Sure this came out a couple of years ago now, and Mark Witton has dealt with it in detail (and for the record I basically agree with everything he said, almost to the letter), but I’m now in a position to comment myself. While I have seen this before, I have now seen it in the cinema in full 3D glory. More particularly, I saw this with an audience of school children (about 80 of them aged, I would guess about 7-90). I was there to handle a Q&A on pterosaurs after the show to help extend their experience and hopefully help them get a bit more out of the film.
As far as I could tell, they thoroughly enjoyed it and there was a large, sustained and apparently spontaneous round of applause at the end. Certainly during the showing there was no chatter, fidgeting or anything else one might associate with them not being well engaged with the subject matter. So far so good.
The questions afterwards came thick and fast and were really of a better standard that I’ve come to expect of this age group. There were no overtly silly questions and most really were about the animals themselves and not about ‘who would win in a fight between’ or ‘which was the best’. Some were even great with ‘are archaeologists and palaeontologists different things?’ a personal favourite (all media outlets ever please take note).
The one thing that did strike me though was that the kids were still firmly happy with the idea that pterosaurs were dinosaurs (and so too, were the plesiosaurs and the like, but not birds, or at least not for most). This might sound rather inevitable, it’s a very common issue, but bear in mind they had just sat through a documentary on pterosaurs that had also featured dinosaurs, birds, Archaeopteryx and plesiosaurs. They had picked up on things like the launch of Quetzalcoatlus, and asked about how Pteranodon would get buried when surely the other animals would eat a dead one, or which ones ate which foods etc. They had grasped some of the trickier concepts and harder messages but missed a big one.
Thinking back though, I realised that this was never really stressed. While the documentary was careful to use the right terms in each case – which was good – they also never specifically drew attention to the fact. The knowledgeable audience member might spot the correct use of ‘marine reptile’ for plesiosaurs, but those who don’t know would probably miss this and not attach the importance to the fact that the word ‘dinosaur’ wasn’t used. For an hour-long program talking pterosaurs it does seem rather odd that at no point (confession, I missed the first 5 minutes) did they ever actually say ‘pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs’. No, they never conflated them, but nor did they make it explicit.
With something so basic and so common an error, it does feel like a massively missed open goal. Sure, there are plenty of worse issues (as Mark details in his review), but still I can’t help feeling this would have helped the narrative itself – after all, they want the audience to appreciate pterosaurs in their own right, and making them distinct from dinosaurs would help that goal. Establishing them as their own group and in effect therefore somewhat more ‘special’ has the dual role of clearing up a great misconception and focusing the attention of the viewer.
So while I did work to clean that one up in the minds of those who watched the show, it clearly still is a major issue. It’s a shame that such a major effort to really push pterosaurs to a mainstream audience and bring them to the fore failed to address such a simple and critical concept.