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The Late Cretaceous Leaps to Life in Walking With Dinosaurs

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Contrary to expectations, Walking With Dinosaurs is not another Rolling Stones documentary. Rather, this meticulously-researched production is based on the BBC's popular documentary miniseries (narrated by Kenneth Branagh), given new life as a family-friendly adventure, directed by Neil Nightingale (of BBC Earth) and Barry Cook (Sarah Smith's co-director on Aardman-Sony's rather brilliant Arthur Christmas).

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Truly a global effort, with real-world backgrounds filmed in Alaska and New Zealand, and animation from Animal Logic (the Australian crew behind George Miller's grand Happy Feet), Walking With Dinosaurs (the new film) was scripted by novelist John Collee (also Happy Feet) -- with some character voice-over added to create a unique hybrid not seen since Disney's 2000 Dinosaur: a scientifically-astute yet wild and fun romp. This story of three itinerant Pachyrhinosauruses (Pachyrhinosauri?) is bookended by current-day segments featuring Karl Urban (Almost Human), and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.

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Hollywood edges ever nearer the real thing.

Walking With Dinosaurs also includes Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk." Filmmakers, here's a holiday secret for you: put that song in your movie, you automatically raise my thumb. Boom. That simple.

Stretching this segue way past the laws of physics, last week, just across the street from the University of Southern California (known for its marching band, which played on "Tusk"), the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles -- an astounding place -- played host to an elegant, educational, and intermittently terrifying Walking With Dinosaurs launch event. Along with throngs of second-graders and a roaming, roaring Gorgosaurus, we discussed dinos with Tiya Sircar (who voices dinosaur "Juniper"), Skyler Stone (who voices tough-guy dino Scowler), and John Leguizamo (who narrates and voices Alex the Alexornis: a prehistoric Mexican bird).

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Tiya Sircar points out her character.

Ms. Sircar is cute as a button. She has pondered becoming an archeologist and/or paleontologist, so I ask her about her past experiences with dinosaurs -- including the scary ones.

"The scariest one was obviously the T-Rex -- that's what I knew about before. Now it's the Gorgosaurus, which is extremely frightening." She reflects: "I think I really loved Brontosauruses when I was a kid: because they were herbivores, lovely, regal creatures." (Hey, I can relate.)

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Skyler (left) and Tiya (right) meet a Gorgosaurus (center)

I ask Tiya how she prepares to be a dinosaur: is there a Stanislavsky thing? She laughs good-naturedly.

"That would be an interesting process! No, it was really just fun -- and it was a little bit backwards, in that the movie was already animated. Normally, you voice the character, and they animate to you, but this was the reverse. It was kind of amazing: we got to go in and watch the movie in front of our eyes, and add the voices. I was a fan before I ever voiced the character."

And what's the distinction between looping (replacing dialogue) for herself -- and for a Pachyrhinosaurus?

"You can be in your pajamas." Tiya laughs again. "I was never in my pajamas -- I missed that opportunity. But I could have been! And you're playing a creature, so you have the freedom to play, and have no inhibitions -- you don't have to look good doing it, you don't have to cry on command. It's just fun, so it was a great experience."

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Sucks to be this guy (presumably)

Skyler Stone -- soon to be seen in social-media-prank show Follow Skyler -- voices Justin Long's surly older-brother Pachyrhinosaurus, Scowler, and also proves enthusiastic when I ask him about the role.

"Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time," posits Mr. Stone. "People have to know your work, and know your abilities. But I literally was on the Fox lot, auditioning for another movie, when the casting director for this movie walked by and said, 'Skyler! What are you doing tomorrow?' I was like: 'Whatever you say I'm doing. You need me to do a backflip? Take my clothes off? What are we doing?'

"They just said, 'It's a big-budget animated movie, they want you to come in, test you out.' I had to go in and earn it. There were probably bigger names that could have gotten it. So I had to go in there and show them what I was worth. I just did it as passionately as I could. Even as I was reading lines, I had no clue what the title of the movie was, nor did I know it was based on a hugely internationally-famous show."

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Skyler voices Scowler; Tiya voices Juniper

Over the course of many sessions, Skyler persevered, and prevailed. "About a month later, I got the call: 'They're gonna keep you. You're in the movie.' And finally I knew what it was!"

I ask about voicing a beast known to us only by fossil records. (No, not Brian Jones.) Skyler is ready:

"I was very lucky, in that the character isn't too far from a lot of my personality traits. So I didn't have to go too far. I just made a little more -- no pun intended -- animated version of myself." (Sounds intended, man.)

