For as long as there have been movies, dinosaurs have been roaring and stomping across the screen. Gertie the dinosaur was one of the first popular animated characters, and stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien had an unabashed love for prehistoric life that he brought to life in silent shorts as well as classics like 1925’s The Lost World and the original King Kong. Jurassic Park later picked up the spirit of these early forays, presenting audiences with what are still some of the most spectacular movie dinosaurs ever. Since the 1993 blockbuster is briefly back in theaters starting today, it’s fitting to look back at a short list of cinema’s best and worst Mesozoic monsters.
I’m following standard schoolyard procedure for this list, so the first part is the worst, the second is the best (and third is the one with the Cryolophosaurus crest).
Worst. Dinosaurs. EVER.
1: King Kong’s “Brontosaurus”
The amphibious, carnivorous “Brontosaurus” of 1933’s King Kong was an undeniably scary dinosaur, and that’s exactly why it belongs on the “worst” list. The dinosaur acts as if the predatory mind of a tyrannosaur was planted inside the brain of a comically sharp-toothed sauropod that has an insatiable appetite for sailors. Indeed, as every up-to-date dinofan knows, the sauropod’s proper name is Apatosaurus and this 80-foot-long herbivore had a small set of peg-like teeth that the dinosaur used to crop ferns and leaves before swallowing them without chewing. While King Kong’s “Brontosaurus” gets points for style, the Hollywood dinosaur is the complete opposite of what the real animal was like.
2: Carnosaur’s Tyrannosaurus
Carnosaur—1993’s other adaptation of a novel about genetically engineered dinosaurs—was a dismal attempt to depict dinosaurs in their flesh-ripping, bloody glory. But seeing a trio of teenagers get eviscerated by a Deinonychus hand-puppet, among other movie misfires, is more humorous than horrifying. At least that scrappy little gut-spiller had some personality. The movie’s biggest star is a life-sized mechanical Tyrannosaurus that drags its tail and lurches across the screen as if it has a severe hangover. Despite its awful performance, though, the Carnosaur’s T. rex became something of a minor celebrity, appearing in two Carnosaur sequels, the derivative Raptor, and the misogynistic bit of cinema trash called Dinosaur Island. For such an atrocious puppet, Carnosaur’s tyrannosaur sure has logged a lot of screen time.
3: The Land Before Time gang
Hear me out. I adored the first Land Before Time. I cried at the end and was mercilessly teased by my sister. And the little dinosaurs get bonus points for looking so different from the adults—as recent research has highlighted, dinosaurs changed drastically as they grew up. But by childhood nostalgia for the animated dinosaur tale was subsequently splintered into irreparable pieces by the parade of twelve (!!!) direct-to-video sequels. (Cuba Gooding, Jr. voiced a dinosaur named “Loofah” in the last one. I’m not kidding.) The low-quality animation gave life to schmaltzy life lessons plucked from the after school special bargain bin, including songs. Flying Spaghetti Monster help me, the songs. I saw the first sequel just once, when I was eleven years old, and almost 20 years later the chorus of one wretched earworm still pops uninvited into my head now and then. For taking the teeth out of dinosaurs through a dozen films, The Land Before Time characters are among the worst film dinosaurs of all.
4: Metamorphosis’ Dino Dude
Unless you’re a major devotee of creature features, you probably haven’t seen 1990’s Metamorphosis. Count yourself lucky. This rancid, bottom-of-the-barrel chunk of schlock wants to be The Fly so very bad, and apparently the filmmakers behind it thought that having the loathsome protagonist—egotistical geneticist Peter Houseman—turn into a dinosaur would somehow save the movie. Maybe it would have worked had the dinosaurified Houseman not looked like a gnarly dollar store dinosaur model. A squad of cops immediately guns down the stiff monstrosity as soon as it appears—not because the mutated scientist posed a real threat, it would seem, but because the awkward monster is an embarrassment to movie dinosaurs everywhere.
5: Dishonorable Mention: Faux dinosaurs
From 1955’s King Dinosaur to 1970’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, a spate of old dinosaur films used lizards, alligators, and other reptiles as dinosaur stand-ins. Special effects crews often stuck horns and sails on the poor reptiles to make them seem more prehistoric, and, in a cruel method of filming dinosaur battles on the cheap, made the harried reptiles fight each other. In terms of both filmmaking ethics and scientific accuracy, lizards and other unfortunate herps forced to be Mesozoic monsters are truly the worst of movie “dinosaurs.”
The Best Dinostars Ever
1: King Kong’s “Ferructus”
If you saw Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong in theaters, you only caught a fleeting glimpse of the imaginary horned dinosaur Ferructus in an establishing shot. But in the extended DVD release, the ornery ceratopsid gives the film’s rescue party a savage welcome to Skull Island’s jungle before being gunned down. A speculative take on what relatives of Styracosaurus would look like had they survived to the modern day, the terribly pointy dinosaur combines a rough nose boss—as in Pachyrhinosaurus—with an array of paired hooks, horns, and hornlets seen among dinosaurs such as Centrosaurus. No one has found a real dinosaur quite like Ferructus yet, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. But the beautifully-imagined Ferructus makes the best list for one very important reason often overlooked in dinosaur cinema—even herbivores can be dangerous dinosaurs.
By modern standards, The Valley of Gwangi’s titular Allosaurus is a misbegotten beast. The carnivore’s limp tail trails on the ground, he’s covered in lumpy alligator scales, and the allosaur wants nothing more out of life than to eat every single thing he comes across. And that’s why I adore Gwangi. Lovingly animated by stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, the Allosaurus is less an individual animal than a prehistoric force of nature that cannot be reigned in or contained. The trope is old—King Kong explored what happens when prehistoric wildnerness and the modern world collide years before—but Gwangi does it with great style among western locales reminiscent of where dinosaur bones are often found. Gwangi represented the voracious dinosaurs I grew up with, and such single-minded dinosaurian predators still have a place in my heart.
3: Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus rex
There’s no contest. Even twenty years after the first film debuted, Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus rex remains the best cinema dinosaur of them all. Brought to life through computer-generated imagery and exquisitely-designed puppets, the film’s T. rex looks just as awesome and terrifying as anything I could imagine (even if we now know that the movie’s dinosaur is naked, lacking a coat of dinofuzz). And despite some silly inaccuracies—such as the “only in the movies” nonsense that T. rex couldn’t see you if you stood still—Jurassic Park’s carnivorous star remains a realistic tribute to the “prize fighter of antiquity.” The raptors were clever, sure, but since T. rex quickly dispatches two of the smaller sickle-clawed predators at the end of the film, roaring its dominance as a “WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH” banner falls to the floor, I wouldn’t argue with the king of the tyrant dinosaurs.
Honorable Mention: Godzilla
Depending on the film, Godzilla may or may not be a mutated, radioactive dinosaur. (The less said about 1998’s American remake, the better.) But whatever his origin, the kaiju looks like the shuffling atomic lovechild of a theropod and a stegosaur. Although, as paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter once speculated, Godzilla might actually fit the bill for a distant relative of Ceratosaurus. Not only did the Jurassic’s Ceratosaurus possess formidable teeth and claws, but it also had an array of bony knobs along its back that could at least speculatively form the basis for Godzilla’s trademark fins. Given that he has cinematically saved the world multiple times, and stars in more movies than James Bond, no list of top movie dinosaurs would be complete without at least a hat-tip to Gojira.