Friday, March 20, 2020

Green Phoenix - Walking With Dinosaurs (1999) Review

Walkingwithdinosdvdcover.jpgAs stated many, many times during my various Jurassic Park reviews, I was absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs and paleontology growing up. A love I have actually healthily maintained to this day.

While I enjoy the fictional portrayals of dinosaurs, that passion also helped me to develop a love for documentaries and educational television and films. So much so that I even have a subscription to CuriosityStream simply because I want to have access to documentaries that I can't get on Netflix, Disney +, and Amazon. I had considered acquiring the documentary streaming service for a few months, due in no small part to the recommendation of some of my favorite YouTube educators and theorists. But the information that finally convinced me to purchase CuriosityStream was the knowledge that they had the entire Walking With... series available for viewing.

In the wake of the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, public interest in prehistoric life reached a fever pitch. This public excitement inspired Tim Haines with the idea of using ground-breaking computer effects and animatronics, similar to Jurassic Park, to create a dinosaur-centric documentary miniseries. Collaborating the Jasper James and special effects artist Michael Milne, Haines succeeded in creating the most advanced paleontological documentary ever seen to that point.

Walking with Dinosaurs is easily one of the most notorious and influential nature documentaries in recent memory and the progenitor of an equally influential franchise. It was a game-changer in the field of nature documentaries, utilizing state of the art animatronics, computer graphics, and the top paleontological knowledge of the time to bring the world of dinosaurs to life.

While dinosaur nature documentaries are a dime-a-dozen nowadays; back in the late 90s, Walking with Dinosaurs was truly revolutionary and the chance to talk about it in detail is exhilarating to me.

  • Directed by Tim Haines and Jasper James
  • Produced by BBC Natural History Unit
  • Number of Episodes: 6
  • Available for viewing on CuriosityStream


Collaborating with some of the best paleontologists in the world and utilizing a ground-breaking union of practical and special effects, Tim Haines and Jasper James recreate the world as it appeared in the Mesozoic Era. The six-part miniseries covers 155 million years of history, from the late Triassic Period when dinosaurs moved from being a minor element of the biosphere to dominating it to the very end of the Cretaceous Period when non-avian dinosaurs disappeared altogether.

Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, Walking with Dinosaurs represented one of the most scientifically accurate portrayals of prehistoric life that has ever been released.



As you can no doubt gather from my glowing introduction to this review, I absolutely adore Walking With Dinosaurs. It was my favorite documentary growing up and remains among my all-time most watched documentaries as well.

Now in a review of a fictional film, I would normally review VISUALS, SOUNDTRACK, CHARACTERS, and STORY. Obviously a documentary's use of "Character" and "Story" fundamentally tied to each other in a way that isn't quite as notable in most fictional films, with the "Story" being how the film explores and conveys its theme, message and point to the audience and the "Characters" being elements which push that message forward.

To better express those two categories in a more seamless way, I will use a different measuring scale for documentaries than for fictional films, which will only use three, rather than four, categories. And I can assure you that Walking with Dinosaurs will earn high marks in all three of my categories.

VISUALS - 8/10

Image result for walking with dinosaurs seriesWhen Walking with Dinosaurs was first released, the comparisons to Jurassic Park were almost unavoidable. And for good reason as creators Tim Haines and Jasper James were directly inspired by the Spielberg classic's seamless mix of practical and computer effects to bring the prehistoric world to life. I've sometimes put in this movie just to watch the behind-the-scenes extras. The original DVD release of the series had an entire second disc filled with features that explained not only the science but the thought process behind many of the creative and narrative choices.

And in about 80% of cases, the effects utilized still standup extraordinarily well. Almost every practical effect looks as amazing as it first did upon release, and even most of the computer effects stand up okay, though there are some definite areas where a lower budget or simple limitation of technology shows.

