Bucking the dominant trend of nature docs, Dinotasia eschews anthropomorphism almost entirely. While contemporary wildlife films, exemplified by Disneynature titles such as African Cats and Chimpanzee, tend to make their non-human characters relatable by endowing them with decidedly human qualities, David Krentz and Erik Nelson’s computer-animated look at the age of the dinosaurs refuses to falsify its subject by ascribing inaccurate motives to its players.
This decision to avoid treating the dinosaurs as surrogate people for easy identification is both the film’s boldest move and the source of much of its problems. As we watch the CGI dinosaurs enact what largely amounts to a vicious struggle for survival across a series of time-hopping vignettes, the lack of narrative gives the various episodes a certain shapelessness, even as they’re held together by a pending asteroid-based apocalypse that the film keeps alluding to and by Werner Herzog’s gleefully doomy narration.
Yes, the Grizzly Man director is on hand to intone, in his inimitable style, about “the savage indifference of nature,” as if the constant scenes of tyrannosaurs ripping each other’s heads off weren’t proof enough. Herzog’s role, though, exists less to advance the plot (except in so much as he delights in the coming of that fatal asteroid) than to provide thematic heft, discoursing on the Earth’s cycles of life and death and chaos and order.
Despite the somewhat crude computer animation, at least by contemporary, post-Avatar standards, and the sameness of much of the episodes, Dinotasia has no shortage of memorable imagery, whether it’s a one-armed tyrannosaur with a face like a death’s mask running rampant or bright red raptors teaming up to take down larger prey. There’s little sentimentalizing the creatures here; these dinosaurs are no cuddly creatures for kids. Instead, Krentz and Nelson present a vision of brutal violence that enacts itself senselessly and repetitiously, oblivious to the larger apocalypse that awaits.
It’s a consistent worldview and probably an accurate one, but it results in a film that only excites in fits and starts. While some variations and side-trips keep things lively (including a magic-mushroom freakout by one dino), the doc’s focus on the eternal struggles of life and death places definite limits on the sweep and diversity of the vignettes. By punting the more traditional narrative strategies of nature films, Dinotasia usefully de-sentimentalizes the genre, but by almost entirely avoiding any overarching plotting at all, the film becomes a stubbornly episodic exercise that frustrates nearly as much as it excites.