Cheap fodder like this instead succeeds only at lulling kids into a somnolent, dead-eyed haze.
It’s easy to be puzzled, wading through the toxic swamp that is the Netflix Instant streaming service, about who the proposed audience is for so much of this material. Beyond the growing profusion of the platform’s original content, which seems to propagate like some strange fungus, spawning new recommendations for shows I’ve never heard of each time I log on, there’s also the increasingly dire, yet still voluminous, selection of movies. From DTV action flicks to anonymous fourth sequels of long-forgotten hits to exported Hallmark dramas, they represent an underside of viewing spectrum hidden from most critics, and likely from the majority of the general public as well. In charting these dark channels, I can appreciate the mindset of my father, who, whenever he found me viewing something weird or foreign or both, would stand silent next to the screen for a few moments before muttering, with suspicious incredulity: “what is this?”
I think I can adequately come up with a classification for The Dino King, a CG-animated, hastily imported Korean epic about Cretaceous-era Tarbosaurs, but it’s not easy. Despite its sheen of cheapness and varnish of schlock, this is a movie with which I thought I might be able to form some kind of connection. Like many children, I experienced a years-long fascination with dinosaurs and their ilk, which took me through all of my local library’s available reading material on the subject, from dog-eared chronicles of anthropomorphized ancient creatures through in-depth taxonomies filed with skeletal charts and speculations about possible skin texture. Yet, while attempting to strike the same mix of instructive and uplifting as much of the above reading material, this film instead offers a mind-numblingly vacuous take on the mini-genre, bereft of anything resembling wonder or pathos.
There’s likely a good reason for this. Aiming at a new generation of dino-obsessed youngsters, it aims fairly low, likely since the content here is primarily intended as a distraction tool for tots planted in front of the TV. I can’t speak to the quality of the Korean original, which for all I know may have been a passion project for director Han Sang-Ho, but the mixture of blocky CG dinos stomping around splendid real-world landscapes doesn’t make for the most pleasing visual palette. The fewer the amount of creatures ambling about on-screen, the more this resembles a watchable film; more intense moments, such as a roaring stampede, only exacerbate the chunky limitations of the animation.
This issue is minor compared to the narration which emerges from the mouth of our hero, affectionately known as Speckles, the only speaking entity in a world of mute, lumbering monsters. This choice might make sense as internal monologue, but his mouth also flaps to indicate speech, which furthers the feeling of a cutesy Disney creation supplanted into an otherwise realistically focused simulation. Again, this is nothing compared to the drivel that mouth produces; while the spectacle of Speckles observing his surroundings isn’t inherently off-putting, the mix of wide-eyed astonishment and aw-shucks folksiness which defines those observations is supremely grating.
Even more grotesque is the creepy mixture of bloodlust and family values that emits from this sunny demeanor, as the tiny dino cheers on his mother and siblings on their way to a series of relatively bloodless, but still brutal, kills. The story properly kicks off after his family is killed, partially by that underwhelming stampede, partially due to the bloodlust of an evil, one-eyed Tyrannosaurus rex, who seems to be violating some unspoken law of the jungle by targeting other carnivores. The assignment of binary good-and-evil values onto wild beasts is a common kid’s movie trope, and it doesn’t seem like a major offense considering the egregious anthropomorphism already occurring, but The Dino King clearly aims for its young audiences’ edification, and it’s good animals versus bad animals dynamic isn’t exactly helpful for shaping a child’s view of how nature operates.
Basically, this pushes the same mixture of instructional, educational material sweetened up with adventure tale thrills, a form that’s existed since at least the 19th century, updated here only in terms of animation, which apparently borrows from the technology that produced Avatar. The focus on animation as a selling point is the primary issue here, since the movie’s budget seems to have been spent entirely on this one element, leaving us with the script and voicework quality of an early-morning Disney channel rerun. Grandeur is again reached for in a series of thundering battles, would-be triumphant moments scored with ripoffs of John Williams’ Jurassic Park score. The centrality of these smash-em-up melees, conducted with all the forethought and gravitas of a sleepy child playing on the carpet, pinpoints the film’s other big flaw. Great kids’ movies are transportive, aiming to inspire wonder through ingenuous staging and novel scenarios, which teach lessons about the world while providing genuine thrills. Cheap fodder like this instead succeeds only at lulling kids into a somnolent, dead-eyed haze, cultivating couch-potato-hood while providing the barest glimmer of informational content to salve their busy parents’ consciences.