Tom Norton Enjoys Walking With Dinosaurs

Narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Series producer: Tim Haines. Producer: Jasper James. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Surround. Two discs. 230 minutes. 1999. BBC Video (distributed by CBS). CBS Fox Video 2000040. NR. $34.98.

Everyone, it seems, is dinosaur-happy. Jurassic Park is credited with having started the craze, but kids have actually been fascinated by the subject for decades, and their interest continues when they grow up. This six-part mini-series produced the highest ratings to date for any cable documentary when the Discovery Channel aired it last spring, and it lives up to its hype.

Walking With Dinosaurs traces the history of the big reptiles in six chapters, from their earliest appearance 220 million years ago to their sudden disappearance 155 million or so years later. It's obvious that the critters were remarkably successful—155 million years is a pretty good run—but sobering to realize that, in the inexorable march of time, nature eventually gobbles up every species and begins anew.

My favorite chapter is "Cruel Sea," which takes a look at dinosaur life in the oceans—a subject rarely addressed in most discussions of the subject. Even those of us who know a Tyrannosaurus rex from an Apatosaurus will be surprised to learn that neither T. rex nor any of his landlubbing relatives was the king of the predators. "Cruel Sea" wakes us up to that fact with a start in an early shot—which I will not further reveal.

Using a combination of live backgrounds from around the world, computer animation, puppetry, and various other techniques (ably described in the superb documentary on disc 2, The Making of "Walking With Dinosaurs"), the filmmakers have brought this ancient world vividly to life—though I don't agree with those who argue that this production outdoes Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, the challenge of producing 230 minutes of footage, virtually all of it populated by dinosaurs, is far different from that of producing the few minutes of onscreen dino time seen in that feature film. Given the amount of work involved in Walking With Dinosaurs, the results are amazing.

The anamorphic video transfer is very good—a little soft-looking compared with the best transfers, but the anamorphic process retains enough detail to keep this from being much of a distraction. The script is so absorbing that any minor transfer issues are completely beside the point.

The same can be said for the Dolby Surround track. It's rarely exciting enough to make you sit bolt upright, but it's clean, with a pleasing sense of spaciousness.

If you're a dinosaur fan—and who isn't?—this set is a foolproof purchase.