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DVD Review: Walking With Dinosaurs

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For male Americans who grew up between the years of 1945 and 1980, there was only one thing that tended to dominate their days — and it was not television, rock and roll, nor film. No, it was dinosaurs. I had a few dozen little plastic dinos, and I had quite a few books on them. A bit later came the space race, and astronomy was also a thing little boys dug (little boys, big things, and all). But always, always, there were dinosaurs — be it from visiting the natural history museums of big cities, watching assorted B films, reading books, playing with toys, or dreaming.

But, over the decades, much of the dreams changed; dinosaurs were discovered to walk differently than thought, birds were shown to be descendants of dinosaurs, the end of dinosaurs has come more into focus, some of the beasts were shown to be warm-blooded, to give birth to live young, and many other things. Thus, the images of dinosaurs that I grew up with — that of Charles R. Knight — was outmoded. Over a decade ago there was a great cable television series from the BBC that kicked off a cottage industry in speculative science, and it was called Walking With Dinosaurs. While I had heard of it, I had never been sufficiently motivated to go out of my way to watch it. But, I saw it, on DVD at a used bookstore for a song, and got it. I’m glad I did. After airing on the BBC in 1999, it aired in America in 2000 on the Discovery Channel. Its narrator is Kenneth Branagh, and the series is six half-hour episodes, and all six are on disk one of the DVD, as well as disk two having a 50-minute long making of documentary.

The six episodes are set in the following times, and have the following plots: "New Blood," 220 million years ago (mya), in the Triassic Period, follows the rise of dinosaurs from their earlier rivals. "Time Of The Titans" is set in the Jurassic Period of 150 mya and follows Diplodocus hatchlings as they survive in a sequoia stand, pursued by all sorts of predators, including Allosaurs. "Cruel Sea" is set 149 mya, also in the Jurassic Period, but follows the sea-dwelling dinosaurian reptilian cousins, such as Liopleurodon and Ophthalmosaurus. "Giant Of The Skies" is set 127 mya, in the Cretaceous Period, and follows the last flight and death of an aged Ornithocheirus, a type of pterosaur. "Spirits Of The Ice Forest" is set in the Cretaceous Period, 106 mya, and follows life in the Antarctic, when it was not covered in ice, and was connected to Australia and South America. The final episode is, naturally, called "Death Of A Dynasty," and set 65 mya, a few days before the K-T Impactor that hit off what is now the Yucatan Peninsula. The show follows the birth of Tyrannosaurus rex hatchlings right before the impact. But it also posits two other main believed causes for dinosaur extinction: the rise of mammals, and the acidifying atmosphere of the earth, due to the volcanic activity of the Deccan Traps.

The 50-minute making of documentary is quite informative and enjoyable, and it is interesting to hear not only how the models, puppets, and computer graphics were made and deployed, but also that, in trying to animate the dinosaurs, the animators helped resolve much of the problems that paleontologists had with understanding how certain dinosaurs moved on land, and in the air. The two most interesting sequences are when a scientist declares that an elephant’s movements are not right for a Diplodocus because a) the elephant is smaller, and b) the elephant is a thinking animal, whereas Diplodocus was not; and when various methods are tried to understand how the Ornithocheirus tried to walk, when not in flight. Another interesting feature is an inset feature, during the documentary, where certain effects are discussed while the documentary plays on.

All in all, Walking With Dinosaurs is a delightful DVD, and one that children and adults can enjoy. There is some violence displayed, but nothing any more violent than what regularly occurs on real nature documentaries, so enjoy your trip back into the past. Until time travel is invented, it is the best you’ll be able to do.

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