One of the grand old adventures, trotted out yet again.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “The Lost World” in 1912 and the tale about Professor Challenger and his trip to the Amazon in search of dinosaurs has proved to be a popular source for film and television ever since. The first film version was 1925’s The Lost World starring Wallace Beery (as Challenger), Lewis Stone, and Bessie Love. For many years only available in a truncated 65-minute version, this triumph of special effects (for the time) by Willis O’Brien has recently been restored to a fuller 91-minute version. Newly filmed but inferior versions followed in 1960 and 1992. Then the whole Jurassic Park bandwagon seemed to galvanize producers into action and since 1998, we’ve had three different versions appear, one filmed effort in 1998 starring Patrick Bergen as Professor Challenger, and two made-for-television efforts in 1999 and 2001. The latter was an ambitious BBC production filmed in widescreen in New Zealand, starring Bob Hoskins as Challenger. It was also shown on A&E in the United States. A&E has now released the film on DVD in a two-disc box set.
Professor George Challenger is convinced that dinosaurs still roam a remote plateau area of the Amazon and he is able to mount an expedition to investigate. Accompanying him upon his departure from London are scientist Professor Leo Summerlee, explorer Lord John Roxton, and newspaper reporter Edward Malone. When the group stops at a small mission in the Amazon, it is joined by Reverend Theo Kerr and his ward, Agnes Clooney. Armed with an old map drawn by a Father Mendoz who had claimed to have found the dinosaurs, the expedition finds the plateau and manages to get to its top after a perilous journey. There they discover all they had hoped for and more — dinosaurs, a resident Indian tribe, and strange manlike apes who are the Indians’ enemies — and they find themselves embroiled in a struggle for survival amongst the three groups.
There’s a lot to like in this BBC adaptation of the Conan Doyle story. Let’s dispense with any concern over the length to start with. Yes, this is over two and a half hours long, but the time is well utilized by veteran British television director Stuart Orme. Much of the first half is used to develop the characters and the relationships between them, providing a firm basis for the more action-oriented second half. I never felt that the material was padded just for the sake of filling a time slot. Part of the reason for Orme’s success is the simple fact that the characters, although they seem a little like stereotypes now, are quite interesting in their own right and provide some effective contrasts one to another. The addition of two characters to Conan Doyle’s original story (the reverend Kerr and his ward Agnes) works well and enhances this diversity.
Due to the fact that we have seen the film’s basic situation played out numerous times in other films, the cast has to work hard to create memorable portrayals and for the most part they are successful. Bob Hoskins plays Professor Challenger and does a fine job of anchoring the whole story even if he is perhaps not the really truculent character of the book. In fact, there’s an element more of gruff teddy bear in Hoskins’s portrayal than anything else, but he is so obviously enthusiastic about it all, that it’s easy to forgive. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen James Fox do a bad job in a film role, and his Leo Summerlee is no exception. He captures well the dismissive air of the plodding scientist who won’t accept the possibility of anything that might disturb his cozy scientific world. When he is finally confronted with actual dinosaurs, the sense of wonder on his face is amazing. Tom Ward is perhaps a little young to project in Lord Roxton a suitable air of gravitas, but he does avoid making the character too smug and overbearing. Matthew Rhys does an effective job of transforming Edward Malone from a young reporter completely out of his element to a figure of some weight and maturity by the story’s end. Peter Falk and Elaine Cassidy as Kerr and Agnes respectively are more than adequate.
The overall production has a professional look and an air of having had some real money spent on it, while the location work in New Zealand is certainly a strong selling point. Obviously, special effects are an important component of this film and although they’re not as polished-looking as some of the efforts on big-screen contemporaries, they do the job just fine. The dinosaur sequences are a combination of CGI and animatronics that are well-integrated, but the apemen creations are less compelling — looking too much like what they are, people with artificial facial appliances and make-up. Still, taken in the spirit of the whole exercise, they in no way spoil the film’s overall effect.
A&E’s DVD release presents the film divided into two parts as it was shown on television, each an hour and 23 minutes long. Given that the second part repeats footage from the first part, that adds up to about 160 minutes — far from the 200 minutes quoted on the packaging. The disc delivers a crisp, clear transfer that would be very pleasing indeed except for one important detail. The company advertises its DVD release as a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, which would be appropriate since that’s how the film was originally shot. Unfortunately, the disc contains instead an unacceptable pan and scan full frame transfer which is what A&E used when it aired the film on television for North American audiences. The transfer is doubly unacceptable given that it is available in other regions in a widescreen anamorphic version.
The same type of deficiency also crops up in the disc’s sound. We get a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix that is adequate so far as it goes. But once again, other regions have received a 5.1 mix that reportedly does much better justice to the action scenes. There are no subtitles and no closed captioning is available.
The supplementary material is contained on a separate disc. The best item is a 90-minute History Channel documentary entitled “Dinosaur Secrets Revealed.” It’s a very interesting program that details our current understanding about dinosaurs and particularly the changes in our conceptions of them over the past century and a half. A number of respected scientists provide insight through interviews in-studio as well as in the field. Less interesting is a 21-minute making-of documentary that is not particularly illuminating beyond a typical studio puff piece. All the principal actors are interviewed, some location shooting is shown, and the special effects work is covered, but there’s not much depth and it’s rather disorganized. The disc concludes with brief biographies but full filmographies for Bob Hoskins and Peter Falk (why not James Fox?), and a biography/bibliography for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Note: the documentaries add up to about 111 minutes of content, not the 125 minutes listed on the packaging.)
The 2001 version of The Lost World is actually quite a nice effort in terms of production values, cast, and story. Unfortunately, A&E has botched the DVD release. It has failed to deliver the widescreen, anamorphic transfer that other region releases have contained, and it has compounded the error by advertising its region 1 release as if it has. The release also lacks the 5.1 sound track that has been made available elsewhere. Further sloppy work is evident in the incorrect program times listed on the packaging. Even the keep cases are different — one is an Alpha, the other an Amaray.