A review of “March of the Dinosaurs”

Either this show was not heavily advertised or I missed it completely, but I literally happened to switch on the TV as this started so I inevitably watched it and made a few notes and here’s my thoughts on the subject. I’m not normally a big one for reviews like this, but it almost seemed churlish not to in the circumstances. For those who missed it (or those not in the UK) this was a CG show broadcast jsut yesterday about dinosaurs of the arctic.

Inevitably given my job and experience, I tend to notice only the flaws and errors or problems with these kinds of things and I’m especially programmed to be annoyed by shows that present things as simple statements without the science behind it. It’s not that I dislike narrated dinosaur shows, you don’t have to base everything on bones and talking heads, but it be nice to have just a few token words towards the science a little more often, not least on something billed as a ‘documentary’. And of course there are things that are somewhere between contentious and made-up that are presented as reality and in a bizarrely odd or overstated manner.

Let’s start with the statement about Troodon that “their reactions are so fast it’s like the see in slow motion”. Really? I’ve never seen any paper that even suggests they had super fast reactions, and even if there is and I just missed it, is that really the best way to explain it? Others are there like Gorgosaurus being ‘perfected’ for nocturnal hunting or that young Edmontosaurus eat only soft leaves (with those teeth and beaks? and in a conifer forest?!).

Obviously the most striking thing is the CGI of this show and while it’s perfectly OK, it doesn’t seem to be any better than that of the benchmark Walking with Dinosaurs. With another decade of computer power etc. this clearly is below the level it could have reached. What’s more the backgrounds and environments are not real as in WWD, but CGI too, and these generally do look cheap and less good than the dinosaurs themselves. There’s also a lack of real depth to the environments – you never see insects or birds or pterosaurs in the background and there’s no climbing plants or moss on the trees etc. That said the animals themselves look fine and are generally accurate down to some nice details (like feather and scale patterns, no pronation in the theropods, proper first toes) with the occasional errors (like ears sitting in the lower temporal fenestra, the pterosaurs have no fingers apart from the wing).

However, as a perennial complaint, everything is a shade of grey with occasional bits of black and brown. What little splashes of colour there is, is all orange (as seen in the troodont heads, ceratopsian crests). Was the Mesozoic really just based on grey and orange?  There’s no need to make the green and blue with yellow and pink stripes, but a bit more colour variation is not out of the question and would be a little more realistic. The movement is also generally good, though the main protagonists, Edmontosaurus, seem to walk with bizarrely short steps most of the time.

The other thing that obviously gripes are the unnecessary and bizarre little behavioural ticks things tend to have in every one of these programs. The tyrannosaur that just bellows repeatedly at the troodontids scavenging his kill (just charge them!), the juvenile that gets picked off for “straying from the herd” when the herd is in plain sight and only about 10 yards away, and the fact that the herd only finally starts to migrate south when apparently they haven’t fed properly ‘for weeks’ because the plants are dying off. They’d move with the light, heat and fodder as soon as it shifted, not stand around in the cold and dark for a month, this is just dumb. Oh and a pliosaur living in a frozen lake. One that had frozen over entirely. I do hope someone explained that they probably couldn’t hold their breath for a month at a time.

For all this, these complains are generally nit-picky and you would have to be pretty knowledgeable about dinosaurs to spot even most of them (and things like the colour are admittedly as much about aesthetics as science). There’s very little that’s actively really wrong, or very bad. Given the horror stories from numerous colleagues over the years about how these productions can go and what advice is and isn’t taken, this is certainly much better than most. It probably helped that there was a long list of excellent scientific consultants for this, including one or two who have appeared on the Musings from time to time. It certainly does feature some nice hypotheses (like pack hunting Albertosaurus, or male troodontids building nests) which most of the public will probably be unaware of, so it’s nice to see them get an airing and to be put forward well. And obviously the underlying main story here – of dinosaurs living in the arctic circle and migrating annually to the forests of the south and back again – is one that has barely been mentioned in the past. It’s also nice to see some different taxa on the screen – no Tyrannosaurus, no Triceratops, no Velociraptor – but instead a rather different fauna. And the show generally steers well clear of misplaced anthropomorphism or hyperbole and the animals act in reasonable and realistic ways.

As ever, what always annoys me most is things that are wrong or strange when they have no need to be. Was it really any harder to make the ceratopsian crests a different orange to the troodontid feathers? Was it any harder to make the hadrosaurs take a longer stride forwards? Would it take much longer to add the fingers onto the pterosaurs? But these complaints are minor. For all the dinosaurs shows I’ve seen over the years I was able to sit through all 2 hours of this without being bored and only very occasionally going ‘eh?’ at some especially egregious error. That’s far more than I can say of many, and I’m sure than most people will enjoy this, and certainly they’ll learn far more about dinosaurs than the occasional error will tell them wrong.

22 Responses to “A review of “March of the Dinosaurs””

  1. 1 Marc Vincent 24/04/2011 at 6:50 pm

    You weren’t bothered by the tiny hands and lack of wings on the Troodons, then…? (Or is that just me being unreasonable…) The theropods had kinda ‘humanoid’ arms too. But it wasn’t so bad overall.

    • 2 David Hone 24/04/2011 at 7:24 pm

      Well advanced troodontids have rather short arms so that’s OK, and personally I’m not that fussed about heavy wings on very terrestrial things. Obviously there’s say heavy cover on Caudipteryx and we can infer it in Velociraptor with the quill knobs, but I’m OK with a sparser covering.

      • 3 Tom 25/04/2011 at 1:31 am

        I have to go with Marc on this. There is no reason to think that a Troodontid would lose its primary feathers, seeing as its never happened in any theropod that we know the wings of -extant or extinct. I also thought that the Troodontid heads looked a little too Jurassic Park-ish.

