Oscar picks ten favourites starring prehistoric beasties. No points for guessing number one.
“Yeah, ooh! Aah! That’s how it starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.” – Ian Malcom
In anticipation of Jurassic World coming out on June 11th, I decided to look back on some of the best dinosaur films from the distant past as well as more recently. Despite not being as numerous as the high fantasy or spy thriller genres, or even as consistent in quality, they’re still highly entertaining and give you the dino action you crave. Some are pulpy entertainers and some are definitive classics, and I would recommend every one of them.
Fantasia: “Rite of Spring”
As much as I would love to place this in the top ten, the “Rite of Spring” sequence is only 22-minutes long and doesn’t constitute a full movie, but its stellar animation, sombre atmosphere, brilliantly-timed music, and immersive quality is enough to warrant a mention here. Unlike the lighter fare of Disney’s Dinosaur from 2000, this sequence is more abstract and atmospheric, as it tells the story of the Earth through visuals and music alone, successfully depicting the brutality of prehistoric life. It is a rare gem in modern dinosaur films. It also has one of the most iconic and savage dinosaur fight scenes in film history between a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus.
King Kong (2005)/Godzilla (2014)
I decided to bunch these two together because they share a lot in common with each other; both are modern remakes of monster classics, both have state-of-the-art visual effects, both are very true to the design and character of their respective monsters, and both have been criticised for being too long and/or boring. I personally enjoy both more than most, especially considering the excellent dinosaur scenes on Skull Island, from the Brontosaurus stampede to Kong’s three-way battle with the V-Rexes. And, of course, old Godzilla has never looked better thanks to Legendary’s stellar visualisation of the character, and his battle in the third act is a feast for the eyes. So, while they don’t live up to their preceding classics, as dinosaur films they qualify as fine entertainment, depending on your mileage and how much you want to fast-forward past the human characters.
10. The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
Based on the pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the story follows Doug McClure, a team of British sailors and the crew of a German submarine discovering the lost island of Caprona isolated in the Arctic Ocean. Surprisingly, the film manages to economise by not showing the dinosaurs often, instead relying on atmosphere and McClure’s charismatic performance. This cult favourite is certainly a strange viewing experience. Yes, the dinosaur effects are obviously puppets and models, but I respect its ambition probably more than I do the finished product. Still, the miniature effects for the submarine and the island itself are convincing, and McClure seems to be having fun fighting dinosaurs and Germans.
9. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
The first Ray Harryhausen film and a partial inspiration for Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms remains one of the best monster movies ever made. It builds up an atmosphere of mystery and threat in the first act, and by the time the monster shows up, the effects are solid and still mesmerise the audience thanks to the countless hours of work put in by Mr. Harryhausen. I’d even say it holds up better than more recent creature features. Even the script and the human cast are a cut above the usual standard for monster movies. While the creature may be too lizard-like to be a true carnivorous dinosaur, the Rhedosaurus is still an impressive-enough beast to warrant a place on this list.
8. One Million Years BC (1966)
One Million Years BC is not a very complex film. It’s essentially a love story between a Cave Man and a Cave Woman, and their struggle to survive in a harsh prehistoric landscape, as well as the distrust between their two tribes: one dark-haired, primitive and barbaric, and the other fair-haired, peaceful and more advanced. This is the second of Harryhausen’s dinosaur pictures, and his style is always fun to see on-screen, and even more so to see them interact with the human characters. The Cave Woman is played by Raquel Welch, who is instantly iconic in her fur bikini, and quite appealing if I do say so myself. The best dinosaur encounter is the battle between the Triceratops and a horned carnivore, a Ceratosaurus. As well as impressive dinosaur animation, the blasted wasteland creates a rich, primordial atmosphere that builds up this sense of dread until a great cataclysm.
7. The Lost World (1925)
One of the first dinosaur films ever created and by far among the most influential – no The Lost World means no King Kong and certainly no Jurassic Park. Willis O’Brien’s stopmotion effects are rudimentary, as is the film as a whole, but still highly impressive for the time. Even though most of the characters aren’t that distinct, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great bearded maverick, Professor Challenger, as played by Wallace Beary, stands out above the rest through his wide-eyed expressions and comic mannerisms. It’s worth a look if you’re curious to see how silent films were made; the jungle sets are certainly well-done, and you’ll find some good animation, including the first two iconic dinosaur battles between predator and prey put on film. While certainly groundbreaking for its time, it does take patience go get through.
6. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Perhaps this is a bit of a controversial choice to some, but I greatly enjoy The Lost World: Jurassic Park. While most of the supporting characters and a few dumb scenes can be annoying, I still give credit to Jeff Goldblum and Pete Postlethwaite for acting their parts out. The dinosaur action and special effects are the best they’ve been to date in the series, especially the encounters with the T-Rexes, Raptors and a Stegosaurs. The foreboding atmosphere and John Williams’ primal, brooding score accentuate that sense of the unknown and mystery surrounding the island. I know a lot of people hate the T-Rex in San Diego scene, but I enjoy the heck out of it; it’s probably a much better Godzilla movie in fifteen-minutes than the Godzilla movie that came out the very next year. Ultimately, The Lost World is an enjoyably reckless action-adventure movie that gives the incredible dinosaurs of InGen a visceral return.
5. The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
This stopmotion classic has one very simple premise: cowboys fighting dinosaurs. The film boasts some good human actors; James Franciscus as a charismatic huckster and Laurence Naismith giving the affair some class as the paleontologist. Harryhausen worked for almost a year to perfect the stopmotion sequences of humans interacting with dinosaurs, and they’re all impressive. Especially the scene of the cowboys lassoing the Allosaurus Gwangi on horseback from a jeep. While the plot borrows a lot from The Lost World and King Kong, the effects and sense of adventure carries the film successfully. The spirited Western score by Jerome Moross is a treat for the ears and creates an upbeat, adventurous tone. I heartily recommend this picture, but I will warn you – like King Kong, it does take a sudden dark turn near the end.
4. The Land Before Time (1988)
Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time is by far one of the best animated films out there. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas collaborated with Bluth on this film and its quality speaks for itself. The classic animation is gorgeous to behold and the score by James Horner is masterful, surely on a par with John Williams’ works, with sweeping choruses and heartfelt melodies. The dinosaur characters themselves are a charming bunch, even though the story itself isn’t especially complex. But the film’s real strength lies in its ability to take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, eliciting good feelings as well as copious tears, especially the famous scene depicting the death of Littlefoot’s Mother. Keep some tissues close at hand.
3. Godzilla (1954)
This movie set the standards for a new breed of monster movies. It’s a slow-burner that builds mystery, tension and suspense before letting loose when the titular behemoth makes his grand entrance. While King Kong was a fantastical adventure, Godzilla’s approach is more rooted in science fiction, with resonant statements on humanity’s power for destruction and nature’s wrath, as well as being an allegory on the threat of nuclear Armageddon. And, of course, Godzilla’s legacy was so vast that countless sequels and two American remakes were commissioned. Even though Gojira is a man in a lizard suit, the lighting, angles and atmosphere help you buy into the creature’s enormity and capacity for city-wide destruction.
2. King Kong (1933)
Despite the titular primate’s unquestioned place in Hollywood history, this is where dinosaurs first mesmerised audiences in all their glory. This was the first “blockbuster” to employ a a variety of special effects techniques, including forced perspective and giant animatronics, to convince the audience of what they were seeing. The stopmotion craftsmanship by the great Willis O’Brien gives the dinosaurs a ferocity that had yet to be captured on film. They were also made with the most recent scientific discoveries in mind, making the dinosaurs seem less like monsters and a lot more territorial and unpredictable like real animals. Among the many fight scenes in this film, Kong’s legendary battle with the T-Rex is still a thrill to behold. Overall, King Kong remains a rich adventure through one of Hollywood’s greatest fictional islands.
1. Jurassic Park (1993)
Was there ever any doubt? Jurassic Park remains the pinnacle example of a dinosaur film. Not just because of the convincing combination of CGI and animatronics that still hold up today, not just for the iconic score or the lively direction from Steven Spielberg, but because it is a complete, thematically-rich story with human characters that are still familiar names even to this day. The combination of Spielberg’s direction, superb screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, and excellent performances (especially from the late, great Richard Attenborough and the underrated Sam Neill), as well as John Williams’ rousing themes all form the perfect storm of a dinosaur film. It also doesn’t hurt that people look to this one picture in particular for changing the entire course of movie-making history, and has rightly ascended to the rank of cinema classic. Above all, it inspired a whole new brood of dinosaur enthusiasts and young paleontologists.