directed by Marco Brambilla
(Hallmark, 2002)

Oh gosh, look, it's a dinosaur.

That's about as much excitement as Karl and David Scott, the two half-brother protagonists of Dinotopia, muster during the six-hour television mini-series, now available as a four-hour movie (minus all the commercials) on DVD. Despite some excellent special effects -- not up to Spielberg quality, mind you, but pretty good for a Hallmark special -- the movie plods like a 60-ton brachiosaurus with a sore foot and a brain the size of a walnut.

The biggest problem is that these two young men, cynical though they may be, find themselves stranded on an island populated by dinosaurs -- some of the intellectual and speaking variety, no less -- and they forget to be astonished. Really. Not once did I get a sense of "oh wow" from these guys.

Then again, they're not big on emotional reactions from scene one, when their father apparently drowns (he forgets that tugging on a seatbelt strap is pointless, but pushing the big, colorful button has been known to disengage the locking mechanism) and they get over it by scene two. Some people might guess from the start that the lack of tears telegraphs his "surprise" return at some point -- but a few people, mostly those age 10 or below, might actually be startled when he appears.

And that, I suppose, is the target audience anyway. Kids will adore it, assuming they're not yet old enough for the Jurassic Park franchise and haven't seen dinosaurs in realistic-looking, in-your-face action. The dinosaurs of Dinotopia are pretty good by video-game standards, but they pale in comparison to the ones we've seen on the big screen over the past decade. Specifically, the colors and lighting are always a bit off, making it overtly obvious the "scalies" were crafted on a computer screen and superimposed on the live-action set.

Even so, the cartoony dinosaurs often have more liveliness than their real-life screen counterparts. As the Scott brothers, Tyron Leitso and Wentworth Miller are wooden and dry, never loosening up enough to have fun with the fantastical setting. Katie Carr is a bit more zippy as the Dinotopian princess Marion. Jim Carter and Alice Krige run hot and cold as the pompous and tempermental Mayor Waldo and his estranged, earth-mother wife, Matriarch Rosemary.

David Thewlis plays a fairly obvious, two-faced villain, Cyrus Crabb. The less said about Zippo, the effete dino librarian voiced by Lee Evans, the better; suffice it to say, I can only imagine him appealing to those who think Jar-Jar Binks is the height of entertainment.

James Gurney, the author and artist who created this world in a series of colorful books, gave us a Dinotopia rife with possibilities that, if properly explored, could be a fascinating setting for a series of cinematic tales. This movie, however, fails to realize its potential, apparently hoping the mediocre visual effects will displace any need for solid storytelling. And let's not quibble over the message sent by a utopian society where all signs of free will and independent thought are stifled!

That message, of course, will fly right over the heads of children, who will enjoy the spectacle of Dinotopia. There's very little here to give wee ones a fright -- even the attack of maddened tyrannosaurs lacks any real feeling of danger and, while some people apparently are killed off-screen now and then, no one ever suffers more than a love bite when the camera is running. (Although, given the youthful target audience, some people might wonder at the inclusion of Karl and Marion's discreetly naked romp in the moonlit water.)

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 23 November 2002

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