        With all that said though, other than the Troodontids, there doesn’t seem to be too much wrong with this program. Its nice to have an at least MOSTLY accurate dinosaur “documentary” for once.

  2. 4 Kurt Kohler 25/04/2011 at 1:37 am

    For those not in the UK, according to the production company’s web site (http://www.wide-eyedentertainment.com/), the documentary should be showing up on these channels:

    National Geographic US
    History Television, Canada
    France 5
    Super RTL
    YAP Films
    Modus FX

    I found no mention of when.

  3. 5 Doug Henning 25/04/2011 at 3:14 pm

    Apparently the production company is “a young thrusting media production company…who’ve been behind some of the most ambitious and spectacular television of the age,” per their website.

    When is a paleo documentary made by people who care about accuracy instead of bombast going to be made again?

    • 6 David Hone 25/04/2011 at 3:24 pm

      I think people care about accuracy – if they didn’t, they’d be *really* bad and they did get a lot right. What I think is lacking is that they put accuracy above everything else and make it an absolute priority. The impression I have had from colleagues is that WWD did that, but perhaps nothing else since.

  4. 7 stefan 26/04/2011 at 3:22 pm

    I haven’t seen it yet, so I really can’t say that much about it, BUT a Pliosaur living in a frozen lake… really… Uhm… Ice Age anyone… Also, if the graphics really are still comparable to Walkiing with Dinosaurs, they’re just not good enough. WWD was revulutionary. Not only was the science largely accurate, the graphics were unique for it’s day. But today, it should be possible to go even better… Much better…

  5. 9 Zhen 26/04/2011 at 11:18 pm

    Damn, I guess I missed it. Then again, I don’t live in the UK. I hope they show it in the US.

    Hey David, did you see the restored Prehistoric Beasts footage? It’s an old stop motion short from Phil Tippet and it was recently released online on youtube in HD.

  6. 10 Tim Van Der Laan 25/06/2011 at 9:00 am

    The show is airing in Australia in about 30 minutes time. I wanted to see whether it was worth watching or whether it’d all total rubbish. I think I’ll give it a go.
    Have a good day, dinosaur people!

    • 11 David Hone 25/06/2011 at 2:46 pm

      I think on balance it’s fine. But it was rather advertised as being “the most amazing thing ever TM” and that it isn;t. Good, but with some glaring omissions / oddities.

  7. 12 mattvr 27/06/2011 at 2:56 am

    I finally caught this on Australian TV this week.

    Is there anything other than penguins which nests in bare snow? Are feathered dinosaurs unable to groom themselves?
    Were dinosaurs restricted to living in bare wastelands?

    Were all tyrannosaurs ninjas?

    I really do understand how difficult TV production is, but I wish they’d talk to and listen to advisers before filling the gaps creatively.

    There were some nice things about it, feathers on anything at all was good.

  8. 13 mattvr 27/06/2011 at 1:14 pm

    Oops, even penguins keep their eggs on their feet.

    Am I being too harsh?

  9. 14 Jonathan 28/06/2011 at 12:54 am

    for anyone who missed this show (like i did) the dvd has just been released in the UK – i thoroughly enjoyed it!

    • 15 12 year old 13/07/2011 at 8:22 pm

      I saw it too and really… slow motion? thats where i kinda got lost. I would have to agree a little with all of you but it should’ve been ten times better quality-wise.

      • 16 12 year old 13/07/2011 at 8:23 pm

        I saw it too and really… slow motion? thats where i kinda got lost. I would have to agree a little with all of you but it should’ve been ten times better quality-wise.

        I saw it in the us though on natgeo.

  10. 17 Vasika 24/07/2011 at 10:31 am

    Nice to see feathered tyrannosaurs though…..

  11. 18 David Tutton 26/08/2011 at 7:56 pm

    I am amazed that absolutely no one has caught on to one HUGE error in this film that repeats again and again……. I ask “have you ever see a dour footed creature move both feet on the left and both feet on the right at the same time when walking ? ” NO !! but the dinosaurs on this film do it all the way through instead of moving their front right foot with their back left foot…..go watch and see for yourself !

    • 19 David Hone 28/08/2011 at 8:50 am

      I’m not sure quite what you man by ‘dour’, but there are a fair few animals that do this and they are generally long legged (camels, giraffe, cheetah, greyhounds). It’s not impossible that other, shorter legged, things did this too.

  12. 20 david tutton 28/08/2011 at 2:43 pm

    “dour” was a typo… 🙂 I meant “four” but no, even camels move alternate feet…. most animals cannot balance on two feet on the same side at the same time, their weight distribution does not allow for it……. go watch any animal film, or even watch your dog or cat cross the room….. people march in the same manner left foot and right arm forward at the same time….. if you find a video or movie or film where they do move in this weird manner 9 both left feet at the same time etc ) then please post a link to it here…i would love to see it.

    • 21 David Hone 28/08/2011 at 8:34 pm

      It’s called pacing and it’s a perfectly normal form of locomotion for some taxa. Well here’s a camel for starters:

      And a cheetah:

      And a horse:

  13. 22 mike wood 14/12/2012 at 1:17 pm

    When making these documentaries we have to juggle the opinions both scientific and editorial as well as budgetary to bring things we believe passionately on. Our vision to this film was great, but to make it within 9 months with numerous co-partners, a relativley tiny budget, ($2million) for an entirely CGI film was in itself an enormous task. I agree whole-heartedly with most of the opinions here, it’s a shame we couldn’t make the film we had hoped for, but that’s TV. All the science was fact checked and researched by real, working scientists and is based on their research which can vastly differ from scientist to scientist.

    More importantly i’m glad it was well received and annoyed that it wasn’t promoted on the TV channels beforehand

    check out our newest film here

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