Every child loves dinosaurs, and, after watching one, will always dive into the bargain bin DVDs in search of a dinosaur film to satisfy that itch. Sadly, there are tons of films that exploit that need for dinosaur goodness, and, often, fail to deliver something good.
It is hard to find the diamonds in the rough. But they do exist. You may have to dig deep into the past to find a great one, but, over the decades, film makers have produced some pretty unforgettable dinosaur films you need to watch.
Jurassic Park (1993)
When it comes to dinosaur movies, one series stands out among all others: Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park is one of the greatest films Steven Spielberg has ever created. The original film remains a crowning achievement in special effects, for no film before could so completely bring realistic dinosaurs to the big screen.
Stan Winston, the same man who brought the Xenomorphs to life in Aliens, brings his A-Game to this film, thanks in part to a combination of practical effects and early CGI. Said CGI looks better than some of the CGI in the most recent entry, Jurassic World (also a really good dinosaur film worthy of this list).
But all those good effects are meaningless without a great plot, amazing characters, and some incredible tension. This film delivers on all of that. Jeff Goldblum as Dr Ian Malcolm is almost as memorable as some of the dinosaurs, and Sam Neil as Dr Alan Grant shines.
Let's be honest here. You've seen this film already. Hell, this list could probably be a list of "15 Films You Must Watch if you Loved Jurassic Park!" So let's just move on.
The Land Before Time (1988)
This is probably the OTHER film you expected to see on this list. The obvious must be taken out of the way first... but these dinosaur films are obvious for a reason: they're both superb.
The Land Before Time is one of animator Don Bluth's (An American Tale, All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Secrets of NIMH) last great animated films, as well as a total family film classic. It tells the story of several young dinosaurs on their way to a paradise--The Great Valley.
On the way to Eden, the young dinosaurs experience crippling isolation, personal tragedy, and horror no child should ever experience.
It's a family picture.
Though often overshadowed by the ridiculous number of sequels (as of now, 14 sequels have been made!), the original film remains a masterpiece of animation, with some truly incredible visuals and unforgettable characters. It's so great that Disney would later rip off the whole plot with its ground-breaking yet forgettable film Dinosaur.
Also, Little Foot's mother dying is far more depressing than Mufasa's death in The Lion King. Fight me!
The Lost World (1925)
Based on the 1912 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, the guy who made Sherlock Holmes), this silent film may very well be the first great dinosaur movie.
The film's plot is simple. Adventurers travel to a mysterious island where dinosaurs still roam. They end up witnessing some pretty incredible stuff, and end up bringing a Brontosaurus to London, where it rampages across the streets - quite possibly the first instance of a giant monster attacking a city in cinema.
The film's special effects were done by Willis O'Brien, a name you will become familiar with before long on this list. This was perhaps his first great film. He had to invent new techniques to put the stop-motion dinosaurs on screen with the human actors.
For the time, this film stunned audiences. Even now, the stop motion is beautiful to behold. The film remains surprisingly modern, given how films today are still drawing from this saga. Jurassic Park's sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, owes almost its entire plot to this classic film.
King Kong (1933)
Willis O'Brien was hired to do the special effects for this classic monster movie thanks to his work on The Lost World. Arguably, it is his crowning achievement, next to Mighty Joe Young.
Most people remember this film for its titular gorilla, and rightfully so. King Kong is the star of this movie. However, people forget that this film starts off as a dinosaur film. Skull Island, Kong's home, is also home to numerous dinosaurs, such as a Stegosaurus and T-Rex.
The T-Rex sequence is pretty memorable. In it, a Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks Kong, and the two duke it out. It ends with Kong splitting the tyrant lizard king's jaws apart in a surprisingly grisly scene for that era.
O'Brien took the techniques he utilized in The Lost World, and broke new ground. He would film the stop-motion creatures with pre-shot film of actors projected behind them, or vice-versa. He'd have life-sized constructs for some scenes, or stop-motion people with the monsters--and blend it all seamlessly.
Though the effects are dated by today's standards, they remain arguably more fascinating and brilliant than any computer generated image.
The Land that Time Forgot (1975)
Edgar Rice Burroughs remains one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century. If you're unaware, he's the guy who made Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. He made a killing writing fun pulp stories that captured the imagination of the youth.
The Land that Time Forgot is Burroughs's version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Both are stories about explorers finding secret islands where dinosaurs still live.
The difference really is in how they get to the island. Doyle's characters are adventurers. Burroughs sets up a very tense WWI battle sequence before any of the dinosaurs even come up. Soldiers are stuck in a German U-Boat for survival, and end up being stranded at sea, stumbling upon a mysterious island where primitive man and dinosaurs fight for survival.
The film features British and German soldiers and navigators struggling to work together to survive. In a way, this film is more about the way people either work together or fall apart when confronted with dangerous odds, which makes it kind of brilliant.
