Friday, September 4, 2020

Green Phoenix - Walking With Beasts Review

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A few weeks back, I took a look at the BBC Documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs. I've gone on record stating just how much I adored that series and its influence on my cinematic tastes and experiences.

Knowing how important Walking with Dinosaurs was to my childhood and cinematic sensibilities, it really should come to no surprise that I would keep the show going by taking a look at the other entries in the Walking with... franchise at some point down the line.

Well...today is the day.

Released in 2001, 2 years after its predecessor, Walking with Beasts uses the same combination of animatronics and computer-generated imagery to tell the story of life after the extinction of the dinosaurs. With Kenneth Branaugh reprising his narrator role from Walking with Dinosaurs for the British version of the series, Walking with Beasts brings together much of the same crew and team that brought dinosaurs back to life to tell the story of the rise of mammals and their transition into a world dominated by human beings.

But does Walking with Beasts live up to its predecessors legacy? Or was Walking with Dinosaurs to big of a shadow to shine against?

***
  • Directed by Jasper James and Nigel Paterson
  • Produced by Impossible Pictures
  • Number of Episodes: 6 (210 Minutes)
  • Available to watch on CuriosityStream, can also find on DVD.
***

SUMMARY

A sequel to the wildly popular nature documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs, Impossible Pictures continues the story of life by showing the audience the organisms that inhabited the earth during the Cenozoic period, the period following the Cretaceous mass extinction until today.
 
Over the course of six episodes, the series brings us into the lives and struggles of various creatures from throughout the Cenozoic period, from small rodent like creatures in the Eocene, to massive megafauna in the Miocene, to the rise of human beings as the dominant species on the planet in the waning days of the ice age.

***

REVIEW

When examining Walking with Beasts, both on its own and in comparison to its predecessor, Walking with Dinosaurs, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that though the series is still of remarkably high quality and immensely entertaining, Walking with Beasts is defintely lesser than Walking with Dinosaurs.

Due to limitations in computer technology and fewer episodes to really allow us to explore the  varieties and variations of life throughout the Cenozoic era, Walking with Beasts just comes out looking...smaller than its Mesozoic predecessor. The same overall visual asthetic and presentation concept ensure that the film is still remarkable in its field, just not nearly as good as the first Walking with... series.

But that was always going to be a hard act to follow.

VISUALS - 7/10

 Watch Walking With Beasts Season 1 Episode 4 - Next of Kin Online Now
One of the elements that immediately draws your attention to the original Walking with Dinosaurs is its revolutionary integration of animatronics and computer generation (a style utilized in works like Jurassic Park) to bring the age of the Dinosaurs to the screen. Though some of the technology, especially in terms of movement and texture haven't aged well, Walking with Beasts has aged even worse.
 
I struggled for a while to figure out why this might be the case. For the most part, the animatronics utilized look amazing, but that animatronics tend to age incredibly well when compared to their computerized counterparts. And not every CG model looks bad or feels unnatural, but I think I was finally able to figure out why the models in Walking with Beasts tend to look a little off compared to Walking with Dinosaurs.
 
For the most part, Walking with Beasts is filled with mammalian creatures. One of the defining characteristics of mammals is that they possess hair on their body and until Pixar developed the technology for their film Monsters Inc. that same year, hair textures and lighting tended to be very off-putting. When you couple this with scenes of creatures like the Australopithecus which is supposed to look like a cross between a human and an ape, you approach a very strange uncanny valley that makes 
the CG model easily one of the worst looking effects in any of the Walking with... series. The series does somewhat make up for it in that they are allowed to use footage of real living animals since the series also covers their evolution as well, which makes for a really interesting integration of real animal footage with clever animatronics work and CGI.

Now when compared to most other CG heavy documentaries, Walking with Beasts is truly inspired and the visual aesthetic and design is plucked almost straight from its prequel to spectacular success. I just feel like technological limitations and the accompanying subject matter just didn't mesh as well for the proclivity of computer generation that was at play, which unfortunately dates quite a few of these effects.

I would absolutely adore to see the BBC do a complete remake of the entire Walking with... franchise, with updated technology and science, for accuracy and posterity if nothing else. And it is largely due to the iconic visual personality that the entire series, Walking with Beasts, included that plays into that, flaws and all.

SOUNDTRACK - 8/10

I don't really have all that much to say on the soundtrack and sound design for Walking with Beasts that hasn't already been said for Walking with Dinosaurs so I will keep this section incredibly brief and succinct.
 
