Dinosaurs are cool. That’s just a fact. And Hollywood likes to tap into cool so that means there are a lot of films featuring dinosaurs in everything from cameos to starring roles. But not all dinosaur movies are created equal. Some are ruined by shoddy effects that try to pass off an iguana as some Jurassic creature while others can’t seem to create a script worthy of its prehistoric beasts. But when a film gets it right, it’s magical and a dinosaur on a big screen looming above you can simply take your breath away.
Here’s a list of the 10 best dinosaur movies and by that I mean films that best showcase these magnificent creatures with at least a nod to realism. That means films with dragons, made up dinosaur-like beasts and mutated creatures (sorry no Godzilla movies) are off the table. As are ones that are so dumb they’d offend even a caveman’s intelligence (yeah I’m thinking of 10,000 BC and that Land of the Lost remake).
10 Best Dinosaur Films:
1. King Kong (1933)
Kong may be the star here but you can’t see this film and not walk away awestruck by the amazing stop motion animation prehistoric creatures created by Willis O’Brien. Not only do you get a brontosaurus (I know he has since been proven to have not existed), stegosaurus, styracosaurus, and pteranodon in beautifully detailed sequences but you get a rock ‘em, sock ‘em fight to the death encounter between Kong and a tyrannosaurus. Newer films with computer-generated dinos may be able to create something that displays superior realism but no film captures the imagination and inspires a sense of wonder more than this black and white classic made with love and passion by O’Brien.
2. Fantasia (1940)
There was a time when Disney animation was truly bold and inspired, and nowhere is this better represented than in The Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia. It is nothing less than a stroke of genius to pair Igor Stravinsky’s dissonant and unsettling music fueled by contradictory rhythms with an animated sequence that begins with the birth of the universe and ends with the ultimate demise of the dinosaurs. The animation was epic in its scope and scale, and in contrast to what we would later get from Disney animation, it was brutally unsentimental. A T-Rex and a stegosaurus engage in violent battle. Then we witness the earth drying up and dinosaurs dying of hunger and thirst, some getting stuck in mud and pathetically struggling for life. Even the mighty T-Rex falls and dies. The sequence was devastating and spellbinding. This is not just a brilliant dinosaur showcase but it also represents the pinnacle of artistry and storytelling at Disney.
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
There’s no denying that Steven Spielberg’s film pushed special effects – both the practical and CGI varieties – to their limit to give us some truly spectacular dinosaurs. Not only did we get close enough to see whether T-Rex’s teeth needed flossing but we also got huge herds of dinosaurs running free across vast fields. T-Rex, a Hollywood favorite for his scale, got a featured role as you might expect but the film also showcased some lethal little upstarts to provide a whole new kind of terror – the clever velociraptors. The film might not have tapped into the kind of adult terror that fueled Michael Crichton’s novel but it delivered a theme park ride of thrills and adventure good enough to launch a franchise. This first film is decidedly the best of the bunch in terms of filmmaking. As the films went on the dinosaurs evolved to a degree but the storytelling didn’t.
4. King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1933 classic may have its shortcomings but it’s hard to complain about the dinosaurs. You get an impressive stampede of dinos down a narrow valley and more notably a breathtakingly intense and furious fight where Kong fights not one, not two but three T-Rexes… while he’s holding on to Ann Darrow. That’s exciting.
5. Jurassic World (2015)
All right, I wasn’t going to include any other films in the Jurassic Park franchise but with effects technology still evolving I decided to add this to the list. The one constant factor running through all the Jurassic films and giving them their main appeal is that dinosaurs possess the “wow” factor. Chris Pratt’s character knows that, and he works with velociraptors – those vicious baddies from the first film – to try and prove that they can be trained and bonded with. They may have been made in a test tube but he sees them as living beings with emotions if not a warm and fuzzy heart.
