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ABC premieres the final new fall series of the season, "Dinotopia" (8 and 9 tonight) on Thanksgiving Day. And to be perfectly honest, it was expected to be a turkey since the four-hour miniseries that aired in May was so dull and poorly acted it should have been named "Dinodopia."

Panned by critics, the miniseries achieved high-enough ratings for producer Robert Halmi to sell a series to ABC, a testament to the power of special effects and the allure of family programming.

The network, which is trying to return to its family roots, delayed the debut of "Dinotopia" by a couple of months - meaning "Dinotopia" smelled like a big-time loser. But guess what? Faster-paced, better cast and, with special effects that are often as great-looking as those on the miniseries, "Dinotopia" the series just may fly.

It's no threat to make Ross and Rachel or "Survivor" extinct in that time slot, but it just might grab the family audience ABC is seeking.

Filmed in Budapest, Hungary, the miniseries followed the exploits of competitive brothers Karl and David, who were castaways on a strange lost continent where dinosaurs and humans co-exist as long as sunstones keep the mean T-Rexes nonviolent.

The boys ended up on the continent when their wealthy father, Frank, crashed his private plane into the Caribbean. He was presumed dead, but was found alive by his busy boys at the end of the miniseries.

The actors who played the brothers in the miniseries were too old and dull and dad was nondescript, so in the new series, the brothers are younger and livelier. Erik von Detten ("The Princess Diaries") plays the more adventurous brother, Karl. Shiloh Strong plays the more responsible brother, David, who overcomes his fear of flying to become a Skybax pilot who helped save the continent. Marion, the beautiful young damsel whose heart the brothers are competing for, is played by Georgina Rylance.

Michael Brandon, an old character actor, comes aboard as dear old Dad, who desperately wants to get out of Paradise and resume his old life. Jonathan Hyde ("Titanic") is Marion's father, Mayor Waldo, the overseer of Dinotopia's breathtaking capital, Waterfall City. Sophie Ward ("Dracula") is Marion's mom, Rosemary.

And, Lisa Zane adds some spunk as the eventual leader of the renegade group called the Outsiders, which stirs things up in tonight's back-to-back episodes.

Since Karl summarizes the miniseries story line, the series isn't burdened by the need to explain how life goes on in Dinotopia, something that drowned out most of the suspense in the longer version. And, we also don't have to endure too many precious moments with the cute little dinosaurs, Zipeau and an infant named 26.

The script also has some contemporary and humorous touches. At one point, David tries to convince his dad that there is no way out of Dinotopia. His logic is impeccable - if anyone had escaped they would have sold their story to the movies and there would be action figures of the dinosaurs at a local fast food store.

If there is one minor cause for concern for parents of young children, it's that the first two episodes are scarier than the miniseries. That's partially because the series is fast-paced and also because there seem to be more action scenes per hour.

Still, it's not like you see anyone eaten alive. And since this is a regular series, you know that the main characters will be survivors.

In the end, parents watching with the children may feel a little like David and Karl's angry father. They might not want to be there initially, but they may grow to enjoy some aspects of Dinotopia more than a weekly visit to a fast food restaurant.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

NBC looks for the family crowd, too, on Friday, trotting out some network regulars in the first-ever made-for-television Muppet movie, "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" (8 p.m. Channel 2). It is passable entertainment, claiming to be a tribute and homage to "It's a Wonderful Life," "Scrooge" and other Christmas movies.

The plot finds a depressed Kermit the Frog in debt and about to lose the theater he dreamed of running to an evil, Scrooge-like banker (Joan Cusack). When Kermit wishes he hadn't lived, a nerdy angel (David Arquette) sent by his wise boss (Whoopi Goldberg) shows Kermit what the world would have been like for Miss Piggy and his friends if he hadn't lived.

To get NBC's commitment, Kermit's handlers apparently had to agree to promoting "Scrubs" (which NBC has been tirelessly doing all season) and Carson Daly. But at least the screenplay by Tom Martin ("The Simpsons," "Just Shoot Me") and Jim Lewis ("Muppets Tonight"), is allowed to take some shots at "Fear Factor" and other lamentable aspects of network television.

Besides Arquette, Goldberg and Joan Cusack, William H. Macy and Kelly Ripa make cameo appearances that are designed to keep parents interested. It isn't a very good movie or else you'd be paying $7 to see it. Rating: 2 1/2 stars


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