Where was screenwriter John Collee when Terrence Malick was directing his inscrutable digital-dino scenes in “The Tree of Life”? For better or worse, in “Walking With Dinosaurs,” there’s never any doubt what the big lizards are thinking, courtesy of wall-to-wall chatter penned by Collee and performed by the likes of Justin Long and John Leguizamo. The constant reptile repartee marks a major departure from the property’s earlier incarnation as a BBC nature series, which held kids transfixed as a distinguished British narrator described the actions of silent CG dinosaurs. Aiming for broader appeal as a Fox wide release, this comedic 3D update from directors Barry Cook (“Mulan”) and Neil Nightingale might more aptly be called “Wisecracking With Dinosaurs.”
In direct acknowledgement of the challenges grownups face in getting kids to care about learning — even when the most fearsome creatures ever to have walked the earth are involved — the film opens with a sullen teen (Charlie Rowe) glued to his iPhone as his uncle (Karl Urban, looking more like a country-western singer than a paleontologist) tries to spark his interest in a remote dinosaur dig. Enter Alex (voiced by Leguizamo), a cocky raven who channels one of his ancestors — a red-and-black Late Cretaceous bird called an Alexornis — and begins rattling off what “Jurassic Park” referred to as “an adventure 65 million years in the making.”
Whereas the BBC series gave screen time to some of the world’s most popular dinosaurs, this feature follow-up opts to focus on several more obscure species. The main character is a runty, horn-headed Pachyrhinosaurus, whom the film treats less like a dino than an oversized dog — or more accurately, an underdog. Nearly devoured in his nest, Patchi (Long) gets by with a hole in the bony frill that surrounds his head, supplying a nice perch for our increasingly obnoxious narrator, Alex.
Over the course of the next 80-odd minutes — which, for convenience’s sake, compress a decade or more of growth into a single cross-country trek — Patchi blooms into a massive, veggie-eating monster. Thanks to Long’s playful voice and endearing character work, audiences will cheer for this big, ugly brute as he falls in love with lady dino Juniper (Tiya Sircar), butts heads with big brother Scowler (Skyler Stone) and defends the herd from a Gorgosaurus attack (like a T. Rex, but with even tinier claws).
Visually, “Walking With Dinosaurs” dazzles with its combination of Animal Logic-animated CG creatures (who sometimes rear their heads off the screen) and beautiful practical backgrounds (mostly shot against real Alaska and New Zealand landscapes). The hybrid technique recalls Disney’s 2000 “Dinosaur,” as do certain elements of the plot, which relies on a road-trip scenario to mobilize the action. (The “Ice Age” series uses the same trick, finding excuses to set its characters in motion with each film.)
Less dazzling is the constant stream of jokey banter, which thwarts the pic’s educational potential and caps its target age awfully low. Basically, viewers must be young enough to appreciate prehistoric poop jokes before the experience starts to grate. And while Collee’s writing is both cleverer and less condescending than the studio-produced equivalent (the dino-delivered line “Some day these mammals will go extinct, and we’ll have the last laugh” deserves a chuckle), it appears to be in direct contradiction to the animation style.
As in the BBC series, the dinosaurs are meant to look realistic, with few attempts to anthropomorphize them, whereas the dialogue makes them into cartoons. Collee piles on references to such distinctly human concepts as ninjas and ballet, while 21st-century expressions (“Worst migration ever!”) and a forgettable selection of pop tunes feel instantly biodegradable. Clearly, the intention is to draw modern audiences into the prehistoric experience, but such concessions date the experience instead.