I am mainly including this film for one shot: the mosasaurus jumping out of the water and opening its massive jaws right into the camera to grab the tasty little snack of a great white shark (take that Steven Spielberg). The shot makes you feel the scale and mass of this creature as he fills the screen and then slams back into the water displacing enough water for a small tsunami. Also deserving a shout out is the genetically engineered indominus rex. In the tight shots it shows off its intimidating and toothy grin, and it’s astounding. Its full body design isn’t nearly as spectacular but it’s intense in close-ups. If you love dinosaurs, then there are plenty here to entertain you.
6. The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Ray Harryhausen has created some great cinematic dinosaurs but sadly his stellar work is often wasted in films where the storytelling seems stuck in the Stone Age. Harryhausen’s enthralling work deserves being highlighted and since One Millions Years, B.C. was just too silly and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms didn’t have a real dinosaur, I decided to go with The Valley of Gwangi. This is also a film where humans anachronistically face off against dinosaurs. But conceit to make that happen is so ridiculous that it’s kind of charming: a cowboy discovers a Forbidden Valley where prehistoric creatures live so he decides to catch one for a Mexican circus. There’s even a scene of cowboys roping an allosaurus! Apparently this was required viewing for the ILM effects guys as they prepared to work on Jurassic Park. That’s how good Harryhausen’s work was. And it still remains a standard by which new effects are judged.
7. The Lost World (1925)
Another gem from Willis O’Brien. This merits recognition for being an early example of O’Brien’s stop motion animation and for how amazing it is even with the primitive technology. Appreciate this as part of the evolution of the cinematic dinosaur. It was also the first film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel about a land where dinosaurs still exist. His books would inspire numerous other remakes and the Jurassic Park franchise even ripped off the title for one of its offshoots without any acknowledgement to its source.
When I went back to watch this I was stunned to find there were actually human characters in the story. I had honestly only remembered the dinosaurs. The human actors left zero impression on me.
8. Carnosaur (1993)
Carnosaur may sound like a made up dinosaur name but it is a scientific term that Merriam-Webster defines as: “any of a group (Carnosauria) of very large theropod dinosaurs (such as a tyrannosaur). First Known Use: 1952.” But it proves to be the perfect term for what is essentially a dinosaur slasher film with a high and bloody body count. The cheese factor is high here but the film is hard to resist. Plus it is noteworthy for the fact that Roger Corman – ever the savvy businessman — snatched up the rights to Harry Adam Knight’s novel about cloned dinosaurs just so he could release a dino pic two weeks before Steven Spielberg got Jurassic Park into theaters. And he cast Jurassic Park star Laura Dern’s mom, Diane Ladd, as the mad scientist who wants to wipe out the human race and repopulate the earth with prehistoric beasts.
The film (shot in 18 days) was made on a fraction of a fraction of the budget Spielberg had so it wisely places tongue firmly in cheek and has some fun letting its theropods try to destroy humanity. Kudos for the low budget practical effects that give the lead dino some personality and B-movie star charisma.
9. Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)
This basically takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World concept and shoots it into outer space. A space ship and its crew must make an emergency landing on an unknown planet that looks amazingly like Earth (what a relief for the producers and their miniscule budget) but has dinosaurs and other assorted creatures roaming around. This film has truly awful acting and the most lamely formulaic script, but it also has some amazingly realistic and endearing stop motion animated dinosaurs. As with The Valley of Gwangi, enjoy this for the dinosaur effects and the camp factor. Note the nod to Harryhausen’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
10. Walking with Dinosaurs (2013)
Okay, let’s end on a light note. I tried to avoid talking dinosaurs since they tend to be silly but there are just so many damn dinosaurs in this film and the viewers are so immersed in their world that I decided to include it. Maybe watch with the sound turned down.
Bonus pick: Ice Age (2002)
This animated tale focuses on a wooly mammoth, saber tooth tiger, and a sloth as they try to return a human infant to his tribe. Obviously realism is not a primary concern here (I mean the creatures talk!). The comedy is low, think prehistoric vaudeville, but the characters are engaging and the film’s entertaining. It’s also rare to see prehistoric mammals. For some reason dinosaurs capture Hollywood’s imagination far more readily than their furry counterparts, so I wanted to highlight at least one film where primitive warm-blooded beasts got center stage.