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An intern? Skyler answers to the next-next generation.

But what of childhood dinosaur memories, Mr. Stone?

"I'm not even kidding," replies Skyler. "When I was a kid, and I found out there were dinosaurs, and then you find out they were 70 million years ago -- not 70 thousand; 70 million -- you start to feel kind of small. You feel like a speck of dust! You start going: 'What am I? I never had a big tail' -- I'd love a tail, by the way; wouldn't that be sweet, to have a tail? Seriously. Just whip people. -- but you do feel small. You start going, 'we are really part of a larger theme.' And you also definitely feel -- I personally believe in God -- and you definitely feel like somebody has designed this whole place."

I lean otherwise, but I give the talent their time. Skyler elaborates:

"You know how I know God's real? Horses and seahorses -- they look exactly alike: that's how you know God's real. I mean, seriously. He's winking at us there, he's like, 'I'm gonna give you little horses, in the water!'"

As if summoned specifically to prove the existence of an all-powerful Maker, the John Leguizamo appears. Actually, I've already overheard him mentioning that he based his prehistoric Latin-American bird voice (the aforementioned Alexornis) on Ricardo Montalbán, thus I prepare some glib Khan-vs.-Mr.-Roarke-vs.-Zantigo-Tacos line, but he deftly diverts to the late Mr. Montalbán's rico-suave "Corinthian leather" Chrysler Cordoba commercial voice.

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John Leguizamo and . . . Gorgonzola? No. Wait. Gorgosaurus.

"This is my first period piece, I guess," declares Mr. Leguizamo -- to which I promptly respond: "Toulouse-Latrec!"

"Oh, yeah-yeah, true that," John acknowledges (of his role in Baz Luhrmann's, and Fox's, Moulin Rouge). "Thank you. You remembered. Yeah, that was late-1800s. This is a little earlier. But yeah, you've got to really believe you're that character. You've got to get into the mindset, and you've got to do the physicality -- that's my secret for doing a better voice. If I'm running, I'll run in the room. If I'm choking, I'll choke myself. That kind of stuff."

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John Leguizamo voices Alex

I ask John to go back to his childhood--

"What are you, my therapist?" he counters.

I ask the handlers if there's an accessible couch.

"That's different," Mr. Leguizamo opines. "I don't know where you're going with that couch."

Back off, man. I'm a journalist.

"That's the crazy thing about it," concedes John. "I guess that's why we really love dinosaurs, because they're the real monsters. Everything else is mythological, or invented -- but they were real."

Taking this as a cue, I meander at a leisurely pace through the Natural History Museum, eventually happening upon Dr. Luis Chiappe, Head of Research and Collections -- plus he advised on Walking With Dinosaurs (especially on the Alexornis bird). I assertively ask him about feathers. Kind of like the instantaneous emergence of totally made-up things like "gluten" and "twerking" and "health care," it seems like feathers on dinosaurs are suddenly all the rage. What's up with that? Mere speculation?

"Not a lot of speculation," Dr. Chiappe informs me. "We have a tremendous amount of evidence indicating that meat-eating dinosaurs were feathered. And we have a couple of fossils in which feathers have been preserved. For some of the very large ones, like T-Rex, it may be difficult to say. Most likely, juvenile T-Rex was feathered. But we do have plenty of evidence that feathers did not evolve with the birds -- they were inherited by the birds from their meat-eating-dinosaur ancestors."

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Dr. Luis Chiappe (right) and fierce feathered friend

In closing, I ask what Walking With Dinosaurs does to improve upon previous Hollywood dinosaur movies.

"Obviously the technology is so good -- you get this phenomenal animation. It tells a story that's new, in that we've recently learned of the life at the poles, of some of these animals. It all plays out in Alaska, and we know that many dinosaurs lived in those environments, within the polar circle. The climate of course was different, and a lot warmer than today -- but still chilly, as the movie portrays it.

"I think the movie's very accurate," Dr. Chiappe assures me. "They did a great job of putting together a group of experts who commented on the creatures -- I was one of them -- and essentially provided feedback about their look, their behavior, their environment, different situations, the scenery. Obviously the script is made for a family audience, but I think the film is going to be a big success, and it's going to do what we want a film like this to do -- which is to inspire."

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Walking With Dinosaurs opens this Friday.

Movie stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Walking With Dinosaurs official website

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles official website