There's nothing mini about lavish 'Dinotopia'

Everything we know about dinosaurs has an element of imagination in it, no matter how well informed it may be. Scientists have speculated about whether the creatures were warm- or cold-blooded, feathered or leathery-skinned. Hollywood has overdone the mayhem routine, showing the huge creatures toppling skyscrapers and smashing jeeps full of humans.

But why not let them walk and talk with humans in a peaceful island sanctuary? asked writer and National Geographic illustrator James Gurney a little more than a decade ago, when he began his well-known and well-loved "Dinotopia" books. He imagined an island where dinosaurs and humans coexist.

Now Robert Halmi, Hallmark Channel entrepreneur and TV magnate, brings this re-imagining of dinosaur evolution to TV in the most expensive ($85 million) mini, or "mega-series," as he calls it, yet seen on the small screen. The Wonderful World of Disney's presentation of "Dinotopia" airs Sunday, May 12 (7-9 p.m.), and Monday and Tuesday, May 13 and 14 (8-10 p.m.).

"There's nothing mini about this," says Mr. Halmi, the producer of the series, which took filmmakers to Thailand, South America, Britain, and Arizona. "To get audiences back [to watching miniseries], you have to restart the whole process and come up with something spectacular and something that only television can do."

Halmi rightly points out that feature films cannot tackle a six-hour project. "This is about the same amount of money that the first episode of 'Lord of the Rings' cost, and it's for television. I think this is the only way to get audiences back."

Ironically, Mr. Gurney, the author, who served as a consultant on the film, began his book with a special commitment to the written word.

"I deliberately set out to do the kind of pictures that could never be done in live action," he says. "So I chose the things that were the impossible ones, people riding creatures and large-scale water effects, which you can't do with miniatures. And I thought to myself, 'Here is something that will never happen in a live-action film. It will only be in a book."

Those were fighting words for producer Halmi, who has a reputation for tackling the impossible. That challenge was enough, he says, to make him buy the rights from Columbia Pictures. Fortunately for his ambition, technology has evolved as well. "It's only recently that the effects industry [can do] this story, not only on the big screen but on television," Gurney says.

Michael McGee, the special-effects producer who also created the dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park" and the Discovery Channel's recent multipart series on dinosaurs ("Walking with Dinosaurs"), says the "Dinotopia" project was a refreshing change for his team.

"The [digital] animators desperately wanted to get away from reality because we had been working with paleontologists and scientists for two years [finding out] what a dinosaur can accurately do," he says. "Dinotopia" let their imaginations run free.

"This was a chance for character animation and to do something to make dinosaurs talk, make them play table tennis, and all sorts of new challenges," he says.

Holding on to audiences who might expect a faithful rendition of the book may also be a challenge. Instead of the familiar tale of a shipwrecked Victorian-era father and son, the tale follows two modern boys who end up in Dinotopia after their small aircraft goes down over the ocean, with their father onboard.

Gurney, who did not write the screenplay, endorses the updated version. It picks up a century after the previous story line ended.

"The spirit is there," Gurney says. "I think it's really better for those who love the books to be able to watch a miniseries that has a new story.... "[It] allows one to experience this story entirely new and as if you're walking into the world for the first time."

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