Alaskans will see their home turf when "Walking With Dinosaurs" the movie, opens in Anchorage Thursday night. Steep snow-tipped mountains and braided river valleys look suspiciously like views from the North Slope, Denali and elsewhere in the state.
That's because the action is set in Alaska and key backgrounds in the film were filmed in state by the Anchorage high-tech production company, Evergreen Studios.
"It's so totally bizarre to recognize some of the scenery and say, 'I know that place! But, wait, what are all these dinosaurs doing there?'" said paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo, Curator of Earth Sciences at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. Fiorillo was a consultant on the animated film. He makes regular field trips to the north and has played a major role in discoveries that reveal the presence of large numbers of the prehistoric beasts in Alaska and the arctic.
The film, which is being screened in both 3D and flat formats, follows a live arena show by the same name that uses life-size robotic puppets, a show that was itself based on a BBC documentary series. But this new cinema version focuses on recent research done in Alaska and other high latitude sites long thought to have been too cold for the giant reptiles.
"The whole polar dinosaur phenomenon is intriguing for some, and obviously for me as well," Fiorillo said in an interview by phone. The movie features several critters whose presence in Alaska he helped nail down, like duck-billed dinosaurs, flying pterosaurs and predatory troodons.
But the main character is a Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, a species Fiorillo called "near and dear to my heart." He's credited with finding the first fossils of the animal, a big-nosed Alaska relative of the three-horned triceratops, now on display as one of the crown jewels of the Perot Museum.
This "Walking with Dinosaurs" is a story, not a documentary. The plot involves a heroic young pachyrhinosaur, "Patchi," who must lead his herd to greener pastures along the general route now traversed by the Dalton and Parks highways.
Patchi is voiced by Justin Long, the voice of Alvin the chipmunk in several recent movies. Other cast members include Karl Urban (the young Dr. McCoy in the 2009 "Star Trek" film), Charlie Rowe, (Peter in "Neverland") and John Leguizamo (Sid the sloth in "Ice Age"). The direction is by a well-respected documentarian, Neil Nightingale, and Barry Cook, whose credits include visual effects supervisor in "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast."
"People need to remember that this is an entertainment film," Fiorillo said. "The producers did their best to incorporate the thinking of the scientific community, but these animals did not speak in English."
More than one critic has found the moving mouths of the realistically pixillated dinosaurs and their banter off-putting. Fiorillo is not among them. "There are a lot of cute twists in it that I won't give away," he said. "Some things that made me smile. I'm glad they kept them in. It's a refreshing way to look at science."
At least the best science that was available as the film went into production. The long-necked, feathered and clawed therizinosaur of Denali seems like an ideal candidate for animation. But Fiorillo only found the first known track in Alaska last year, too late to justify reworking into the film as a character. Also, the ongoing study of pachyrhinosaurs might lead to some tweaks in his advice to the filmmakers if he were to be approached for advice today.
"But scientists move at a different rate of speed than movie makers," he said philosophically. "It gives people a reason to go to the Perot Museum to see the real deal."
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS will open at 10 p.m. Thursday at Century 16 and play at Regal Tikahtnu and Dimond cinemas starting Friday. Showtimes can be found online at events.adn.com.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM