Cinema's Greatest Dinosaurs
With LAND OF THE LOST opening today, I was thinking of doing a list of “Top Ten Dinosaur Movies,” until I realized that unearthing ten such titles would take more effort than mounting a major paleological expedition. In order to spare myself the struggle of rounding out a list of ten, I considered revising the title to “Hollywood’s Greatest Dinosaur” movies, but that risked resulting in the shortest article every written. The sad fact is that there are few good – let alone great – dinosaur movies. Too often, the special effects outweigh the stories and acting, leaving little to enjoy besides the spectacle of rampaging reptiles.
But when you stop and think about it, what more do you need? Dinosaurs are among cinema’s biggest stars. The very sight of them – when achieved with technical competence and some style – is more than enough to stir our Sense of Wonder. With that in mind, my list will work on the theory that great dinosaur movies consist of movies featuring great dinosaurs, regardless of the overall quality of the films.
I covered many dinosaur titles in The History of Prehistoric Movies, which focused on films set in the past. In order to avoid too much duplication, I will emphasize films featuring dinosaurs that have survived into the present day. So if it seems as if films like ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. are being short-changed, just click through on the link to the older article to see these films get their due consideration.
THE LOST WORLD (1925). This silent film, based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, is the first feature-length movie to showcase stop-motion dinosaurs. (One showed up briefly in Buster Keaton’s 1923 comedy THE THREE AGES.). The special effects by Willis O’Brien (who went on to do KING KONG) are crude by today’s standards, but they still have a certain charm that makes them endearing. When it’s captured brontosaurs escapes into the streets of London, the film establishes the tradition of a rampaging prehistoric beast on the loose in a modern city – a plot device that would recur many times thereafter. There were several remakes, usually using lizards or rubber suits instead of stop-motion. A 2001 version for BBC used computer-generated imagery to good effect.
KING KONG (1933). The giant ape is the star of the show, but Willis O’Brien’s menagerie of prehistoric monsters gives him a run for his money – including a brontosaurus, a stegosaurus, a pteranodon, and an elasmosaur. The dino-highlight of the film has to be Kong’s battle with a T-Rex (seen at the top of this page), which is one of the great fight scenes ever recorded on film. Overall, the stop-motion effects have improved noticeably over THE LOST WORLD. They may not be completely convincing in the sense of being “realistic,” but they establish their own style, perfectly suited for the film’s fantastic storyline. The 1976 remake featured no dinosaurs, just a giant snake. The 2005 version had some great dinosaurs, but ruined the impact with some ridiculously over-the-top sequences.
FANTASIA (1940). Disney’s medly of animated sequences set to classical music includes “The Rights of Spring,” which depict primitive prehistoric life, including some wonderful dinosaurs. In a grim sequence backed by Stravinsky’s powerful music, a stegasaurus falls prety to an allosaurus. Pretty dark and grizzly stuff for Disney.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) features Raquel Welch and great stop-motion dinosaurs by Ray Harryhausen, one-time protoge of Willis O’Brien. (Covered in The History of Prehistoric Movies)
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). Ray Harryhausen is back, this time with a dinosaur who survives into modern times in a hidden valley, until some ranch hands find him and bring him back to civilization, putting him on display like a circus act. Inevitably, the allosaurus breaks free and mayhem ensues. As usual, Harryhausen’s stop-motion work is technically excellent, and he brings some style to the creature, giving it as much personality as a ravenous reptile can muster. As usual, the movie itself is weak, serving only as a showcase for the title character – who is worth the price of admission.
WHEN DINOSARUS RULES THE EARTH (1971). A follow-up to ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., this time with stop-motion dinosaurs provided by Jim Danforth. Lots of great special effects in this one. (Covered in The History of Prehistoric Movies)
CAVEMAN (1981). Starring Ringo Starr, this one is played for laughs, but Dave Allens’ special effects are actually very good, especially when it comes to combining human actors with the dinosaurs. The T-Rex in this one is far from fearsome, but he is well suited to the comic tone, especially when he eats some berries that give him a buzz. In fact, the dino’s comic “performance” comes close to stealing the show.
MY SCIENCE PROJECT (1985). In this comedy science fiction film, about a kid who’se high school project goes wrong, there is a brief scene in which a time warp places a T-Rex in the school gymnasium. Achieved with rod puppet effects, this is one of the most convincing uses of the technique to depict a dinosaur – in part because the cramped location prevents the dinosaur from moving very much, thus hiding the limitations of the technique.
THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988). Former Disney animator Don Bluth directed this prehistoric tale of talking dinosaurs searching for a safe valley. This is a very good family film with cute characters that appeal to children and also some reasonably adult story-telling. The death of the lead character’s mother – at the claws and teeth of a T-Rex – is harrowing without being explicit. There were several direct-to-video sequels, none of them memorable.
JURASSIC PARK (1993). This is the film in which computer-generated imagery replaced stop-motion as the best way to breathe life into the extinct animals known as dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg’s film version of Michael Crichton’s novel was widely derided at the time of its release, but it still holds up over sixteen years later thanks to its great special effects and the suspense the director achieves. The film also introduced a new dino-star – the Velociraptor – who for the first time challenged the T-Rex’s crown as the all-time most valuable dinosaur – until Rexy puts him in his place in the spectacular finale. This is probably the best dinosaur movie ever made (depending on whether or not you count KING KONG as a dinosaur movie). The sequels, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK and JURASSIC PARK III, cant take a bite out of the original.
