Friday, March 12, 2021

Green Phoenix - Walking with Monsters Review


Happy Friday everybody!

So this week has been very busy for me at my job. Most of my coworkers were out for the week and, for one reason or another, I was the only individual trained for my particular position in the company. As such, I'm currently writing these articles in the moments of downtime during my shift. But honestly, I find this environment highly conducive to my writing and this may be a continued situation for the foreseeable articles.

Felt like giving you guys a little update of my day-to-day life as it does tend to impact my output of these articles and the content therein. In my downtime at work when I'm not working on articles, I've been catching up with streaming shows. And among my favorite streaming channels to watch, CuriosityStream is definitely high on that list (I am not getting paid by CuriosityStream to say that, by the way).

I've stated on numerous occasions my love of documentary, with particular interest on geological and biological history. Many of my past documentary articles have been on the Walking with... series. The BBC documentary series has long been held as the gold standard of dinosaur documentaries with Walking with Dinosaurs and the franchise released another hit with its sequel Walking with Beasts (which covered the history of life following the extinction of the dinosaurs).

But with today's article, we will examine the prequel to Walking with Dinosaurs. Detailing the myriad forms of life which preceded the Age of the Dinosaurs. In Walking with Monsters, we bear witness to the evolution of the countless forms of life that inhabit our world and the innumerable forms which seem to defy logic itself.

How does the prequel stand up against the original and the sequel? Does the BBC's trilogy on the Tree of Life end with a bang or a whimper?

  • Directed by Chloe Leland & Tim Haines
  • Produced by Impossible Pictures
  • Number of Episodes: 3
  • Available for viewing on CuriosityStream


Taking place over the course of three 90 minute episodes, Walking with Monsters completes the Walking with... series exploration of the History of Life on Earth by covering the Paleozoic era, the period of time before the evolution of the dinosaurs. Each episode is split into two or three smaller subsections, each covering a specific timeframe in the Paleozoic Epoch. Using a combination of CGI and practical effects (though not as many practical effects as previous outings in the series) and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, Walking with Monsters covers 282 million years of biological history with the same level of quality that one should expect from the Walking With... series.



I adore the Walking with... series and when I heard about a prequel to the original Walking with Dinosaurs would cover the Paleozoic epoch, I was immensely excited. This is a woefully under explored era of Earth's history from a media standpoint, due in no small part to our society's obsession with dinosaurs. I remember when this documentary first aired on Discovery Channel several years ago and I found myself utterly enthralled by what I was shown. However, Walking with Monsters is a very different beast from Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts.

First things first, Walking with Monsters is only half the length of its preceding documentaries, despite the fact that it covers a period of time nearly twice as long as the Mesozoic era. This means that the series has to sort of stretch itself thin to cover the entire period and can't really devote itself to the level of immersion and detail that other Walking with... documentaries. The entire project as a result seems much smaller in scale and a little bit rushed. As stated in the synopsis, every episode is split into either 2 or 3 (in the case of the first episode) self-contained subsections which are only nominally tied to each other through the thematic device of evolving a creature from one time period into a creature from the next time period.

Episode 1 begins with the collision of the proto-planet Theia into the early Earth that saw the creation of our Moon and the beginning of the Hadean Epoch. The first section covers the Cambrian explosion and the rise of the first predators and vertebrates, the second section shows the Silurian period and the evolution of the first early fishes and the first animals to walk on land; and the third section shows the rise of amphibians during the Devonian period, the rise of fish super-predators and implies the evolution of reptiles which would play a fundamental role in the future history of life on Earth.

Episode 2 begins where the previous episode left off by showing the evolution of the first early reptiles during the Carboniferous period as well the strange world ruled by arthropods that a heavy oxygenated atmosphere allowed. The episode then shifts to the early Permian where we focus on the evolution of the so-called "mammal-like reptiles" like Dimetrodon. The series from this point tries to play coy with the idea of making the audience guess whether the reptiles like lizards or mammals will become the dominant species on the planet at this point in the story.

That theme continues into the next episode which shifts into the late Permian during the beginnings of the Permian extinction event which killed off 90% of all living things on Earth. The mammal-like reptiles reach their zenith right as the world shifts into the Early Triassic period. We see the progenitors of both mammals and dinosaurs and the series ends with a pronouncement of which creatures usher in the new age following the "death of the Monsters".

As one can tell from that description, the entire series moves at what feels like a lightning pace. This is really a shame because it is covering an era of unparalleled biodiversity. The Paleozoic era saw the evolution of lifeforms that have never been seen before or since, with strange body types and implied behaviors that make the dinosaurs seem almost blasé. I could earnestly imagine this series could've had an even wider scope that the previous films in the franchise.

This leaves the film from a presentation standpoint feeling like a missed opportunity. What's here is really good and entertaining, it just feels like there could've been more. Maybe dropping the evolution gimmick and focusing on one geologic time period in each episode. This would've left us with seven 30-minute episodes, but it would've allowed more time to immerse ourselves in each unique moment in Earth's history and the bizarre creatures which inhabited it.

At least on that front, Walking with Monsters delivers with a level of quality that is almost higher than its preceding films, due in no small part to improvements made to computer graphics in 2005. I mentioned in my Walking with Dinosaurs review that many of the textures utilized by the BBC became dated very quickly, especially when compared to the practical effects of the documentary. By comparison, Walking with Monsters uses much less obvious practical effects and is heavier in its utilization of computer graphics to portray the various exotic lifeforms presented in the show. Given the sheer diversity of shapes and forms at play, this is somewhat understandable.

The Paleozoic era is, as stated above, one of the greatest periods of biodiversity in Earth's history. By consequence, Walking with Monsters has the opportunity to really revel in creature designs that truly do seem monstrous. Once again, I do think the series' chance to revel in the strangeness is somewhat hampered by the briskness of every episode, but what we see manages to ground these creatures in real world biology enough that it does enchant a viewer.

As a result, Walking with Monsters actually still looks pretty good, even after over 15 years since its release. The visuals look really good, the creatures are quite memorable, and Branagh's narration and the sound effects at play are actually really good at getting you into the mindset of the series. Had the series been presented in a longer format and allowed to immerse the audience more effectively, I truly think that Walking with Monsters could have become the highlight of the franchise rather than the strange cousin.

As it is, I'm not disappointed with the series and I do recommend you check it out on CuriosityStream if you can. The visuals are on par or even exceed its predecessors and the creature designs are quite extraordinary. The series is just sadly diminished by a seeming disinterest in the producers to actually show the world of the Paleozoic era with the same level of affection and immersion that they had for Walking with Dinosaurs. The series feels more like it can only present itself through its connection to the preceding shows in the franchise, rather than stand on its own merit.

This hurts me because this period of time is exceedingly fascinating and woefully misunderstood or willfully ignored by most people not familiar with life on Earth before the dinosaurs. The BBC had an amazing opportunity to educate audiences on the enormous diversity and development of life during Earth's earliest biological eras and it seems on some level that they squandered that opportunity because people are as interested in creatures that aren't dinosaurs.

What's left is a passable series that is definitely above average in terms of your common nature documentary, but from the franchise that brought us Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts, it feels like the least of the franchise.

As long as you don't think too much about the strange but well-meaning inbred grandkid of the series, Walking with Cavemen. I'll definitely cover that in a future review.

  • 8/10
  • 7/10
  • 6/10


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