When we think of dinosaurs in movies, we think of the Jurassic Park films first. But there are others which are worth a watch, unfortunately they are few and far between.
Within the realm of film there are certain franchises which have come to represent a certain niche or subgenre. In the world of espionage, James Bond is king. The Rocky franchise dominates our association with boxing films, and the Harry Potter franchise has pretty much established the modern understanding of wizardry in films. That isn’t to say there aren’t other films featuring undercover government agents, boxers, or characters with the ability to cast spells; they are just not as popular.
The same kind of situation exists regarding films that feature dinosaurs. Our modern association with dinosaurs on films comes mostly from one franchise; the Jurassic Park franchise. It’s easy to see why. The original Jurassic Park was not only a huge blockbuster but it almost single handedly ushered in a new era filmmaking. Gone was the time-honored tradition of using stop-go animation to bring creatures like dinosaurs to life in cinema. The original film’s use of CGI, combined with inventive use of animatronics, gave us a new idea of what dinosaurs on film could be.
Ever since then, other films have been released featuring dinosaurs, but they weren’t quite as iconic. Two more sequels, and a sequel franchise later, and we can’t stop talking about the awesomeness that is Jurassic Park. But what about those other movies featuring dinosaurs? They don’t seem to get as much love. Let’s change that by examining the 10 best films that feature dinosaurs, but aren’t from the Jurassic Park franchise….(no, Godzilla doesn’t count for the purposes of this list)
10. Dinosaur (2000)
Disney’s first non-Pixar computer animated film had a look that was ahead of its time. Unfortunately everything else about the film was very much of-its-time. The biggest complaint is a by-the-numbers story which doesn’t allow the innovative visuals the opportunity to reach their potential. Still, this is a perfectly solid dinosaur movie that has been all but forgotten today. As a more family-friendly film it is a rarity on this list.
9. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Pixar’s forgotten child may not be highly appreciated as a Pixar film, but it makes a strong impression as a dinosaur film. As is typical with Pixar, the filmmakers take an unusual perspective with which to frame the story. This gives the film a unique, entertaining, and refreshing approach because for once we’re not thinking of dinosaurs as terrifying killing machines or simple talking animals. At a point in time dinosaurs were the dominant species on this planet, and it’s nice to see a film give them their due.
8. The Land Before Time (1988)
Besides Jurassic Park, The Land Before Time is the most successful dinosaur-centric film franchise. It started with this original Spielberg-and-Lucas-produced feature film, generated 13 (!) direct-to-video sequels, a television series, and several video games. The original film sparked a fascination with dinosaurs among children which other studios would attempt to cash in on with their own films and television programs. Think of it as a precursor to some of the other, later animated films on this list.
7. Fantasia (1940)
Unlike most of the films on this list, Fantasia doesn’t use dinosaurs as aggressors for its depiction of them. Instead, it uses the art of animation to create a history of the planet, of which dinosaurs are an important part. While this animated story is only part of the entire film (which is essentially a collection of animated shorts), it is still memorable and impactful. The dinosaurs are just a small part of the greater experience, which is why I didn’t rate this film higher on this list.
6. King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong is critically underrated in my opinion, and accomplishes almost everything that the original does except for being original. The film’s use of dinosaurs are terrorizing and dynamic, and this film probably gets as close as any modern film to convincingly bringing dinosaurs to life. Maybe the CGI hasn’t held up as well, and the dinosaurs aren’t all that important to the overall plot, but to me their interactions with Kong are among the most memorable moments.
5. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Ok, so I didn’t allow Godzilla films on this list, but I did allow a movie that has a similar concept. Maybe it is a little unfair, but I have my justification! This film features a dinosaur that was frozen in the arctic ice and is released by the testing of an atomic bomb. That’s different from the radiation causing a creature to mutate into a giant lizard, and in my mind that makes this a dinosaur movie because the creature is actually prehistoric.
While this film may feel like just another 50’s sci-fi horror B-movie, it was very influential. This was the first monster movie that incorporated the idea of atomic weapons (although Godzilla was in production at the same time). Later films (like Godzilla) would take this idea and run with it, specifically the implications of radiation. In many ways this film kicked off the B-movie craze. It ranks high on this list because it’s based on a Ray Bradbury short story (earning some sci-fi cred), and has impressive special effects created by the late great Ray Harryhausen.
4. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
Based on the Jules Verne novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth is classic science fiction brought to the big screen. There have been no shortage of film and television adaptations, but this one is the best. When this film was released it was a hit at the box office, and previewed the type of big-budget special-effects blockbuster that would come to dominate the industry decades later.
One caveat with this one is that it does not technically feature dinosaurs. The film depicts dimetrodons, which actually existed before dinosaurs. Still, I am going to count them because they are a prehistoric form of life that reminds us of dinosaurs.
Despite the special effects feeling dated today, the rest of the film holds up fairly well. It has that sense of adventure and danger that is hard to find. The film’s depiction of its large reptiles does leave a little bit to be desired. Rather than use stop-motion effects with models, the filmmakers repurposed actual living reptiles into the role. Furthermore, It makes the film feel more lifelike, but at the expense of giving the audience realistic imagery. If it had done better in this regard I would have ranked this one higher.
3. The Lost World (1925)
I am not sure if the sequel to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic World stole its title from the book upon which this film was based. If so, it would be fitting. If not, its all very confusing. The original Arthur Conan Doyle novel depicted a remote area in the tropics in which prehistoric animals still existed, including dinosaurs. The book was so popular it earned a silent film adaptation in 1925, and several other adaptations in later years which are not related to the Jurassic Park franchise.
With such a lasting legacy, this film earns its place on this list despite its age. It was truly the first of its kind, a film which depicted monsters animated in stop-motion. The effects would later be perfected for use in the #1 film on this list. Consider that this is probably one of the first films in which audiences were able to see dinosaurs come to life on the big screen. And not only does it just feature dinosaurs, it has boat loads of them. Few other films are as dinosaur-centric as this one. Furthermore, the film explore some of the themes which would be seen in Jurassic Park.
2. The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Ray Harryhausen’s last film with dinosaurs shows off the most polished example of his animation with some very impressive special effects sequences. It was actually a project that had been started by Willis O’Brien, who helmed King Kong and had been Harryhausen’s mentor. So this film has a lot of history and legacy built into it. Unfortunately it didn’t really make much of an impact upon its release, and has been mostly forgotten about.
It’s an interesting blend of westerns (which were popular at the time) and monster films (which were not). It follows a rodeo owner who travels to a forbidden valley where prehistoric animals live. He finds a dinosaur and attempts to capture it to bring it back to show off at his rodeo. Sound familiar? The film served as a great intermediate between King Kong and The Lost World and Crichton’s novel.
- King Kong (1933)
Considered to be one of the first science-fiction feature films ever created, the original King Kong is a legendary achievement in cinema. Despite next year being the film’s 90th Anniversary, it remains an entertaining and influential film. What stands out the most, besides the classic storyline, are the stop-motion special effects. This film was the Avatar of the 1930’s, showcasing an incredible cinematic technology that captivated audiences with something they had never seen before.
As a dinosaur film it is important because it introduces this type of special effects to audiences and filmmakers which would dominate the next 50 years of creature-feature science fiction and horror films. Seeing Kong battle dinosaurs on the big screen must have been a real thrill for audiences. Many films would follow suit using them as the terrorizer/antagonist in their stories.