Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Graphic Arts As Literature

"Dinotopia" dinosaurs exist alongside humans and can do things like play Ping-Pong. This creature shares a chair with "Dinotopia" producer Robert Halmi Sr.

Underhyped TV miniseries
packs dino might

Airing at 6 p.m. today on KITV/ABC

By Burl Burlingame

Caught between the breathless word-of-mouth of "Spider-Man" and the bated-breath high expectation of "Star Wars" is simply the grandest, most expensive television miniseries of all time -- we're talking $80 million -- and you've heard precious little about it in the hype currents. Where are all the spinoff products? The wall-to-wall TV commercials? The "news" stories dribbled out to newspapers featuring manufactured quotes intended to pimp the product?

Goodness, they're going to let "Dinotopia" stand or fall on its own merits. "Dinotopia" starts tonight on ABC and continues through Tuesday.

It's based on illustrator James Gurney's best-selling series of books. Taking place in the 1800s, it concerns the discovery of a hidden continent on which dinosaurs have survived alongside man, and in many way equal humans in mental sophistication. It's a wonderful, enlightened concept -- dinosaurs, would, of course, have evolved along with all other species -- and Gurney's meticulously detailed and colorfully illustrated world is as complete as any other fantasy landscape.

The miniseries is one of those gigantic Hallmark for-the-whole-family productions, this time turned to a wonder work of fantasy instead of a classic like "Gulliver's Travels" or "The Odyssey." It uses live-action human actors, the ubiquitous Jim Henson Creature Shop and digital dinosaurs created by Framestore, the team that did "Walking With Dinosaurs," except that these creatures do things like play pingpong.

Pingpong? One of the charming conceits of the books is that it takes place more than a century ago, when lost continents were still theoretically possible, but what little we've found out about the miniseries is that it takes place in the here and now.

And it focuses on cute teenage boys -- two troubled brothers, Karl and David, survivors of a plane crash. They're rightfully astounded by the dinosaurs -- since the story takes place in modern times, shouldn't the kids make reference to "Jurassic Park"? -- and everything is peachy until the nation's power source, called "Sunstones," begin to fail.

Wouldn't you know it? Dinosaurs on lost continents last millions of years, and as soon as North Americans set foot on the place, everything goes to hell and blows up or sinks into the sea. That's the plot of every lost-continent/dinosaur movie ever.

In the books, things continue to muddle along, just like real life.

According to Gurney, since the original book was published in 1990, filmmakers from Disney to Lucas optioned the project, but it wasn't until recently that digital effects were sophisticated enough to convince the audience that the human-dino interactions are real. This series is actually a pilot film -- ABC has ordered 13 episodes for a "Dinotopia" series to begin next year.

Dinosaur fans will enjoy the host of brachiosauruses, tyrannosauruses, mosasaurs and such in their first speaking roles, as well as a bright-eyed stenonychosaurus named Zippo -- who knows 17 languages. And plays pingpong.

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