ABC’s heavily hyped Halmi megaseries “Dinotopia” is special-effects perfection, a visual treat with meticulous attention to style and atmosphere. The Alphabet web is banking on the $85 million, six-hour event to generate enough fervor to warrant further installments, and it has a promo campaign worthy of Hogwart’s School of Marketing to back it.
The only problem is this utopian fantasy world from writer James Gurney isn’t as well known a commodity as “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings.” In fact, this account of a lost continent with its “breathe deep, seek peace” esoteric mentality and cast of mostly unproven actors makes it something of a risk for the network.
In its favor is a fast-moving introduction into this strange world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist in harmony. Credits are barely done rolling before Frank Scott (Stuart Wilson) and his two sons, Karl (Tyron Leitso) and David (Wentworth Miller), crash their plane into the Caribbean Ocean. With Frank believed drowned, Karl and David make their way to shore and find themselves stranded on Dinotopia.
There, they are greeted by a questionable rogue named Cyrus Crabb (David Thewlis), a descendant of shipwrecked pirates, who steers the boys to Waterfall City. On their journey, they meet up with the alluring Marion (Katie Carr), a young woman with the ability to communicate with the dinosaurs that work and live among the humans.
The brothers handle the presumed death of their father and their adventures in this strange new world very differently. David is fascinated and inquisitive, while Karl is suspicious and intolerant. With the help of Zippo, a stenonychosaurus who speaks 17 languages, including human and (dino)Saurian, the boys try to learn Dinotopian ways.
Although this new society seems ideal, by the end of part one, it is apparent that all is not right in Dinotopia. The sunstones that power the island are slowly losing their energy, and the previously unthreatening carnivores are suddenly attacking rural towns.
Episode two draws the boys further into Dinotopian culture when the boys meet Marian’s mother, Rosemary (Alice Krige), a revered matriarch who gives them their Dinotopian assignments. Everyone on the island is given a job that ultimately helps in fulfilling one’s spiritual potential. The dissident Karl is assigned to a hatchery and given charge of an infant chasmosaurus while the timid David is assigned to training for Skybax, an elite airborne squadron that patrols Dinotopia’s frontiers.
By part three, the brothers have finally come to peace with themselves and each other, but it’s clear that Dinotopia is in crisis. Unless Karl and David can find the mythological World Beneath and its rumored source of sunstones, Dinotopia will surely be destroyed. To save the civilization, the boys must put their trust in Cyrus, who has up until this point proved himself unworthy.
Like “Star Trek,” “Dinotopia” is big on idealism, and the story introduces several admirable concepts and themes. But without an established mythology, or even a discernable nemesis, the action lacks real passion.
Leitso and Miller are appropriately hunky as the at-odds brother, and the rest of the cast is very capable. But the real star of the show is visual-effects supervisor Michael McGee. McGee has not only brought this fantastic world to life, he does it to exact proportion and scale.
More than three-quarters of the miniseries is computer enhanced by f/x house Framestore, and its fine work is most evident in the opulent sets, specifically Waterfall City. All of this visual candy was obviously a challenge to director Marco Brambilla and editor Oral Norrie Ottey, who seem reluctant to trim anything from the story.