The lack of dialog, this being a nature documentary, requires that the musical composition of the series be top notch in order to properly express the emotions that the documentarians wish to convey and the entire Walking with... series is spectacular in this regard. Ben Bartlett, who was the composer for Walking with Dinosaurs, returned and gave the series a feel that is surprisingly similar to Walking with Dinosaurs, obviously to evoke a similar thematic style, but also comes off as much more savage and brutal, to better evoke the more "Beast"-like nature of the Cenozoic creatures. It's really fascinating.
 
As I mentioned in Walking with Dinosaurs, the creatures we see on screen no longer exist and therefore what they sounded like is largely up to imagination of sound designers. The same holds true for Walking with Beasts, but the creators did have a little bit of an advantage in that the creatures we see are much more similar or relatives to living modern creatures so the appropriation and modification of extant animals.
 
In the final episode of the show, there are also humans and neanderthals but their sound design is relatively understated as to simplify things. For the most part, Walking with Beasts treads on the same ground as its predecessor because the road that was paved for it was so damn good that it wasn't really required to be anything that it wasn't already.

PRESENTATION- 6/10

Walking with Beasts is a direct sequel to Walking with Dinosaurs, roughly covering the period of time following the extinction of the dinosaurs until the end of the last ice age and the rise of humans as the dominant species on the planet. The series utilizes the same narrative style as its prequel, with each episode taking place in a specific place and time period, following the daily lives and experiences of the various animals which live in that environment.

Despite that similarity, there is something that I've always found surprisingly odd about Walking with Beasts. Despite both Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts both being comprised of 6 episodes and Walking with Dinosaurs cover a period of over 155 million years to the latter's 45 million years, I feel like Walking with Dinosaurs showed us a much greater degree of variety and unique creatures. It's almost as if Walking with Dinosaurs was more efficient in its presentation of the Mesozoic period than Walking with Beasts was with the Cenozoic, with Walking with Beasts skipping over large periods of geologic time or focusing far more time on the human story than the evolution and development of the rest of the creatures on Earth. Episode 3 takes place 22 million years ago in the Late Oligocene and Episode 4 (the Australopithecus episode) cuts to 3.2 million years ago.
 
In a series that only covers 45 million years of geologic time, Walking with Beasts skips over nearly 20 million years essentially to bring us to the early hominids, saber-tooth tigers, and the ice age.

I feel like perhaps Walking with Beasts might have worked better if it had covered the period of time between the end of the Cretaceous, with the first episode taking place in the Paleocene, and the series ending with the reveal of Australopithecus and hinting at the evolution of human beings towards the end of the Pliocene .With that, the series could've have focused more on the evolution of the creatures that would come to populate our modern world and hint at the upcoming rise of a creature that would surpass them all, with could then lead into a Walking with Hominids or some other such documentary (a similar concept to Impossible Pictures' Walking with Caveman series which is just a terrible name on principal). True, we might've missed out on the amazing Saber-toothed tiger episode, but that could've been left for this new sequel trilogy (which could explore the world that was becoming colder and colder as the Neogene gave way to the Quaternary period.

I think the biggest problem with the presentation of Walking with Beasts doesn't lie in the BBC nature documentary style that the show presents, as that works to incredible effect, but rather in a confusion of focus. The show wants to focus far more on humans and the rise of humanity during the ice age, taking up two whole episodes to this, when the show might spend its time better on showing how mammals went from living in the shadow of the dinosaurs to replacing them entirely, which I think is a much more interesting take.

Ultimately, Walking with Beasts just comes off feeling like a much smaller documentary than its predecessor and that truly is a shame since from nearly every other aspect, Walking with Beasts is able to stand toe-to-toe with Walking with Dinosaurs as a genuine equal. I just feel like they should've refocused the series a little bit and it would've been almost flawless.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Walking with Beasts was always going to have a nearly impossible task. How do you follow up to one of not only the greatest Dinosaur documentary in history, but one of the most influential nature documentaries in the 21st century. Walking with Beasts is not nearly as good as its prequel, due in no small part to the difficulty in telling the story of the rise of mammals (a woefully under-explored concept compared to dinosaurs) as well as technological difficulties brought upon by limitations in computer generated modeling creatures with fur and feathers.

The series is a worthy sequel, make no mistake of that, and absolutely should be watched by all enthusiasts of paleontology and the geologic past. Just be aware that it may feel a little less grand and a bit more graphically dated than its prequel.

Next week, we will take a step away from film and television reviews for another installment of BUILDING BETTER BACKSTORIES. This time I will finally take a look at the Star Wars sequel trilogy and discuss what I think went wrong and how the series might've used Legacy content and a bit of repurposing the existent series to deliver a worthy sequel to the original trilogy.


VISUALS
  • 7/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 8/10
PRESENTATION
  • 6/10

 FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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