For one thing, textures were a big issue for most computer effects in the late 90s and early 2000s. As a result, some of the dinosaurs, especially the T-Rexes in the final episode look absolutely awful compared to modern interpretations (to say nothing of their loss of accuracy that will always occur as new data is uncovered). But this more a simple lack of technology, as strong texture rendering wouldn't be viable for another few years with the release of Monsters Inc. by Pixar.

Not to say that all the computer effects look awful. The effects surrounding the early Triassic and Jurassic episodes actually look quite good due to a gradual transition between practical and special effects that enabled textures to be preserved across the two effects styles, with the best effects in my opinion being shown in the underwater episodes featuring the Liopleurodon. The events taking place predominantly underwater allowed a level of otherworldliness that naturally exists with marine life to mask imperfections in the animation process, leaving this episode one of the most technically impressive.

On the whole, the episode is a beautiful work of art, from a visual standpoint. While many of the technological limitations of the day have hampered the lasting impact of some of its computer effects, the subtle combination of physical and computer effects remains unparalleled among nature documentaries and an absolute must-see, even for the behind-the-scenes.


Like many nature documentaries, Walking with Dinosaurs places a heavy emphasis on music and sound to express the emotions that its leads, due to being animals, are unable to emote themselves. From an audio perspective, Walking with Dinosaurs shares many similarities with documentaries like Planet Earth and Life.

But the use of sound is even more critical and effective in Walking with Dinosaurs because the dinosaurs are all constructed artificially. Rather than the documentarians having to edit together collected footage of real animals to build a scene and fit them together to fit a musical montage, the animators and practical effects artists can create the precise scene that they want and make the "animals" do whatever feels the most opportune for the scene.

This leaves us with numerous moments and scenes that are just utterly jaw-dropping, due to the incredible composition work of Benjamin Bartlett. From the death of the Postosuchus and the infanticide of the Cynodonts in the first episode to the tragedy of the elder Pterosaur in Episode 4, Walking with Dinosaurs manages to mix sound beautifully to create a powerful and transformative experience of living prehistoric creatures.

Not as movie monsters but as living breathing animals. I enjoy listening to the soundtrack all on its own and highly recommend that you all check it out as well.


When I judge on Presentation, I am looking at how the documentary utilizes its "cast" and story together to present the information and agenda that it wants to convey. In essence, how effective is the film/series in expressing its point?

And all documentaries have a point. My college film professor once stated that all films seek to convince their audience of a specific viewpoint. Whether that position is as simple as "Bad guy bad, Good guys good" or as complex as "War is a complex and terrifying tragedy of the human condition", a film can be thought of and analyzed in terms of its propagandistic qualities. Especially documentaries, which pretend to be realistic but are oftentimes even more constructed than fictional films.

And Walking with Dinosaurs is easily among the best. Almost any viewer of the series is aware from the beginning that non-avian dinosaurs have been extinct for over 65 million years and the film doesn't hide this fact, mentioning the extinction of the various species several times in each episode. But the series uses this fact to actually enhance its presentation, using the artificiality of its concept as a blessing rather than a curse.

The series relishes in its technological and cinematic achievements as a way to show its audience creatures they've never seen before, as scientifically accurate as was possible for the time. Even if the overall message of the film is as simple as "Dinosaurs are cool", Walking with Dinosaurs represents a deeply influential nature documentary that was the first of the dinosaur documentaries that are now commonplace in our society.

This level of influence on the nature documentary speaks volumes to the quality of its presentation, so I shall give it the highest marks.


When I get some free time, I will be watching this documentary all over again. The level of technological and cinematic skill at the heart of this series, coupled with the influence it has had on the nature documentary genre, leaves Walking with Dinosaurs among the greatest documentary series ever made. Not just out of my love of dinosaurs, but out of my love of knowledge and cinematic design.

In the future, I shall definitely take a look at the other series in the Walking with... franchise. But next week, we will go back and continue our look at the Indiana Jones franchise. This time with the darker black sheep of the franchise.

  • 8/10
  • 9/10
  • 10/10


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