The most obvious departure of this 3D feature spin off from the acclaimed BBC series with the same name on which it is based is the fact that the titular dinosaurs actually talk. Well to be honest, talk might be a bit of an overstatement seeing as how the characters' mouths don't actually move much; rather, what we have is an attempt to humanise these dinosaurs for a young target audience, which in the minds of the filmmakers, means fitting Disney-fied dialogue into the picture.
As scripted by 'Happy Feet's' John Collee, the kid-friendly plot follows the template of a coming-of-age story where a young Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (voiced by Justin Long) grows into a leader over the course of a long migration. His companion and buddy happens to be a prehistoric parrot that goes by the name of Alex (voiced by John Leguizamo), who forms the bridge between the opening modern-day sequence - featuring a cameo by Josh Duhamel - and 70 million years back where most of the action unfolds.
Cast as timid and socially awkward, the film introduces Patchi as the runt of the litter, easily distinguishable from the rest of his siblings by a hole on the right side of his frill following a close shave with a predator as a kid. A change in the weather patterns prompts his herd's migration by his father Bulldust, which sets into motion a chain of events that will have Patchi eventually claiming the honour of leading the herd. It isn't just his inner strength that Patchi will discover by the end of the journey; along the way, Patchi also finds a romantic interest in the form of Juniper (Tiya Sircar), a fellow Pachyrhinosaurus he experiences love at first sight with.
As far as children-oriented pictures go, the story in this one is on many accounts too simplistic. There is some attempt to inject dramatic tension by setting up Patchi's rivalry with his brutish older brother Scowler (Skyler Stone), but it is hardly compelling stuff. Same goes for the storybook romance between Patchi and Juniper, which to no surprise builds to a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, much more entertaining is Patchi's loquacious friend and ally Alex, whose non-stop chatter consisting of all sorts of puns makes him the undeniably most engaging one of the lot.
Truth be told though, little would be lost if directors Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale had simply done away with the formulaic story. Simply put, the visuals are stunning, seamlessly mixing CGI with breathtaking backdrops in Alaska and New Zealand to transport its audience back in time into a world when dinosaurs ruled the Earth; and the experience is even more awe-inspiring captured on film using the cutting-edge cinematographic technology which James Cameron had employed for 'Avatar'. Seeing as how tacked on the dialogue feels to the visuals of the movie, one can't quite help but feel that the filmmakers should simply have stuck with the original's documentary approach.
Of course, Nightingale is no stranger to that; as the creative director of BBC Earth and the producer of countless other nature documentaries, he is more than well versed in the language of non-fiction. Unfortunately, he seems to have given freer rein to Cook, whose background in animated features like 'Mulan' and 'Arthur Christmas' has resulted in what is essentially a live-action Disney cartoon about dinosaurs. In spite of the occasional educational cards sharing the scientific names of the dinosaurs and their general dietary preference (whether herbivore or carnivore or omnivore), there is no shaking off the feeling that the charm of the original series has been largely lost on its journey to the big screen.
Not that the US$85 million dollar production is without merit - like we said, the combination of computer animation and live-action is never less than impressive and captivating, demonstrating the leaps and bounds by which technology has advanced since Steven Spielberg first enthralled the world using animatronics in 'Jurassic Park'. On that account alone, it should more than be a fascinating watch for the kiddies; grown-ups though will have a harder time immersing themselves into the lifelike world, ultimately challenged by the artificial dialogue and even more cliched plot.