Film Review: Flying Monsters 3D

Behind the hard-sell title and trailers lies an informative, child-friendly documentary about the evolutionary development and legacy of pterodactyls and other winged reptiles that should enjoy a long run at museums and science centers.

The first collaboration between naturalist David Attenborough (best known for spearheading popular BBC nature series like “Life on Earth”) and BSkyB's new Sky3D division, Flying Monsters 3D is a child-centric introduction to the winged reptiles that have enthralled filmmakers and audiences for decades, from the silent movie The Lost World (1925) to the 2011 TV series “Terra Nova.”

The avuncular Attenborough, a patient and friendly guide through the alien landscape of prehistoric Earth, is aided by both human experts and the products of state-of-the–art computer animation that ought to keep the most restless small fry in their seats. And the eerily lifelike living fossils—squawking, hissing, gobbling and, yes, flying pterosaurs, a term that encompasses everything from primitive pteranodons to the massive Quetzalcoatlus—aren't the half of it.

CGI technology untangles knots of ossified ribs and vertebrae and assembles them into neat skeletons; animated MRI imagery reveals the internal structure of bones both strong enough to launch 400-pound reptiles into the air and sufficiently light to allow them to remain aloft; wireframe simulations vividly illustrate the advantage of, say, short tails over long and spotlight the kind of fossil details that wow paleontologists, from the delicate shadows of biological fibers that kept leathery but delicate wings from tearing to the first evidence of feathers.

And that's not to slight the footage of still-living creatures like the gliding, Southeast Asian Draco lizards, which hint at how ancient reptiles may have first taken to the air, and imperious flamingos, whose ability to forage on land, in water and aloft hints at why birds eventually survived while the pterosaurs died off. While occasionally imprecise in a way that will nag at adults, the movie compensates with a couple of extraordinary visuals, the most memorable being combined footage of a real small aircraft and a simulated Quetzalcoatlus with virtually the same 35-foot wingspan: That is one mother of a flying monster.