Mockumentaries, part 1: Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs

That's probably one of the most accurate depictions of Diplodocus in popular culture. Sadly, there's a few dinos in this series that are not that realistic.

Walking with Dinosaurs is probably the most famous natural history related mockumentary ever, and also one of the most expensive. Everyone, little me included, went crazy about it at the time (it was 2000), and honestly, who could blame us? Dinosaurs are badass, and that series was the first of its kind, making use of advanced digital effects and taking inspiration from real nature documentaries to narrate the lives of the “terrible lizards”. It was so popular, it spawned a shitload of sequels/prequels/spin-offs focusing on various other prehistoric beasts (including the science fiction show Primeval), and even nowadays, 12 years after it first aired, is still remembered and loved by many fans all around the world. So, what are my impressions about this series now that all these years have passed and I’m no more a little kid obsessed by dinosaurs, but a young man obsessed by dinosaurs? Is it good like the first time I’ve watched it? Well, yes and no. Mainly no.

The fact is that, for various reasons, the series didn’t age well. The special effects are still better than in most, if not all, other series of this kind, and at the time they looked they could compete with Hollywood movies in term of realism, and that was especially surprising considering that it wasn’t a Hollywood production, but a british one. Now, however, it’s really easy to understand that those big animals on the screen are just 10-year-old CGI, and see all of their imperfections, while I’m still amazed at the realism of the effects in Jurassic Park, a more than 20 years old film.

The series was revolutionary also because it contributed to enlighten the general public about the world of dinosaurs, divulging informations that where relatively new and certainly mainly obscure to most people, and dissolving many myths (I’m especially referring to the depiction of sauropods and pterosaurs, and to the mesozoic biomes, but there are many examples). Behind many aspects of the reconstructions there was good science: not only palaeontologists helped along, but the use of computer simulations to understand the ways the animals could or could not move were probably revolutionary. And yet, the series isn’t immune to embarassing errors, like many anatomical inaccuracies the most obvious of which is probably the complete lack of feathers on dromaeosaurids (and baby t-rexes too, actually, but I’m not sure if at the time the fact that baby t-rexes had feather-like structures was known). Maybe it would have been too difficult to animate the feathers, I don’t know.

Even worse, however, is the fact that many information presented there as solid facts are, in fact, just hypothesis or even wild guesses inspired mainly by modern day animal behaviour, and that’s the big limit of the narrative style chosen for the series: to keep going the illusion that what you are watching is a real documentaries with living animals, they had to stay in part and talk about the dinos like they knew everything about them. This, however, prevents the viewer to know what are the more plausible theories and what are just guesses that are possible but aren’t in fact backed up by many facts. I’ve still nightmares about people that were sure that Frill-necked lizards are in fact living dinosaurs (big mistake, pals, that would be birds) because the Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park was depicted as having a (completely fictional) frill (by the way, the poison was made up too). And while I can excuse a sci-fi movie whose purpose is just to entertain, it’s a little more difficult to excuse a series that should entertain AND teach. I don’t know, maybe if the narration wasn’t just like the narration of real nature documentaries, people would have been less involved in the show, and so it couldn’t have helped spread the interest for and knowledge of prehistoric life the way it did.

In the end, while it’s easy to see why the series was so successfull, and revolutionary in many ways, and while it’s still the best of its kind, I don’t think that someone who watches it for the first time today would be as impressed: once it looked like a real documentary with real dinosaurs, now it looks like a fake documentary with relatively good (but easily recognizable as such) CGI and puppets.

I’m not going to talk about all the other Walking with… series, because they’re mainly the same thing with less popular animals, and some of them include the obnoxious presence of Brady Barr, who makes them a lot cornier. Next time, I’ll talk about something different – and way, way shittier than the flawed but relatively enjoyable Walking with Dinosaurs.