The film based on the book gets that element right. And its dinosaurs...Well, the scenes involving the dinosaurs are thrilling, even if the dinosaurs are hilariously fake looking. This is one of the few stories where the human story is more compelling than the dinosaurs around it. Still worth a watch if you're up for some cheesy fun.
This cult classic dinosaur film came out four weeks before Jurassic Park. In many ways, it is utter crap. The writer of the original book (as well as the screenplay for the film) sees it as trashy pulp-cinema that does not compare to the more famous film that came out after it...
But, it is FUN pulpy crap.
The story is about a mad scientist who brings dinosaurs back to bring about the end of mankind. The special effects are very low budget, even for a horror film. Much of the dinosaurs are shown in heavy darkness to conceal the weak effects.
Oh, but the gore effects aren't hidden in the least bit. Those are on full display. This may be the goriest dinosaur film ever made. Tons of blood. Plenty of guts. The dinosaurs don't just eat people. They tear them apart. And it is glorious.
This film is not very good. But it is very fun--again, if you are willing to watch a trashy horror film.
One Million Years BC (1966)
Ray Harryhausen is a legend in the special effects industry. He learned the craft of stop-motion animation under Willis O'Brien while the two worked on Mighty Joe Young.
It is arguable that, following O'Brien's retirement in the early 50s, Harryhausen overshadowed his mentor's legacy. The list of science fiction and fantasy films Harryhausen worked on from that era onward is massive. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Jason and the Argonauts.
Harryhausen's work proved so brilliant that Hammer Films, the studio behind the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Dracula and Frankenstein films, hired him to bring to life their classic dinosaur film.
One Million Years BC is a classic. It depicts a story of revenge between cave men in a savage tribe, and how a tribe of relatively innocent people are caught up in the cycle of violence. The dinosaurs are mostly an exterior threat that makes life in this world a savage sojourn.
None of the characters speak English in this film. People communicate in quasi-verbal grunts and gestures, which makes the film quite distinct. Narration explains certain elements that might be difficult for a casual viewer to pick up on.
The highlight of the film is the fight between the Ceratosaurus (often confused with a T-Rex) and Triceratops. This remains one of Harryhausen's greatest special effect sequences. While there are many other thrilling scenes throughout the film, this remains most memorable.
That, and Raquel Welch being scantily clad. Many credit her iconic character for the film being a blockbuster hit.
The film also had a sequel: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. This earns a recommendation as well, even without the Harryhausen effects of the original.
(Yes, I am aware that man and dinosaurs never lived together, but nothing about this film is historically accurate. Homo sapiens are only 10,00 years old, not one million, so shut up.)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
After One Million Years BC, Harryhausen also did the effects for this classic dinosaur film. Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen's mentor, had tried to make this film decades earlier, but died before he could finish it. Harryhausen saw this as his way to fulfill his mentor's legacy. It was the last dinosaur film he ever worked on.
This Western (yes, Western) features cowboys who find a hidden valley full of prehistoric creatures. After some pretty intense scenes of men fighting dinosaurs, they saddle up Gwangi (a vicious Allosaurus), and use him as the star attraction of a show to make money. This ends about as well as you think.
The Valley of Gwangi is a unique entry in the catalog of dinosaur films, as it combines the adventure elements of the western with dinosaurs. It embraces the frontier fantasies many boys had thinking about the old west. What if you could find that hidden valley full of dinosaurs, and have an incredible adventure?
In many respects, you can see shades of The Valley of Gwangi in the far more successful Jurassic Park. Both deal with man using dinosaurs as a means to make money. Both end with some pretty brutal scenes of dinosaur attacks.
This cult classic dinosaur film stars Ringo Starr, Dennis Quad, and a lot of goofy dinosaur effects.
It features Ringo Starr as kind of a derpy, goofy caveman who accidentally uncovers the keys to civilization along a dopey sojourn across the landscape of One Zillion Years BC.
This film is a very goofy film featuring Harryhausen-esque special effects. The dinosaurs are often slow, clumsy, and more of a joke than a threat. The film has a truly surreal sense of humor, as the main characters often stumble upon some things that prove more unusual than scary.
If you have kids who want to see a dinosaur film, but Jurassic Park scares them, or if you want to watch Ringo Starr learn how to cook, this movie may prove to be a pretty surreal, fun journey.
Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)
Arguably the greatest Czech science fiction film ever produced, Journey to the Beginning of Time is a surreal, enigmatic film that is at once haunting and stunning.
A quartet of boys visiting a museum end up taking a rowboat down a river, which takes them further and further into the past, where they bare witness to the incredible creatures of years gone past, traveling further and further until they reach the beginning of Earth's history.
