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'Dinotopia' has flaws, but it's imaginative

Sunday, May 12, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Anytime there's something to review from producer Robert Halmi Sr., my first response is to shudder. He's produced so many hours of miniseries schlock in recent years - NBC's 1999 atrocity "Noah's Ark," springs immediately to mind - that anything bearing his name gives me a fright.

Along the continuum of Halmi programming, "Dinotopia" ranks significantly better than "Noah's Ark" or "The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns."

TV Review
When:7 p.m. today; 8 p.m. tomorrow and Tuesday on ABC.
Starring: David Thewlis, Alice Krige, Katie Carr, Tyron Leitso, Wentworth Miller.

A cross between "Land of the Lost" and "Jurassic Park," "Dinotopia" has some imaginative elements, albeit, elements imagined not by Halmi and his cohorts but by James Gurney, author of the "Dinotopia" books.

Working from a teleplay by Simon Moore, the story itself is new, but there are nods to characters in Gurney's books and the world he created is brought to (mostly) realistic, glittering life by modern special effects.

ABC calls this a six-hour "megaseries" and, for the most part, it holds up. Or at least it might for children. For adults, the world created here is original, but the story is familiar, drawing on long-established character types popularized by "Star Wars" and other pop culture fantasies.

The story begins as quarrelsome half-brothers Karl (Tyron Leitso) and David (Wentworth Miller) go flying in a small plane with their father (Stuart Wilson). Dear ol' dad isn't big on responsibility, handing the controls to Karl while he catches a few winks. Next thing you know, they're flying into a storm and the plane crashes in the ocean. The boys escape, dad appears to drown.

When they wash up on shore, Karl and David discover they're in the land of Dinotopia, a place where humans and dinosaurs live mostly in harmony.

Karl, the rough and tumble Han Solo type, wants to find a way off the island. David, the timid scaredy-cat, quickly gets comfortable. Both boys fall for Marion (Katie Carr), daughter of the mayor of the fantastic Waterfall City.

The story meanders at first, but becomes more streamlined in night two. By the third evening, though, the story rambles again as the tired, trademark Halmi quest plot kicks in, sending the boys on a mission to save Dinotopia from destruction.

During their journey in this strange land, they meet an untrustworthy schemer, Cyrus Crabb (David Thewlis), encounter Marion's imperious mother (the commanding Alice Krige) and team up with an English-speaking dinosaur named Zippo (voice of Lee Evans), a stenonychosaurus.

On a few occasions, the dinosaurs look like the effects they are, but most of the time they look like impressive flesh and blood re-creations. Whether it's the antics of Zippo or the majesty of the brachiosaurus "bus" or the power of the flying pterosaurs in the Skybax Corps, the dinosaurs draw us in even when the backgrounds look like the matte paintings they undoubtedly are.

Thank goodness for the effects, because much of the acting is unconvincing. And that's being kind.

Director Marco Brambilla ("Demolition Man," "Excess Baggage") tries to keep the story moving and succeeds best in night two when Karl and David go their separate ways in Dinotopian society.

Filmed from October 2000 to May 2001 in London, Thailand, Egypt and Brazil, "Dinotopia" features a Pittsburgh connection. Actor Wentworth Miller, who plays David, is a 1990 graduate of Quaker Valley High School in Sewickley.

Miller, best known for a recurring role during the first season of The WB's "Popular," gets his most screen time ever in "Dinotopia." Sharing it with a computer-generated dinosaur who was added in post-production presented a new challenge.

"You have to do your best performance-wise, but you're also keeping the technical stuff in mind at the same time," Miller said at an ABC party in Pasadena, Calif., this past January. "As far as speaking to thin air, it's like having an imaginary friend. Once you make that leap of awkwardness, you're fine."

Although Zippo is a sidekick, he's far less annoying than another computer-generated character returning to the big screen this week, Jar Jar Binks ("Star Wars").

"Zippo is a more fully realized character," Miller said with a grin. "He's got more levels. He's not just comic relief."

Though Miller's involvement with "Dinotopia" is done, ABC will continue to be in the dinosaur business. Earlier this year the network ordered 13 episodes of a spin-off series starring Shiloh Strong as David and Erik von Detten as Karl. And, yes, Zippo will be back, too.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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