Gentle giants, cuddly friends, vicious monsters, deadly dragons: Even the earliest film depictions of dinosaurs evidence our complicated relationship with Earth’s prehistoric thunder lizards. Windsor McCay’s puckish Gertie the Dinosaur might be stubborn, but she’s unlikely to eat you, and might even dance if you ask politely.
D.W. Griffith’s Brute Force, also from 1914, doesn’t bother with the distinction between the age of the dinosaurs and the age of humans — which is a recurring bit of willful ignorance. Who doesn’t kinda want to ride a dinosaur? Buster Keaton’s Three Ages introduced more cave-people into the world of dinosaurs, then 1925’s The Lost World truly brought them to life on screen. That film made a distinction between the friendlier-seeming species of vegetarian dinosaurs and their scarier carnivorous cousins, a conceit that’s held up through Jurassic Park and beyond.
There’s plenty of flexibility to the dinosaurs-on-film genre, with movies featuring dinosaur cops, robot dinosaurs, and any number of entirely made-up dinosaur-esque creatures. With Jurassic World Dominion, the sixth movie inspired by the Spielberg original and Michael Crichton’s original novel, on the way, let’s run down some of our favourites.
Prehistoric Planet (2022, five parts)
The indefatigable David Attenborough is 96 and hasn’t slowed down even a little bit — this marks the fifth nature documentary he’s been involved in this year. The natural historian’s late brother, actor/director Richard Attenborough, is probably best known to modern audiences as John Hammond of the Jurassic Park series, lending David’s dinosaur-themed projects an added bit of poignance, especially in the year of Dominion. He’s in top form in this Apple TV+ effects-heavy, narrating a series of vignettes related to the creatures (large, and slightly less large) living on Earth in the Late Cretaceous period, around 66 million years ago. It’s the first major dinosaur-themed series from the BBC in over a decade, and provides a very welcome update in both modern science (check out those feathered Velociraptors) and visual effects.
The Lost World (1925)
Not the first dinosaur movie in cinema history, but the first totally stun in terms of story and special effects, with stop motion animation from Willis O’Brien, who’d go on to work even greater magic on King Kong eight years later. Closely following the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who has a cameo), the film sees Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) and company travel to a South American plateau that’s been cut off from the rest of the world and the advance of time, preserving an broad range of dinosaurs from the cretaceous and Jurassic periods (Pteranodons, Brontosauruses, T-Rexes, Allosauruses, and a Triceratops or two coexist the on the all-but-inaccessible plateau alongside ancient human species). As with Kong, the real trouble starts when the scientists attempt to bring a specimen back to a modern city; London, in this case.
Walking With Dinosaurs (1999, six parts)
Even 20 years later, Walking with Dinosaurs remains the gold standard in dino-themed nature documentaries, its primary innovation being that it relies on the formula established for live-action nature documentaries, allowing us to observe (computer generated) creatures in the wild. Though much of the science has been superseded (and some of what’s here was speculative even at the time), the series remains watchable for the way it crafts narratives around individual dinosaurs; the second episode, for example, follows the life of a female diplodocus from hatching. The result in something more immersive and compelling than many previous dino docs, with expensive visual effects that hold up reasonably well.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Moving just about as far away from documentary as possible, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms stars a Rhedosaurus, an entirely fictional dinosaur born almost entirely from the imagination of the great special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Based on a Ray Bradbury short story, its success helped to inspire waves of 1950s monster movies, but Beast is (for all its city-stomping action) quite a bit more serious than most of its later imitators, at least making nods toward scientific accuracy and treating its atomic-blast origin story as more than just perfunctory.
Planet Dinosaur (2011, six parts)
Though mostly focused on the Late Cretaceous period, Planet Dinosaur jumps around a bit in time (what’s 75 million years, give or take, when dealing with dinosaurs), spotlighting ancient life on different parts of the globe and creating a sense of place by examining the different dinosaurs living at different locations on the Earth and their (very roughly) modern-day equivalents. Dozens of species take the screen, with segments focused on locations as far-reaching as Egypt, Madagascar, Svalbard, and Oklahoma.
Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)
A charming travelogue from legendary Czech director Karel Zeman, this film blends life-sized models with puppetry and stop-motion animation to tell a about several kids who take a trip on a literal “river of time,” sending them back through natural history until, eventually, they encounter (and are endangered by) various dinosaurs, including a Stegosaurus and a very impressive terror bird, the Phorusrhacos. The film was meant to be educational as well as entertaining, and makes use of the best science of the time. There’s a re-dubbed, partly re-shot American version available on YouTube, but it’s not nearly as good as the original cut.
The Ballad of Big Al (2000, Two Parts)
A spin-off special from the Walking with Dinosaurs creators, Big Al goes even further than earlier documentaries in personalizing the stories of real-life dinosaurs, in this case by focusing on a single, incredibly well-preserved Allosaurus fossil found in Wyoming in the early ‘90s. First bringing the fossil to life (digitally, of course), the special then proceeds to trace the carnivorous Big Al’s life from hatching, to hunting, to mating, to sustaining the injuries (visible on his fossil remains) that killed him and left him to be rediscovered millions of years later.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
This weird western finds the crew of a struggling, circa-1900 rodeo show led by T.J. (Gila Golan) hoping for a break; they find one, sort of, when they come across a tiny horse that a paleontologist, rather conveniently encountered, confirms to be a long (long) extinct species: Eohippus, to be precise, having been thought wiped out since the Early Eocene, some 50 million years ago. Deciding that there might be more such wonders in a mysterious valley, T.J. and company head off in search of wonders, encountering a Cretaceous Pteranodon and a Styracosaurus, among others, as well as Gwangi himself, a vicious Jurassic Allosaurus. It’s all incredibly silly, but very entertaining, and Ray Harryhausen is at the peak of his powers in animating the dinosaurs.
