A documentary about dinosaurs narrated by Werner Herzog sounds amazing right? Well, Dinotasia deserves credit for effort but never really gains momentum.
Beginning 250 million years ago in Siberia at the end of the Permian period, the documentary takes us through the various periods of the dinosaurs up until one month after the meteor impact that obliterated them from Earth. Consisting of vignettes, the film offers us glimpses of the life and behaviour of various species of dinosaurs, from brutal fights for survival to stumbling across a hallucinogenic mushroom. Unfortunately the animation that portrays these fascinating creatures is pretty low grade, never really allowing the audience to fully invest in the mini stories and highlighting just how incredible the effects in Jurassic Park ( 1993) were over 19 years ago, proving that completely digital effects still cannot stand up to animatronics and CGI combined.
Dinotasia has many other problems too. The superb narration by eccentric Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog is limited to a minute or two every few chapters and whilst very entertaining offers no real insight into the species we are observing or behavioural traits we witness. Instead, in typical Herzogian fashion the narration offers existential musings such as “time is more than a river; it is a fathomless ocean that separates us from what was” and profound but laughable comments like “death is descending from the heavens but no one knows how to look up”, that only Werner Herzog can deliver.
The short chapters present different dinosaurs to us (although we are never told what the species are) in different time periods and to the film’s credit the depiction of these intriguing reptiles feels unique and perhaps as accurate as has been seen. The computer generated imagery is not seamlessly interspersed with the real locations and takes quite a lot of getting used to but I did find myself becoming absorbed for moments and enjoying watching.
With little narration, dramatic music, no character names and little back story the documentary feels like a strange silent movie using modern technology in an amateurish way. Upon learning that this project started out as a 4 part series for the Discovery Channel and this film was used and unused footage edited together, it begins to explain the disjointed nature of the vignettes and the film as an entirety does not really work.
Despite Dinotasia’s many flaws I never felt that it dragged and I found some of the stories entertaining even though I didn’t actually learn anything from the documentary. The style of this documentary is far more visual than informative, allowing the viewer to feel like they are observing a real occurrence rather than watching a film. There are a few emotional moments and the brutality of these prehistoric creatures is never ‘Disneyfied’, raising questions of suitability for children.
Perhaps the biggest question this film raises though is nothing to do with dinosaurs, but what the actual purpose of this film is? There is not enough information for it to be educational and not enough substance for it to be escapist, it merely presents short snippets for us to try and fathom out.
Dinotasia contains two of my favourite things; dinosaurs and Werner Herzog, but unfortunately does not live up to expectations. A quote in the press material by Dinosaur expert Dr Mark Witton is extremely revealing, stating that “I think the depiction in Dinotasia is probably the closest I’ve seen to what we think dinosaurs really looked like- it’s the best yet”. Whilst this may be true it seems the filmmakers were far too focused on this aspect instead of trying to provide audiences with an entertaining story and seamless special effects. Promising ingredients but a disappointing final product.
The extras on the DVD are decent with an extended scene/story that makes you think the whole film would have worked a lot better if they had linked all the dinosaurs in one narrative, a ‘six months after impact’ hand drawn storyboard demo, a mating ritual vignette and a bizarre ‘forbidden fruit’ demo with split screen showing people crawling around pretending to be dinosaurs on one side and crude animation on the other giving us an insight into the production process.
Dinotasia evolves to DVD, Download and On-Demand on 27th August 2012.
Directors: David Krentz, Erik Nelson
Writers: Erik Nelson, David Krentz
Stars: Werner Herzog (Narrator)
Runtime: 83 mins