DINOSAUR (2000). Disney is at it again, this time with using computer-generated animation instead of the old hand-inked technique of FANTASTIA. Like THE LAND BEFORE TIME, this features talking dinosaurs, but here they are rendered with special effects that make them almost lifelike, in spite of their dialogue and human emotions. Another nice touch is that the backgrounds are all live-action plates, not drawings. The result is not quite a total success, but the opening sequence (of a mammal’s egg being stole from its nest and dropped into a dinosaur’s nest) is a breath-taking piece of cinema.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006). Perhaps the most memorable image of this comedy, starring Ben Stiller as a night watchman in a museum, is the sight of a T-Rex skeleton that comes to life. The special effects perfectly captures the initial thrill of fear that turns to relief when Stiller’s character realizes the Rex merely wants to play fetch with one of its own bones.
LAND OF THE LOST (2009). After seeing this film, I had to come back and add it to the list. Although too much of the comedy falls flat, the dino never disappoints. In fact, Grumpy the T-Rex is a real sceen-stealer. What’s really impresive is that, thanks to “Crash” McCreery’s designs and some great special effects, Grumpy really does look convincing and threatening when you first see him, but then without missing a beat, he turns into a comical character, getting at least as many laughs as the more overtly humorous Rex in CAVEMAN. The joke is that Grumpy loses interest in eating the humans and becomes more focused on avenging the insult he receives from Will Ferrell’s paleontologist, who derisively notes that the tyrannasaurs has a brain the size of a walnut (words that come back to haunt him when Grumpy leaves a humongous walnut for him to find).
MYTHICAL PREHISTORIC BEASTS
Lots of movie monsters claim to be dinosaurs, but we omitted the mythical ones from out list above. For those who are interested, here are some of the most notable movies featuring fictional dinosaurs, often revived in modern times by radioactivity.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). Ray Harryhausne’s rhedosaurus is a delightful on-screen monster, but you won’t find it in any paleontology book.
GODZILLA (1954). Japan’s answer to BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS features a creature (achieved with a man in a monster suit) that looks a bit like an upright T-Rex with plates on its back vaguely like a stegosaurus. And it’s way too big to be a real dinosaur.
THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959). Eugene Lourie, director of BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, offers a virtual remake, this time with Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen’s mentor, creating the stop-motion effects. The creature looks more or less like a brachiosaurus, but it appears to be carnivorous; it swims like a plesiosaur; and it emits radioactive waves as only a movie-monster can do.
GORGO (1961). Director Eugene Lourie offers up a third and final film about a giant prehistoric monster attacking a modern city. This upright-walking sea beastie is identified as a dinosaur in the dialogue, but it looks nothing like a real dinosaur.
Many other films have featured dinosaurs, but too often, Hollywood saved bucks by using cheap puppets, lizards in makeup, or men in suits. The films may have been entertaining in a juvenile way, but by offering discount dinosaurs, they lost their chance to top our list.
ONE MILLION B.C. (1940). This black-and-white effort, starring Victor Mature and Carol Landis, features “dinosaurs” that are actual reptiles with fins and horns glued on (the technique of live lizards had been pioneered in 1934’s THE SECRET OF THE LOCH). Sadly, this results in some all-too-real animal cruelty, when a juvenile alligator and a gila monster are allowed to tear into each other on camera.
THE LOST CONTINENT (1951). Cesar Romero and crew crash-land on an island with some cheap stop-motion dinosaurs, which receive little screen time.
KING DINOSAUR (1955). Astronauts land on a planet inhabited by an iguana pretending to be a T-Rex.
BEAST OF THE HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956). This film gets points for novelty by mxing dinosaurs with cowboys. The prehistoric beast is not seen until the end; achieved with stop-motion, it is is puppet-like, but there is a good sequence of the predator running.
THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957). Another trip to a lost world, this time inhabited by rubbery looking dinosaurs.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). In the tradtion of ONE MILLION B.C., some briefly glimpsed lizards and baby alligators pass for dinosaurs in the 1959 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The 2008 remake, starring Brendan Fraser, features a chase scene with a CGI Tyrannosaurus Rex that is pretty decent, and it had the added bonus of being in 3-D.
DINOSAURUS (1960). A T-Rex and a Brontosaurs are realized with passable stop-motion – pretty convincing if you’re a kid, but not when you see the film as an adult. Still, the fight scene between the Rex and a steam shovel is a good idea.
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1974). Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this features mechanical dinosaurs, some of them miniature, some of them full size. They don’t look too bad, but their limited movements give them away. The sequel THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT was much the same.
PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1977). Astronauts crash-land on a planet full of stop-motion dinosaurs. The effects are not bad, but they lack the Harryhausen touch.
BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND (1985). Based on real-life rumors about a surviving brontosaurus, this adventure film offers up mechanical dinosaurs with faces that are way too cute and anthropomorphic. It’s as if someone wanted the beasts to look like E.T.
CARNOSAUR (1993). Low-budget producer Roger Corman rips off JURASSIC PARK but instead of modern CGI, he utilizes old-fashioned mechanical dinosaurs, including a full-size T-Rex. The design and look are not too bad, but the movements are slow and sluggish. The same mechanical dinosaur reappeared in two sequels and in 1994’s DINOSAUR ISLAND.