The film feels more like a documentary than a movie. The special effects are dated, but beautiful. The landscapes and creatures look like they emerged from a portrait. While the human characters are just generic child characters, that hardly matters with the amazing animals on display.
Aside from dinosaurs, the children encounter a Wooly Mammoth, Coelodanta, Deinotherium, and Sabertooth Tiger along the way. But the dinosaurs remain the most stunning creatures to appear, with some truly beautiful effects on display to bring them to life.
The movie is a surreal joy to watch. At times, it puts the viewer into a hypnotic trance, as though you are gazing at a portrait rather than a film.
Planet of Dinosaurs (1978)
A bizarre science fiction film from the 70s featuring some pretty spectacular dinosaur effects (and gore), this movie features a space crew who gets stranded on an alien planet so similar to Earth that it has dinosaurs.
The plot to this film is dopey. It is essentially The Lost World except with a sci-fi twist. But that is hardly a problem, as this film is not here to break new ground, but simply fuse genres to exploit the genre.
This film isn't here for your intellectual pleasure. It is here to show you adventure, gore, and dinosaurs. And it delivers.
Want to watch humans fight off dinosaurs with laser guns? Want to see an Allosaurus fight a Stegosaurus? Want to watch a guy with a laser gun get impaled on a dinosaur's horn before being tossed off a cliff?
Yes, the effects are on the weak side, but it remains pretty stunning to behold something this ridiculous on screen.
If you can, watch it with Rifftrax. Very entertaining.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
Though there is a classic film of the same name from 1958 based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, this film is not considered a sequel or remake. It is, however, a fun film staring Brandon Fraiser... so a Brandon Fraiser film, basically.
This family film features Brandon Fraiser, who meets the son of a dead scientist who may have uncovered a subterranean world full of prehistoric animals after taking Jules Verne's original novel as a work of nonfiction. They discover a mysterious lost world full of dinosaurs... all part of a world that is very unforgiving to man's folly.
The film is pretty fun. It's an adventure film, first and foremost, featuring some pretty cool dinosaur effects. But what this film has that a lot of other films on this list lack is energy. Vibrancy. It may not be as haunting or beautiful or even epic as other films on this list, but it is never boring.
The conspiracy element about the works of Jules Verne being real is equally fun. My biggest hope is that it inspires younger kids to pick up the works of Jules Verne, who remains one of the great early writers of science fiction.
The Dinosaur Project (2012)
This recent film is a fairly underrated science fiction film from Britain. It depicts a group of adventurers finding a place where dinosaurs are still alive (shocking, I know).
The novelty of this idea is pretty overdone, as it is truly just recycling the same basic plot from many other dinosaur films, albeit with new special effects that keep it a cut above the rest.
What makes this film distinct, of course, are the effects. It is a modern story with a classic plot. The ideas have been done before, after all. But that is hardly what matters. It is the way it's relayed--with some vicious imagery and incredible dinosaur effects--that makes this a noteworthy entry into the genre.
The film failed to launch on release, but merits watching now.
We're Back: A Dinosaur Story (1993)
This bizarre family film is more an acid trip than a normal animated film. It has garnered a cult following due to just how weird the whole movie is. However, in a genre that still rips off Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs even decades later, stories like this are a huge relief.
We're Back features John Goodman as a resurrected T-Rex, brought back to life by steampunk-esque scientist Captain Neweyes (Walter Crunkite), who brings dinosaurs back to entertain the children of the modern era. Hijinks ensue.
The beautifully animated film features some truly surreal, bizarre sequences, including a journey to the Museum of Natural History, a machine that listens to the dreams of children, a Thanksgiving parade that leads into a dinosaur police chase, and a scene where a man gets eaten alive by crows.
This film primarily appeals to young children, but, in many respects, can entertain viewers interested in some truly bizarre animated films.
Walking With Dinosaurs (1999)
No, not the 2013 film. That film is a blight upon this original masterpiece's legacy.
This is sort of breaking the rules, as this film isn't really a movie, but a six-part miniseries put out by the BBC. However, as it remains perhaps the greatest depiction of dinosaurs on-screen ever, it deserves discussion.
The miniseries starts at the dawn of the era of dinosaurs, and works its way to their ultimate end. It follows the stories of the dinosaurs in the same way a nature documentary would follow living creatures, but features some brilliant special effects on par with those of the original Jurassic Park.
Though some of the science has been disproven since then, the film attempts to present the scientific reality of dinosaur life, and all the drama and beauty therein. All narrated by Kenneth Branagh.
The BAFTA-winning documentary inspired a live-stage show, tons of spin-off material, and... a 2013 film. No, I don't recommend watching that mess. That film is an embarrassing nightmare compared to this masterwork. Watch the original. Even after almost twenty years, this dinosaur story remains a cut above the rest.