail to convince, but on the whole the production designers have created a wonderfully detailed and alien yet somehow familiar fantasy world. Here again the weakness of the script shows through. Given the incredible appearance of this environment, I wanted to know much more about how Dinotopia came to be as it is. But the survival of the prehistoric animals is haphazardly explained, a subplot that suggests the dinosaurs may exert a form of mind control over the human population is abandoned midway through the film, and we learn nothing about how the crazy-quilt culture of the Dinotopians evolved (the natives dress in vaguely Asian-inspired pseudo-Edwardian fashions that don't correlate with the fact that the lingua franca seems to be modern English). We get a ton of the New Age mumbojumbo that passes for the local philosophy, but that's all.
There are some cute touches in Dinotopia. Karl teaching Zippo to play table tennis is cute. Karl writing the lyrics to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as his final exam essay (the question is, "How should we live?") is cute. The parrot-like flying critters (voiced by Monty Python's Terry Jones) used to send messages over long distances are cute. The baby dinosaur named "26" (an animatronic puppet from Jim Henson's Creature Shop) that Karl is charged with raising is cute, too. But too much cute and not enough drama or depth or pacing does not an entertaining viewing experience make. When you've got four hours of film to unspool, cute doesn't keep you awake.
With the studio having unloaded serious coin on this production, Artisan follows up with a quality DVD package, as is typical of their Hallmark TV releases. Preserving the full-frame aspect ratio of the television broadcast, the video here is clean, bright, and surprisingly warm. There's an element of softness to the picture throughout, but I'd guess that was an intentional effect in the original print. Nothing in the way of grain, film defects or digital errors mars the view. Predictably, the 2.0 stereo soundtrack leaves something to be desired, but it's clear and appropriately balanced—decent enough for the idiot box, though it would have been great to have the bass really rock for the action sequences.
The supplemental content is headlined by an 18-minute promotional featurette entitled Evolution: The Making of Dinotopia. This well-produced short is replete with film clips and interviews showcasing producer Robert Halmi, Sr., writer Simon Moore, actors Miller, Leitso, Carr, and Krige, and author James Gurney, on whose books Dinotopia is based. Included in the behind-the-scenes highlights are conversations with various members of the production team describing the computer animation process as well as the creation of the animatronic baby dinosaur "26." The segments of the featurette are tied together by the appearance of Zippo the talking dinosaur, here looking less polished and more—how shall I put it?—cheap than in the film itself. (It's Artisan's budget this time, not Disney's.)
A separate seven-minute interview features composer Trevor Jones (who scored such films as Dark City and From Hell) discussing the development of the music for the miniseries. Jones notes that he insisted on using a full orchestra rather than synthesizers because an electronic score tends to date a film—he must have seen Ridley Scott's Legend with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack.
For the film school hopefuls, there's a split-screen treatment of a scene in which tyrannosauruses attack our heroes. The finished sequence is displayed in synchronization with the original storyboards.
Given the monumental length of Dinotopia, it's hard to believe every frame of footage shot didn't end up clearing the final edit, but we're offered two deleted scenes. "Happy Birthday, Pops" is an establishing sequence cut from the beginning of the film; David and Karl hook up at the airport where they will meet their father to commence their ill-fated flight. "Dinotopia Nightlife" is a character moment for Karl and Marion's little sister.
Stills from the film are presented in an animated photo gallery. I'm not sure why anyone would be thrilled about this, but it's an amusing change from the usual series of static pictures. More conventional are the brief text biographies for the cast (just the three young stars) and the production team.
Three features aimed at the younger audience are grouped under the heading
"Dinotopia Encyclopedia." These include:
The little tykes also get a rather lame maze game, a couple of slightly better DVD-ROM diversions, and a preview of the Game Boy Advance tie-in cartridge, Dinotopia: The Timestone Pirates. The extras conclude with a sextet of full screen trailers for other Hallmark television projects, and a text screen of DVD production credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A caveat for TV viewers.
Seizing with alacrity on the ratings success of the Dinotopia miniseries, ABC Television (AKA "The Mickey Network") returns with a weekly Dinotopia series for the 2002-03 season. However, according to online sources, all of the roles have been recast, and I'd wager that the budget for episodic television will be significantly less than the $80 million lavished on the original film. Translated: if what you liked most about Dinotopia was the actors (hard to envision, but there's no accounting for tastes), the stupendous sets, or the splashy digital effects, be prepared for disappointment when Dinotopia: The Series crashlands in your living room.
The cover credits claim Dinotopia, sans commercials, clocks in at 240 minutes. I could swear it's twice that long. At last we know why the dinosaurs became extinct: they died out waiting for their miniseries to end.
If you're a fan of fantasy films, dinosaurs, digital animation, or all three, you'll find Dinotopia worth a rental. Its visual style and production values warrant at least a peek. But be prepared for intense thumb cramps after the workout you'll get manipulating the fast-forward button on your remote.
Dinotopia is convicted of not learning from the mistakes of previous dinosaur movies, of being nearly as long as the Cretaceous Period. Its cast is found guilty of acting in the absence of caffeine. All are sentenced to a year in the sunstone mines. We're adjourned.
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• Featurette: Evolution: The Making of Dinotopia
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