By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop December 19, 2013 at 12:30AM
Walking with Dinosaurs, a muddled rehash of elements borrowed from Disney’s largely forgotten Dinosaur and Don Bluth's The Land Before Time, finally answers the question, 'What killed off the dinosaurs': Birds talked them to death.
After a wooden prologue with a teen-ager griping about being taken to his uncle’s paleontological dig, the action shifts to the late Cretaceous in what would become Alaska 70 million years later. Patchi (voice by Justin Long) is the runt of a litter of Pachyrhinosaurs (a dinosaur with horns and a frill, related to the more familiar Triceratops). As he's bullied by his bigger, stronger brother Scowler (Skyler Stone), he has to "think outside the nest." He’s briefly caught by a marauding carnivore who tears a hole in his neck frill, making him easy to spot within the herd.
Patchi, who sounds like a 21st century Valley Dude, is a talky little critter, but he’s got nothing on his self-proclaimed best friend Alex (John Leguizamo). A primitive bird known as an Alexornis, Alex picks bugs off Patchi and keeps a running commentary. He never shuts up. If the other dinosaurs had hair on their heads, they’d be yanking it out.
As always seems to be the case in animated dinosaur films, it’s time for the herd to move to new grazing grounds. Patchi’s father Bulldust leads them on the long trek. Just before they set out, Patchi meets Juniper (Tiya Sircar), a female Pachyrhinosaur, and is instantly smitten. But the herd gets caught in a forest fire en route and attacked by a posse of Gorgosaurs (a carnivorous dinosaur that resembles a slightly smaller T. rex). Bulldust is killed defending his sons. Patchi, Scowler and Juniper stumble into a river and are swept away.
Somehow, they manage to find their herd, and over the course many treks between feeding grounds, grow into adults. Scowler grows big enough to challenge the leader and takes over the herd. But he’s too arrogant and stubborn to be an effective general. Patchi has to save everyone, precipitating a crisis in leadership - and a rivalry for Juniper's affections.
When the Gorgosaurs attack again, Patchi rallies the herd, saving Scowler and everyone else. All ends happily, as Patchi and Juniper watch their first clutch of eggs hatch. Flash forward to 2013, where the formerly sulky teen-ager fits a tooth that Patchi knocked out back into the jaw of a newly-uncovered Gorgosaurus fossil.
Walking with Dinosaurs was written by John Collee and directed by Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale. In the press notes, Nightingale describes the film as "a classic coming of age tale," which apparently means the audience has seen almost everything in it before. The three lost little dinosaurs looking for their herd is right out of Land Before Time, just as Patchi uniting the herd to repel the Gorgosaurs is borrowed from Dinosaur. Much of the film is also too close to the many misfit-coming-of-age stories released this year, including Turbo, Planes and Free Birds.
But the film has other problems, apart from familiarity. In one sequence, the winds whistles when it blows through the hole in Patchi’s frill. Juniper says, "I wish my frill whistled." But after a few scenes, it stops whistling and is never mentioned again. Tumbling down the river injures one of Juniper’s forelegs, which miraculously heals almost instantly.
John Leguizamo, who’s so funny as Sid, the addlepated, lisping sloth in the Ice Age films, gives Alex a Latino accent that sounds like a Cheech Marin impression. His voice seems out of place in Alaska, even 70 million years ago. Odder still is that in all the fights between carnivores and herbivores, not one drop of blood appears on the screen - not even when a Gorgosaurus sinks its serrated fangs into another animal's flesh.
The animation of the dinosaurs is reasonably successful, but nothing suggests real character movement or individuality. The filmmakers don't even attempt lip synch for the dialogue, which invites unflattering comparisons with the striking animation of Smaug's conversations in The Hobbit. But the inane dialogue is the film's greatest weakness and it never seems to stop. Listening to Walking with Dinosaurs is like being stuck in a line behind some motormouth who won't put down the cell phone.