While it has not been as long since dinosaurs ruled the earth, it’s been a long time since dinosaurs ruled the box office. Previous follow-ups to Spielberg’s blockbuster smash, Jurassic Park, were disappointing, silly, lacked the terrifying awe of the original, and flopped at the box office. And despite the prevalence of CGI effects, there have been few movies made with dinosaurs. This year alone, however, will see the release of two dinosaur movies by major studios. This coming Friday we are treated to the latest installment of the Jurassic Park series, Jurassic World. Then, during the Thanksgiving holiday, Disney/Pixar release the much anticipated, The Good Dinosaur.
Once upon a time, in the long history of cinema, dinosaurs were a common obsession for filmmakers. Charged by the imagination of authors like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, dinosaurs were a normal part of prehistoric stories and time traveling stories. Exploring this rich tradition, we’ve gently dusted and even sent those sonar charges to discover the five best dinosaur movies from cinematic era. We’ll start with one movie that should probably be #1, but was #1 on our Top 5 list only two weeks ago.
If you’re thinking older cinematic beasts, surely you conjure the image of the terrible lizard of Tokyo, Godzilla. A commonly referenced movie here at Reel World Theology, the movie sets the standard for many types of movies, and even T-Rex cant’ argue with this prehistoric, nuclear-enhanced dinosaur making our list. Playing into the mythos that Godzilla is a prehistoric dinosaur, many follow-up Godzilla films, especially the campy ones, he fights many creatures that looked to be from the prehistoric past, or at least a Wells or Lovecraft novel. Surely, this movie would occupy spot #1 for its cultural and cinematic impact, but because of its previous dominance on past lists, it has been inserted into the role of leadoff hitter to make way for the other heavy hitter in our #1 spot.
The one exception to the general lack of dinosaur movies outside of the Jurassic Park movies is Disney. The Good Dinosaur comes out this year, and their first attempt at a computer animated dinosaur movie went the realistic route with 2000’s Dinosaur. The film boasted an insanely large budget for an animated film of that time ($127 million), it was painstakingly done to make the dinosaurs look and move realistically. The problem wasn’t so much in the animation, which was very good for its time and holds up well, but the story is incredibly boring and predictable. It could have been so much more than it was, but the visuals do a lot to make up for the predictability of the story. Amazing work that signaled much of what was to come for CGI.
If you are a young child from the 80’s; I can’t imagine you have not seen The Land Before Time. Remember those awesome hand-puppet toys Pizza Hut had for the movie? Oh man, this movie and Pizza Hut…and that commercial that was on the VHS? This movie brings so many early childhood memories flooding back. I must have seen this movie at least two dozen times when I was ages five through seven.
A story of finding community and family, the story chokes me up thinking about Littlefoot’s peril and his journey. After being orphaned when his parents are attacked and killed by the mean ol’ T-Rex, Littlefoot must strike out on his own in search of the Great Valley, a Promised Land-like area of lush greens and crystalline waters. Along the way, he meets different friends like Cera the triceratops, Petrie the pteranodon, Ducky the saurolophus, and Spike the stegosaurus. The band together, much like an animated Goonies or Stand By Me, on an adventure in search of this land. They are a hodgepodge community banded together, separated from their families (or running from their families in Cera’s case) and in search of connection and community in spite of their differences. It is ridiculous my kids have not seen this movie, yet, and that shall be remedied shortly!
No, no, no; I am not talking about the sequel to Jurassic Park, loosely based on the fantastic follow-up by Michael Crichton (I highly recommend the book, which is way different than the movie). I’m talking way, way, back to 1925 to another Lost World movie based on a book. This book happens to be by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps you have heard of him (?), and the 1925 silent film is the first adaptation of his story (published in 1912). It stars Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger. He accepts a dangerous mission to rescue Maple White, an adventurer lost in the jungles of Venezuela amid rumors of ancient and prehistoric creatures in the area he disappeared. Boasting groundbreaking stop-motion animation by the famous Willis O’Brien, who would go on to perfect his art in the 1933 cinematic milestone King Kong, the movie is well-done for its era and holds up moderately well. Now more of a piece of cinematic history, the film is important due to its effects work that would set up the more remembered King Kong movie, which has a very similar narrative premise. It’s free on the internet archive and the link on the title to the IMDb page allows you to view the whole 64 minutes. Well worth your time if that kind of cinema interests you.
To quote one of my favorite musical artists of all-time, Weird Al Yankovic:
Jurassic Park is frightening in the dark/all the dinosaurs are running wild! Someone let T-Rex out of his pen/I’m afraid those things will harm me/cuz they sure don’t act like Barney/and I think I’m never coming home again! Oh NO! ~sung to the tune of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park”
An all-time classic, the blockbust-iest of blockbusters, Steven Speilberg’s 1993 Sci-Fi thriller/horror movie was a billion dollar smash that captured the terrifying spirit of Jaws and the wonder of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Mixing up close and personal practical effects, like the raptors and T-Rex, with CGI effects of the sweeping vistas of many dinosaurs, every aspect of the movie majored on a delicate balance of new and old technology, of in your face scares and large, twinkle-in-your-eye awe. I don’t get why a lot of critics, at the time and on recent re-visits, dock the movie for having no sense of awe, but maybe it has a lot to do with being a child when I first experienced it. Awe is both that sense of “wow” and a scream, and Jurassic Park had both, in my opinion. A triumph of cinema that would be breath-taking to see again on the big screen and a personal favorite of mine and my family.