Sea Monsters (2003, three parts)
The conceit of Sea Monsters is that presenter Nigel Marven is travelling back in time and frequently diving to meet the digitally recreated prehistoric creatures that are the show’s focus (generally, not technically dinosaurs, but I think it’s reasonable to put the aquatic creatures of ancient Earth in a similar category). It’s a bit silly, but the exploration of Earth’s sea life (covering a span of roughly 450 million years) is thrilling. So much of our fascination with dinosaurs rests with the creatures who lived on land (and sometimes in the air), but Earth has always been a water world, and the undersea realm is every bit as fascinating and terrifying, and quite a bit more alien.
The Land Before Time (1988)
The emphasis in Don Bluth’s gorgeously animated journey to the time of the dinosaurs isn’t in striking terror or even generating awe, but instead in reimagining a prehistoric world from a child’s point of view. Sweet, but not without moments of tragedy, it’s a brisk and charming trip to the past. The quality of the series (with 13 sequels) falls off rather quickly, so you might want to stop at this one.
Dinosaur 13 (2014)
As with The Ballad of Big Al, Dinosaur 13 focuses on a particular fossil: in this case, “Sue,” the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil up to the time of its discovery in 1990 in the South Dakota Badlands. Unlike that earlier doc, 13 is more interested in the complexities of archaeological research, and not just the scientific aspects: The fossil was seized by the federal government shortly after its discovery, leading to a decade-long battle that involved the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI, and the owner of the land on which Sue was found. It’s a fascinating look at the point where scientific discovery runs up against politics and culture.
Its story of an orphaned Iguanodon adopted by lemurs is fairly stock Disney, and its blend of tragedy and cuteness often jars, but Dinosaur is still an impressively animated adventure that vividly imagines the world of the late Cretaceous populated by friendly Ankylosaurs, Styracosaurs, and Brachiosaurs, all of them hunted by fearsome Carnotaurs and our old friends the Velociraptors. Disney was expecting big things from this one, but Walking With Dinosaurs beat it to the punch by a year, and it wound up only eking out a profit after it was released on DVD.
Nova: Dinosaur Apocalypse (2022, One Part)
Another David Attenborough joint, the Nova special examines the events surrounding the asteroid impact that (probably) helped to wipe out the dinosaurs. This very recent special (from just last month) incorporates the latest in scientific research focused on well-preserved fossils that speak directly to the impact and provide new clues about one of the most fateful days in Earth’s history.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2008)
The 1959 version is fine, but this slightly schmaltzy Brendan Fraser remake is rather delightful, all the more so because it’s explicitly aimed at kids. Fraser stars as volcanologist Trevor Anderson, who winds up stuck watching his nephew (Josh Hutcherson) while researching the idea that Verne’s famous novel wasn’t a work of fiction so much a travelogue of the author’s journey into a hollow earth. It’s all bright, colourful action from there on out, but with the surprisingly sweet centre that Fraser brings to these types of movies. Plus, the climactic confrontation does T-Rex movies one better by spotlighting the even larger, more recently discovered Giganotosaurus.
Nature: Raising the Dinosaur Giant (2016)
Though the research has advanced a bit since 2016, this remains a fascinating look at the evolving state of dinosaur science. Just a few years back, in the Argentinean desert, a group of paleontologists were put on the case of a new fossil cache that turned out to be evidence for a group of seven huge dinosaurs, all part of a previously unknown species, and representing the largest land mammal ever known. The discovery was so significant, it forced scientists to rethink the rules that determine precisely how large such creatures once grew.
Kung Fury (2015)
Is this Swedish short the most scientifically accurate dinosaur film yet made? It’s not, no. It is, however, a wildly entertaining tribute to the police action/martial arts films of the 1970s and 1980s that builds to a climax involving a time-lost Tyrannosaurus rex, a Triceratops police officer (Triceracop, natch), and Thor mowing down armies of Nazis.
Again: not a documentary. Or is it? It’s not.
When Dinosaurs Roamed America (2000, one part)
Exploring the dinosaurs of New York City, Pennsylvania, Utah, and South Dakota, with segments focusing on specific time periods from the Late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous (from whence some of our most beloved dinosaurs hail), the documentary offers a bit of extra immediacy by placing the prehistoric creatures in a more specific place and time. Filmed in high definition before that was common, this John Goodman-hosted documentary holds up relatively well, even if some of the science is a bit dated.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The film opens with the asteroid that would have formed the Chicxulub crater and ushered in the end of the era of dinosaurs passing safely by the Earth. From there, an alternate history unfolds, imagining a world in which the terrestrial dinosaurs stuck around, telling the story of an Apatosaurus named Arlo, who meets a human friend on his journey back home. The beautiful Pixar animation and photorealistic settings are highlights, but the real joy is in exploring the idea of humans and dinosaurs interacting — one of the great what ifs of geologic history and the whole raison d’être of the Jurassic Park/World series. It’s far from the best film in the Pixar canon, but it’s far better than its reputation as the studio’s first flop.