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The BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs was an undeniable hit across the globe. When the ABC network screened the episodes in Australia a couple of years back the home video and DVD copies took off like a rocket. Admittedly I hadn’t even heard of the documentary at that time but once I realised how many people were raving about the realism and depth of the series there was no hesitation in picking it up on our favourite format. To continue this quality account of the world’s living history the BBC continued along the timeline and brought us Walking With Beasts which picks up where the dinosaurs left off. Once the big reptilian monsters were wiped out a new social order existed on planet earth. This six-part series shows us exactly how everything panned out.

The Series

As the inside cover states, the producers of this series had to narrow down their focus a little to document the mammals with which they had the most detailed and accurate records. They finally settled on handful of beasts for each of the six episodes, attempting to create the slickest and most visually stunning record of life after the dinosaur era. I’m not even going to attempt to spell the names of some of these creatures so we’ll just have to settle for a short description.

Episode One: New Dawn

The first episode details exactly how the beasts became kings of the world once that famous asteroid wiped out basically every animal over ten kilograms. In true documentary fashion the voiceover adds the vital pieces of information to accompany the truly stunning visuals. The New Dawn obviously refers to the restructuring following the extinction of the dinosaurs, with smaller mammals trying to survive amongst their predators. The first of the hunters to be introduced are the giant birds that preyed upon the smaller mammals all those years ago. Like a lot of other animals we will witness over the series these guys do look quite peculiar but they are certainly adept at catching their food. There is also a water-based hunter that looks like a combination between a frog and a crocodile. The highlight, however, is one of the groups of small animals becoming a little drunk after eating some grapes off the ground. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. A great introduction to the new era.

Episode Two: Whale Killer

This episode shows us a new monster of the deep blue sea and the beginning of what was known as “climate chaos”. And early in the peace we are treated to a beast that looks like a rhino comically scratching his bum on a tree.

A predatory whale is the focus in this piece, measuring a massive eighteen metres in length. We see their mating ritual, which is a little difficult considering their size. Thanks to some tiny little legs they manage to stay together and do the deed. But the fact of these creature lies in the hands of the sea gradually freezing in the Antarctic. A brilliant look at the fall of early marine life.

Walking With Beasts

Episode Three: Land Of Giants

The weather has become highly seasonal, which has not only shaped the land but also the mammals that live on it. This is the survival of the meanest beasts, as we witness the earliest ancestor of the common pig. And believe me, the pig we know now looks like a house pet compared to these menacing creatures. There is also an enormous animal related closely to the rhino who is protected from predators due to their size and also able to go without food and water for days. Drama unfolds as a mother chases away her own calf in order to have another child. Heartbreaking stuff.

Episode Four: Next Of Kin

This is our first look at the mammals closely resembling humans all those years ago. They were our ancestors. There are also many familiar species of beasts roaming the earth, namely the rhino and a sabre-toothed cat. But it’s the apes that are of interest in this episode, walking upright and proving that these animals carried the earliest traits of modern humans. There are signs of social order, with an all-conquering loud female and an orphaned young one who is feeling more than a little out of the loop. Very interesting indeed.

Episode Five: Sabre Tooth

The terror birds rule no longer, thanks to the evolution of an even fiercer predator; the sabre-toothed cat. The voiceover states that there is no such thing as a sabre-toothed tiger, with this name going down with the koala bear as one of societies incorrect names for an animal. Half-tooth is the leader of the pack in this episode, which documents the battle between rival cats who are fighting for a prized piece of land. A relative of the armadillo also makes an appearance, equivalent to the size of a car. The best bit is the tension as the cats stalk their prey. Will they succeed? Take a look and find out.

Episode Six: Mammoth Journey

The sixth and last episode in the series looks at possibly the greatest beast in history; the mammoth. We are taken to life only 30,000 years ago, where mammoths rule the frosty landscape. One poor old beast gets stuck in the ice, with its mates doubling back to help out their trapped friend. Unfortunately the scavengers circle and the inevitable is just around the corner. Humans are present finally, with their simple clothing and resourceful nature. Even the flies get in on the act, with the first form of Aeroguard being invented! The rhino fight is pretty humorous, considering neither of the combatants actually touch each other at all. The highlight is the mud slinging by the mammoths in order to get rid of the insects. Or is it just for fun? A top way to finish off a wonderful series.

