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Four Dinosaur Documentaries to Stay Away From
We live in an age in which new technologies allow paleontology to give us a much better understanding of the prehistoric world than previous generations. The BBC program Walking with Dinosaurs was the first television documentary built not only upon these scientific breakthroughs, but also upon advances in computer-generated imagery, giving viewers the closest look yet into the Mesozoic world. Since its release in 1999, other television networks and film companies have tread the same path, tapping into the same wells in order to craft their own dinosaur documentary gold. While they've managed to at least produce silver in programs like the Discovery Channel's Dinosaur Revolution and BBC's Planet Dinosaur (both released in 2011), on a few occasions their efforts have yielded nothing but lead.
A month ago, I published my first article on HubPages, Five Films for Kids Who Love Dinosaurs (But Are Too Young for Jurassic Park). Today, I'm here to talk about the other side of the coin: Dinosaur documentaries that not only probably shouldn't be seen by kids, but really by anyone in a golden age of both digital animation and dinosaur research. All of them, on the surface, look nice and riveting. However, wild assumptions, repetitive CGI, and just plain dullness weigh them down, while poor scripts and a lack of original or valuable insights (and sometimes accuracy) make them vary from mostly mediocre to abysmal.
4. Jurassic Fight Club (The History Channel, 2008)
12 episodes, 45 minutes each
This miniseries is getting a much softer reprimand than the next three documentaries on this list. The concept behind the series--the staging of a potential battle between two or more prehistoric beasts based on what we know about them--is an interesting one, with the potential both to educate and entertain. And some of the episodes actually are compelling and informative enough to be worth your time (e.g. the episodes devoted to Utahraptor vs. Gastonia and the American lion vs. the short-faced bear).
More often, however, Jurassic Fight Club stages dinosaur duels built on wild assumptions, repetitive computer-generated footage, and melodramatic narration, even in the better episodes. And when it comes to match ups, the program is prone to two cardinal sins. Firstly, it chickens out with its creature choices (e.g. pitting T. rex against the much smaller, dubious genus Nanotyrannus, instead of against Triceratops or Ankylosaurus), making the eventual winner predictable. The other mistake it makes is to show its hand too early by telling us which animal's remains was found at a fossil site before building a potential scenario around it.
All these problems conspire to make Jurassic Fight Club a mindless bloodbath of a series for the most part. While the world of the dinosaurs was a violent one, and to sugar-coat that would do these animals a disservice, gore should never be the selling point of a program meant, in part, to educate.
3. March of the Dinosaurs (ITV, 2011)
85 minutes long
Rarely (to me, at least) are dinosaur-related programs, no matter what the quality, boring. The tale of a young Edmontosaurus making his first summer migration from Alaska to Alberta to avoid the approaching winter should be compelling, especially if he gets separated from the herd and is constantly tailed by tyrannosaurs. Add to that premise the plight of an adolescent Troodon who stays in Alaska to weather the Cretaceous frost, and you have the bones of a decent episode of a Walking with Dinosaurs-like program.
But when you make this program a staggering 85 minutes long and have bland narration that even Stephen Fry (or his American counterpart, Robbie Benson) can't save, you get March of the Dinosaurs, one of the single dullest programs--dinosaur-related or otherwise--that I have ever seen. At best, the story warrants 45 minutes, while even the program's music and action sequences are forgettable or noticeably lackluster. While there's nothing wrong with doing a completely computer-generated film or program, and the dinosaurs and their world look alright (though not spectacular), the lack of little details like flying insects or dust in the light reduces the realism of that world and what little life the program has to begin with.
2. Clash of the Dinosaurs (The Discovery Channel, 2009)
4 episodes, 45 minutes each
If you had about five minutes of computer-generated dinosaur footage and stretched them over four episodes, with much of that footage repeated and inverted horizontally, you'd get something like Clash of the Dinosaurs. As if its repetitiveness weren't crippling enough, it manages to come to unsupported, often ludicrous conclusions about the biology and behavior of dinosaurs (e.g. pterosaurs being able to see in ultraviolet, Parasaurolophus using infrasound as a deterrent against predators).
In fact, even Mathew Wedel, an expert on sauropods and one of the paleontologists interviewed on the program, complained about Clash of the Dinosaurs on the paleontology blog Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (svpow.com). Among other things, he criticized the overall structure of the program, and in particular, its portrayal of the brachiosaur Sauroposeidon.
1. Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World (3D Entertainment Limited, 2010)
It may be a bit of a cheat to put a documentary film centering around non-dinosaurs like mosasaurs and plesiosaurs on a list of dinosaur-related documentaries. However, these creatures lived at the same time as the dinosaurs and thus draw in the same crowd whenever a documentary about them surfaces, which is the very function of the title "Sea Rex".
Why do I consider this documentary--with its convincing CGI and mere 41 minutes--the worst of the bunch, though? Lack of dinosaurs? Repetitive CGI? Silly assumptions about extinct animal behavior?
No. The main reason Sea Rex fails is because it is framed around a conversation between an American girl at a museum and a man from the early 1800 (who we later learn is Georges Cuvier, one of the fathers of paleontology), both of which are played by people who simply cannot act. Even worse, they're reading from an extremely clunky script, written by three Frenchmen and perhaps more clumsily translated than clumsily written. In addition, while the other programs on this list convey not enough information over too long a period of time, this IMAX film throws too many marine creatures at the viewer over too short a period of time, leaving less than five minutes to showcase Mosasaurus, the purported "T. rex of the Sea".
As if this weren't bad enough, there are two more charges to levy against Sea Rex. First, the talking heads for the documentary are not the living scientists consulted for the program but are, like Cuvier, actors portraying real scientists--in this case, living ones. This is confirmed not only by the credits, but by a quick Google image search comparing the real scientists to those that appear on-screen. Second, this ordeal of a program, like many of the CGI-laden blockbuster films released since Avatar, uses 3D and IMAX as a crutch, hoping the audience will be too distracted by its impressive imagery to notice its unimpressive execution.
http://fc07.deviantart.net/fs26/f/2009/251/3/7/Jurassic_Fight_Club_Formula_by_TyrantisTerror.jpg (A hilarious and accurate analysis of the format of Jurassic Fight Club. Warning: Explicit)
http://svpow.com/2009/12/15/lies-damned-lies-and-clash-of-the-dinosaurs/ (Matt Wedel on Clash of the Dinosaurs)