MOVIE REVIEW | “Flying Monsters 3D”: High times with David Attenborough

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The documentary Flying Monsters 3D is clearly meant to impress us with just how crazy things used to be back in the Cretaceous Period, but given that immediately previous to seeing the film I was hanging out in a near-empty IMAX theater in a St. Paul suburb at 9 a.m., eating Dippin’ Dots, wearing 3D glasses, and listening to “Copacabana,” giant flying carnivorous lizards seemed about par for the course.

The film is advertised as being “with David Attenborough,” but I wasn’t prepared for just how “with” him it is. There we were swooping through a computer-generated Triassic rainforest when hello! There’s our host, still extolling the wonders of the natural world at age 86 and as comfortable with CGI dinosaurs as you’d expect from a man whose brother starred in Jurassic Park. Later in the film, Attenborough—who also wrote the script—watches bones assemble themselves and a wire-frame dino pop out of his computer screen to perch on a coat tree. As they do.

Flying Monsters 3D, which was originally created as the first 3D documentary to be screened on British television, is about as good as it gets for hour-long Omni/IMAX infotainments. The film manages to capture a sense of beauty and wonder, with almost lyrical moments such as a flock of early pterosaurs flying in a circle as they lunch on a swarm of insects, while also communicating with impressive lucidity a considerable amount of information about the origins and evolution of pterosaurs. A central focus of the film is on the evolution of the pterosaurs’ on-the-ground walking ability—which sounds (a) really boring and (b) beside the point, but it turns out to be unexpectedly fascinating. I mean, really, did you ever even think about how pterodactyls walked?

Like the superhero movie, the big-screen nature documentary is often done, but rarely done well—and almost never, in my experience (which, including ten-plus years working at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is not inconsiderable), done this well. Just as The Avengers arrived to show moviegoers how a superhero movie can be done right, we now have Flying Monsters 3D to demonstrate, irrespective of its hyperbolic title, how education and entertainment can be elegantly, even thrillingly, wed.

Flying Monsters 3D opens May 25 at the Great Clips IMAX. Put this flick at the top of your list for a beat-the-heat summertime escape, with or without the kids.