You really couldn’t get more comprehensive than this. There was scope for a little more detail on some of the other beasts during the period but as mentioned earlier the filmmakers were limited by the amount of detail they had on each animal. This is a great learning tool for anyone interested in this type of history. The narration is spot on and doesn’t intrude on the action, letting the brilliant visuals tell most of the story. If you thought Walking With Dinosaurs was good then Beasts is just as effective.

Walking With Beasts

Video

The combination of live footage, animatronics and CG imagery could not be more stunning. The ability of the filmmakers to combine these methods into one realistic look at a world millions of years ago is brilliant. Presented in 1.85:1 and 16:9 enhanced, the transfer does the utmost justice to the visually stunning content. Every hair, every cut, every bump is visible on all of the beasts throughout the program, with attention to detail obviously the highest priority. The images are at times a little soft but this probably helps with blending the CG parts of the picture into the surroundings.

The only major gripe is that the night scenes exhibit a large amount of grain. This may have been an aesthetic choice on behalf of the filmmakers but it is still a bit of a distraction considering the day scenes are incredibly sharp and vibrant. Trying to make sense of the action amongst the grain is a bit of a test, but thankfully there are only a few night scenes in the whole series that have this very minor problem.

On the whole I don’t think you could have asked for a better looking documentary. Granted, most of the credit in terms of visual quality must go to the animators but the transfer certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Audio

The disc comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack that does the job quite well. No negative issues at all to report, with Kenneth Branagh’s narration very clear throughout. The music is composed by Ben Bartlett (who also worked on Dinosaurs) and the orchestral sounds really do fit the visuals quite well, particularly during the more dramatic scenes. Overall a good effort that never needed to be anything groundbreaking.

Extras

Disc Two is where the extras are held, with two 50-minute featurettes the main highlight. The first, entitled Triumph Of The Beasts, looks at the making of this awesome series. Initially the mini-documentary covers some of the information revealed in the main series but it soon shifts the focus towards exactly how the filmmakers went about recreating this ancient world. There are numerous shots detailing the techniques used to make the beasts look realistic, from human controlled puppets to computer models to a guy in really big shoes stomping along the snow to create mammoth footprints. There are also a number of interviews with various experts who give the audience an insight into exactly how they gathered the large amounts of information on the various mammals. They tell us how teeth played a big part in figuring out the behaviour and look of the animals, for example. All in all a very interesting featurette that goes even deeper into the world of the mammals and looks the making of the series extremely well.

The second major featurette, The Beasts Within, fills in the one whole in the whole production; exactly how the humans evolved. The primates are predictably the main focus as the documentary takes us way back to the early stages and through to the extinction of the giant mammals. There is also a faint suggestion that there could be another series on the way. If it’s anything like the previous two installments we are in for another treat.

Walking With Beasts

Also included on the disc are production interviews with the key people behind the project which are quite interesting on the whole, beast fact files that give more details on each of the mammals detailed during the series, pretty average storyboards and a great looking photo gallery with shots from throughout the episodes. Not a bad package on the whole.

Overall

Just like Walking With Dinosaurs, Beasts is a great account of life all those years ago. It is so interesting to see what was happening on our planet back then and how things can change over time. One can only imagine the things that went on but with series’ such as these we are able to get a much more accurate and informed picture of the animals and landscapes of earth after the dinosaurs were wiped out. The visual quality is extremely good thanks to some talented animators and a high quality transfer, the audio is faultless and the extras package accompanies the main series to great effect. If you were a fan of the dinosaur version then this will be right up your alley. If not then I still strongly urge you to take a look at this highly entertaining account of some of earth’s biggest and brightest beasts. Brilliant.


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