Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Prehistoric Park: The Complete Television Event
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

Imagine Jurassic Park only without the ensuing havoc of a saboteur shutting off the power and raptors hunting everyone down. Also, instead of cloning dinosaurs from DNA, the park’s extinct animals were saved from extinction via a time portal. Oh, and instead of housing dinosaurs in a theme park-like environment, this “park” is more of an animal sanctuary open to accommodating any manner of extinct creature.

Welcome to Prehistoric Park.

Unlike a so-so Spielberg thriller, Prehistoric Park is a wonderfully imaginative and engrossing television mini-series. It stars Nigel Marven, a British naturalist who travels back in time in each episode to rescue animals on the brink of extinction. His Prehistoric Park is an in-progress compound designed to breed and care for these animals that evolution gave up on.

In the first episode, Nigel sets out to retrieve an absolute showstopper--the most famous, or infamous, dinosaur of all--a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Traveling through the mysterious time portal, he arrives shortly before the giant meteor that extinguishes all dinosaur life on earth. There he stalks a wounded T-Rex but ends up bringing back more than just the king of “thunder lizards.”

One of the neatest aspects of Prehistoric Park is that the show doesn’t just focus on dinosaurs alone; there’s an intriguing variety to the types of animals and time periods visited, as the second episode moves past dinosaurs and finds Nigel heading to the end of the Ice Age to rescue a Wooly Mammoth. But dinosaurs aren’t totally forgotten as the show continually flashes back to “present day” at the Park where the staff there must deal with the creatures Nigel’s already brought back, like a herd of Omithomimus that won’t settle in their new habitat or an antsy teenage Triceratops they’ve named Theo.

Keeping things different again in the third episode, Nigel heads to prehistoric China to seek out more dinosaurs, only this time they’re ones few of us have probably heard of before. They’re tiny, feathered, four-winged, flying dinosaurs called microraptors. But the hunt for these tiny dinos also reveals the largest creatures Prehistoric Park will come to host, along with a very unwelcoming volcano that causes trouble for Nigel and his crew.

For episode four, the Sabretooth Tiger is the desired extinct animal Nigel tracks down in South America, along with a giant, meat-eating bird whose predatorial dominance is overturned by the Sabretooths. First, Nigel heads to a time when the Sabretooths ruled the roost and the “terror birds” were on their way out. Then, Nigel’s off to when the Sabretooths were the ones dying out. Note to parents of small children: though the series has been pretty family-friendly so far, this episode features a bunch of baby animals, including some damn cute ones that...don’t make it. Just a warning that smaller children may find this very disturbing and Sombrero Grande is willing to reveal this minor spoiler if it can prevent fits of uncontrollable sobbing...like he had. Wait...ignore that last part.

Exhibiting the show’s most varied departure yet, the fifth episode sees Nigel off to a time before the dinosaurs to rescue giant bugs like a 3-foot dragonfly and an enormous scorpion. Meanwhile, back at Prehistoric Park, the animal keepers are having troubles with many of the creatures Nigel’s brought back so far.

The sixth and final episode of the show puts Nigel once again back in the time of the dinosaurs, now trying to trap a fifty-foot “supercroc” called a Deinosuchus to bring back to the increasingly hectic Park.

In a way, it’s disappointing that the “supercroc” is the subject of the final episode since the Deinosuchus is arguably the least impressive CG creation of the series. The computer-generated effects throughout the show are pretty good for TV--even on par with the original Jurassic Park movie at times--though that varies from creature to creature. Some, like the Wooly Mammoth, look great and are easy to buy off on as real creatures, while some others, like the Deinosuchus and Sabretooth Tigers, appear to be only slightly more believable than creatures from TV’s Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess.

But occasionally tepid special effects can’t spoil the wonderful sense of adventure that the show offers up. Thankfully the human actors are far more believable than the computer-generated ones, and they bring a strong sense of realism to the outlandish situations. The scripts are well done too, making the proceedings feel close to real while still managing to answer all asked questions before the end of each episode.

Prehistoric Park is set up like a documentary, filming the growing pains of the world’s first extinct animal sanctuary. There are a few shots in the series that couldn’t possibly have been shot documentary-style and kind of throw off the vibe (like flying with giant dragonflies through a forest as though speeding through the Moon of Endor on an Imperial Speeder Bike--Nigel can’t seem to catch a dragonfly here, but apparently the cameraman has no problem riding one’s tail), but other than these little nit-picks it’s a pretty believably shot mockumentary.

In addition to being highly entertaining, the show is also educational. In discussing the handling and behaviors of the show’s creatures, the characters and narrator frequently make comparisons to modern animals and zoo methodologies. Prehistoric Park is the best kind of “edutainment”: the kind of show you watch for fun and then realize partway through that you’ve learned something.

One thing that is never explained is how the time portals work. Like the doors in Monsters, Inc., they just do. Executive Producer Jasper James humorously explains in the DVD set’s “Making of” feature, “Einstein always made a big deal about, you know, space and time and ‘wouldn’t it be difficult to time travel.’ And I think, in reality, he knew, like we do, that it’s actually quite simple: you just need a stick with some lights on it--and you stick it in the ground, time portal comes up, and you go back in time. There’s really nothing to it.” The “how” of the time travel really isn’t important to the story—the show isn’t about that; it’s about learning about the animals.

Prehistoric Park is an absolutely wonderful mini-series, full of adventure, drama, and interesting animal and historical facts. I highly recommend it for older children, families and adults with even the slightest interest in dinosaurs and other extinct creatures.


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