2015 proved to be a pretty good year for dinosaur movies. Jurassic World, the fourth film in the prehistoric theme park series, revitalized the franchise and was the highest-grossing release after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while even mixed reviews for The Good Dinosaur didn’t keep the Disney/Pixar animated tale from breaking the $100 million mark domestically and helping introduce yet another generation of youngsters to the wonders of the Paleozoic world.
The “terrible lizards” and their like have been a big-screen mainstay from the earliest days of motion pictures, starting in 1914 with cartoonist Winsor McCay’s animated short Gertie the Dinosaur and D.W. Griffith’s Stone Age allegory Primitive Man. Even back then, audiences somehow sensed that McCay’s hand-drawn sauropod, cartoon though she was, just felt more realistic than the overly adorned alligator which menaced Griffith’s cavemen.
In the 100-plus years that followed, elaborate stop-motion and CGI-animated dinos have competed for screen time with doctored lizards, crocodiles and other critters, whether in paleontologically accurate settings or anachronistic interactions with humans. To salute this week’s home video release of The Good Dinosaur, we’d like to offer a brief and all-too-incomplete photo gallery of good–and not-so-good–dinosaur cinema:
The Lost World (1925) — Good dinosaur. Sure, the stills make them look like models to our 21st-century eyes, but Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion menagerie amazed contemporary audiences with a realism that is still impressive, and the final scenes of the Brontosaurus rampaging through the streets of London certainly helped set the tone for the next entry.
King Kong (1933) — Good dinosaur. O’Brien surpassed his Lost World work with this fantasy film landmark eight years later. From a charging Stegosaurus and a strangely carnivorous Brontosaurs to the epic fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Kong, no one who’s seen the oversized inhabitants of Skull Island can ever forget them.
One Million B.C. (1940)– Bad dinosaur. Hal Roach’s cavemen-versus-dinos tale actually got an Academy Award nomination for special effects. One would hope that it was with for the earthquake and erupting volcanoes and not the superimposed iguanas and monitor lizards that threatened Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney, Jr. and company. This film also carries the dubious distinction of having its “tricked-out reptile” footage recycled and reused in dozens of other pictures and TV shows over the next several decades.
Unknown Island (1948) — Very bad dinosaur. While this B-effort might get point for being one of the first prehistoric films in color, it loses even more for the spectacle of men staggering around like drunken sailors in rubber suits. The predators here, modeled after Ceratosaurus, co-star with a Dimetrodon model that moves by being pulled through the bush like a toy and Ray “Crash” Corrigan, in a gorilla suit altered to resemble a giant sloth.
Lost Continent (1951) — Mediocre dinosaur. No, the Triceratops in the above still aren’t Irish. Producer Robert Lippert’s “hidden land where dinosaurs still roam” opus featured a green tint in certain scenes when it was first released. While they’re not particularly convincing, one has to give Lippert credit for going the stop-motion route here and not just reuse lizards with horns fighting…as his studio would four years later (see below).
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) — Good “dinosaur.” I know, I know: there was no such animal as a Rhedosaurus. Be that as it may, animator Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion title terror is such a fondly-remembered monster that we had to include him. Besides, the Beast’s path of destruction through New York City was an obvious influence on Japan’s own “kaiju” genre, starting with the next year’s seminal Gojira.
King Dinosaur (1955) — Bad dinosaur. “It resembles the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Earth’s prehistoric past,” says a scientist who takes a photo of the above “king dinosaur” on an alien planet. “That’s a lizard from Pet World,” quipped Tom Servo on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of this Robert Lippert/Bert I. Gordon turkey.
The Animal World (1956) — Good dinosaur. For the “beginnings of life” segment in his wide-ranging nature documentary, producer Irwin Allen was convinced by Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien to use animated dinosaurs rather than static diorama-like displays. It’s a good thing Allen listened, because the prehistoric scenes are the best-remembered parts of the film (perhaps because photos from them were used in a View-Master title).
The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) — Bad dinosaur. That same year, O’Brien supplied the story idea, but unfortunately didn’t do the animation work on the title Allosaurus, in this “cowboys versus dinosaurs” tale that would serve as an inspiration of sorts for a later Harryhausen work.
The Land Unknown (1957) — Bad dinosaur. A guy in a T. Rex suit, the neck of an aquatic plesiosaur, and a flying reptile that looks more like Rodan than a pterodactyl add up to some less than authentic inhabitants of the titular locale in this Universal sci-fi romp.
The Giant Behemoth (1959) — Mediocre “dinosaur.” O’Brien’s final stop-motion monster work was on this sauropod-like “paleosaurus” wreaking havoc upon (shades of 1925!) London Town. The movie itself is basically a retread of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, right down to the fictitious title dino, and the effects (not entirely by O’Brien) are good but not great.
Dinosaurus (1960) –Cheezily good dinosaur. Animator Wah Chang’s Brontosaurus and T Rex are not the most realistic of cinematic dinosaurs, but they do seem to have a personality all their own in this charming-in-spite-of-itself low-budget thriller about two beasts and a caveman brought back to life in the 20th century.
The Lost World (1960) — Disappointingly bad dinosaur. I was probably six or seven when this turned up on one of NBC’s movie night broadcasts, and even then I was disheartened to see alligators and iguanas standing in for “real” dinosaurs. For some reason I expected better from the man behind Lost in Space, Irwin Allen (if only he had used the Animal World models here).
One Million Years B.C. (1966) — Good dinosaur. When I went to see this remake of the 1940 film in a theater in 1966, it was for the stop-motion dinosaurs (courtesy of Harryhausen) and not for Raquel Welch wearing “Mankind’s first bikini.” I was only eight years old, after all.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969) — Really good dinosaur. It’s horse-ridin’ cowpokes versus an Ornithominus, a Styracosarus and a T Rex (or is Gwangi an Allosaurus? There seems to some debate on the matter) in this Harryhausen gem, based on an O’Brien story that he never got the chance to film.
The Land That Time Forgot (1975) — Good and bad dinosaur. Based on a book by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, this AIP adventure followed the crew of a WWI German sub and their captives into the typical “hidden lost realm of primeval creatures,” with a mix of mechanical dinos, puppets, and the occasionally effective plesiosaur or pterosaur.
Caveman (1981) — Deliberately bad dinosaurs. Okay, if you’re starting out with a comedy featuring Ringo Starr as a caveman, you’re not going to expect scientific accuracy…which is why he seems to be riding a giant chameleon here. The erstwhile Beatle also encounters several more realistic dinosaurs along his quest, and the animation (by, among others, David Allen and an uncredited Jim Danforth) is really not that bad.
Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) — Hokey, bad dinosaur. Sorry, much as I love me some Brontosaurus (and don’t even mention the name “Apatosaurus.” It’ll always be Brontosaurus to me!), this Disney effort about a family of dinosaurs living in central Africa offered animatronic animals that weren’t even on a par with the ones at the 1964 New York World’s Fair’s Sinclair exhibit.
Jurassic Park (1993) — Really good dinosaur. The evolution (sorry) of computer animation made this revolutionary adaptation of the Michael Chrichton novel and its sequels possible. Never before did the rulers of the Mesozoic Era look so vibrant and dynamic on the screen.
Theodore Rex (1995) — Whoopi Goldberg is a police detective. Her new partner is a talking Tyrannosaurus Rex. If dinosaurs weren’t already extinct, there’s a good chance they would have died from embarrassment after this one.
Which of the above dino films is your favorite? Do you have a prehistoric flick pick we failed to mention? Let us know in the comments below.