The BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs was surreal at times.
Beautifully computer-generated and based on the best guesses of palaeontologists on dinosaur behaviour, it brought monolithic beasts to life in a way that had never truly been attempted before.
The series examined likely behaviours, and set dinosaurs in the environment they would have explored, recreating the battles and struggles that could have formed part of their lives, and topped it all off with some Attenborough-light commentary from Kenneth Branagh.
What a screen can’t do, however, is give a sense of imposing scale and physical melodrama whilst shooting through 200 million years of earth’s history.
The Arena Spectacular version of Walking With Dinosaurs has been touring since 2007, undergoing several iterations and improvements along the way, and is aimed at more than just fans of the TV series.
We grabbed a preview of the show when it landed in Belfast earlier this year, and found Michaela Strachan, an iconic nature TV presenter, in charge of the storytelling aspect of the drama.
Strachan is the sole human ‘character’, and plays the role of a palaeontologist heading back in time, uncovering the progression of dinosaurs through history, and explaining a little of their existence as the life-sized beasts roam the stage before your eyes.
Her commentary comes across as authentically wondrous, and she heavily interacts, leaping around the arena in her rimmed hat as she dodges dinosaurs’ interest, or hiding behind rocks to give whispered commentary as youngsters emerge delicately from eggs.
It’s the lumbering mechanical side of the show that’s the main draw, however, and it is startlingly impressive, drawing gasps as the bigger animals emerge onto the stage from behind the curtains that hide them.
The dinosaurs span the eras, and you’ll meet familiar favourites in the Stegosaurus and the T-rex, the Iguanodon and the Allosaurus, as well as some lesser known beasts.
All are true to scale, with some of the slow-moving herbivores stretching towards the rafters, while the more rapid carnivores are imposing and aggressive.
There are tiny hatching eggs, battles over food, and interaction with a fast-changing territory, before the late-era beasts meet a dramatic end.
The larger dinosaurs move on wheels, set on large bases that ‘walk’ their legs in broad, sweeping movements. They strut, seemingly independently, across the ground.
At times they’re surrounded by a plethora of detailed small dinosaurs played by actors, who are able to leap and frolic at higher speeds.
The whole thing sounds like it should provide a few minutes of entertainment at most, but it runs deeper.
It’s brilliantly scripted, has eked out a plotline that’s a good mix of entertaining and educational, and wows with both its detail and its scale. Overall, the concept far out does the various other dinosaur shows that have toured recently.
You could dismiss something like this as a kid’s show, and it certainly does hold a lot of appeal for children fixated with ancient lumbering lizards.
What impressed us most is that it’s also surprisingly strong on the more grown-up entertainment: there’s light comedy, a nice flow to the storyline, and the scale and detail of the dinosaurs is really quite impressive.
Not your typical Christmas entertainment, perhaps, but a genuinely memorable show with lots of educational detail, and a chunky, imaginative roar into the holiday season.
Walking With Dinosaurs runs for six shows at the 3Arena right before Christmas, on December 21, 22 and 23. Tickets start at €38.50.