You'd think there'd be nothing better matched than dinosaurs and the giant-screen format, and the huge reptiles get an informative showcase in this dry but very big documentary that will teach if not particularly entertain school kids for a generation or two before enough new discoveries are made that we'll need to update it.
Backed by impeccable credentials like the National Science Foundation and the American Museum of Natural History, this 40-minute encapsulation of our latest knowledge about dinosaurs is impressive on more levels than prehistory has periods. It even includes a lowly grad student's remarkable discovery of an entire new species (so figure doctoral student Sterling Nesbitt of Columbia University probably has a few job offers lined up, and more power to him). The short, which will screen primarily at museums and other specialty venues, takes viewers on a global excursion from New York to Mongolia's Gobi Desert to the evocatively named Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. Paleontologists Mike Novacek, Mark Norell and Julia Clarke and their various Ross Gellars-in-training do important work that they enjoy and get to dig in the most scientific sandboxes imaginable.
But Dinosaurs Alive makes only adequate use of the large format, filling the screen with featureless deserts containing nothing to give a sense of scale. And without that sense of scale, of taking in a world as big as peripheral vision can see, there's not much point to the giant screen.
Michael Douglas narrates, except for some stilted and ill-advised passages from some of the scientists involved, who I'm afraid to say sound like sixth-graders reading the Gettysburg Address. This helps make their doubtlessly heartfelt sentiments feel like scripted spin. (It's also distressing that the press screening was preceded by speechifying from various movers-and-shakers trying to propagandize our opinions.) The script is serviceable but stale, with clichés like "a vast treasure trove of fossils." It also accompanies its certifiably landmark images of the famed 1920s Roy Chapman Andrews expedition with a vague, passive-voice claim that Andrews is "thought to be an inspiration for Indiana Jones." Paging Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan for the real dirt.
A handful of arresting images truly are magnificent, like a pilot's-seat shot from inside a helicopter over Mongolia, and a truly exciting chase scene with small dinosaurs (part of the 12 minutes of CGI here). One of the mudslide scenes shows surprisingly poor animation of liquid, which computer-savvy kids will pick out, but you have to give the filmmakers some slack and credit for doing, overall, some incredibly complicated CGI detail on a huge scale but without the budget of Spider-Man 3.
If this sounds like nitpicking, the reason for all this detailed analysis is the simple fact that a lot of parents are hard-put to afford such a film, with the Museum of Natural History, for example, charging $16 per adult and $9 for kids on top of the suggested museum-admission fee. But even if that weren't the case, putting something in large-format raises expectation of a sense of awe and wonder beyond the solid and well-taught information that alone you could get on PBS.