Dinosaurs! They’ve all been dead for millions of years, but at the box office, they’ll never go extinct. This weekend’s 3D re-release of Steven Spielberg’s classic blockbuster Jurassic Park is just the latest example of how much filmgoers love getting stomped on by the big scaly beasts, but Hollywood has a long tradition of studios reaping Tyrannosaurus-sized grosses out of dino-thrillers — or occasionally looking like cavemen when audiences don’t show up. In honor of the movie biz’s continued love affair with our prehistoric pals, this week’s list offers a look back at some of the most dino-centric movies we could think of. It’s time for Total Recall!
Filmed at a unique moment in cinema history — when animatronic effects were really starting to come into their own, and before the advent of affordable, good-looking CGI — 1985’s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend is a sweetly affable, family-friendly drama about a husband-and-wife team of paleontologists (played by Sean Young and William Katt) racing against time through the jungles of Africa to rescue a cute widdle baby dinosaur and its mother from an evil scientist (Patrick McGoohan). Unfortunately, despite the studio’s insistence that Baby would take filmgoers on “the greatest adventure ever born,” it ended up being a bit of a box office disaster for Disney/Touchstone — and a different kind of nightmare for critics like Marie Mahoney of the Austin Chronicle, who pleaded, “Even if your children like dinosaurs, don’t let them be exposed to the offensive, insensitive, intolerably anti-humanist and racist propagandizing that is draped around them in this film. No plot, no heart, no soul.”
Unlike a lot of modern-day animated movies, Disney’s Dinosaur doesn’t offer much in the way of a flashy voice cast; its stars included D.B. Sweeney, Ossie Davis, Alfre Woodard, Della Reese, and a young(er) Hayden Panettiere. But what it lacked in marquee oomph, it made up with sheer visual brilliance, bringing most of its $127 million budget to bear on breathtakingly detailed computer animation. That was enough for audiences, who turned out en masse to witness the story of Aladar (Sweeney), an orphan Iguanodon adopted by a family of lemurs, bringing in nearly $350 million in worldwide grosses. Dinosaur wasn’t quite as much of a hit with critics, but it still had its supporters — including Roger Ebert, who marveled, “The movie sends the message that computer animation is now sophisticated enough to mimic life itself in full motion, with such detail that the texture of reptilian skin seems as real as a photograph in National Geographic.”
Combining two of sci-fi’s most well-worn tropes — modern man’s propensity for uncovering exotic corpses while building modern stuff and lightning’s ability to resuscitate said corpses — 1960’s Dinosaurus! takes viewers to a Caribbean harbor, where construction workers unknowingly dig up a caveman alongside some million-year-old dinosaur bodies, leave them out to be zapped by bolts from the sky, and trigger a bit of low-budget Jurassic Park action. The result isn’t really anyone’s idea of a classic dinosaur movie — but it’s also, in the words of Ken Hanke of the Mountain Xpress, “Too goofy to dislike.”
Heralding the full-on arrival of Hollywood’s CG era with a throwback to good old-fashioned creature features, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park offered sublime spectacle without forgetting the cardinal rule of filmmaking: You have to tell a story audiences are going to care about. To that end, Park assembled a cast of savvy character actors (including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough) to lend heart and believability to a sci-fi-infused tale about a goofy millionaire (Attenborough) who bankrolls a vacation destination filled with real live dinosaurs. Having said that, it would be disingenuous to suggest that David Koepp and Michael Crichton’s script spent much time on human characterizations; it was far too busy zipping around from one dino-peril to the next. But that was just fine with audiences, who made Jurassic Park the year’s top-grossing film by a wide margin — and with most critics, including Movieline’s Stephen Farber, who admitted “True, the dialogue and performances are feeble, but the thing is basically no more — and no less — than a nifty monster movie that delivers crackerjack thrills.”
Animator Don Bluth was one of the more star-crossed filmmakers of the 1980s, finding his promising career derailed by a series of business setbacks throughout the decade in spite of generally well-received work. But no amount of bad luck could stop 1988’s The Land Before Time, which used the power of cute talking dinosaur toddlers to reap big box office bucks (and spawn a franchise that currently includes a dozen direct-to-video sequels). If you grew up in the 1980s, spending time with Littlefoot, Ducky, Cera, and Petrie was a rite of passage; as critic Steve Rhodes put it, “It is full of the delightful merriment of childhood, albeit dinosaur childhood not Homo sapiens. For a sweet and simple little picture the whole family can gather round the tube and watch with delight, this one delivers the goods.”
Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, and dinosaurs — plus a loose creative affiliation with one of the most beloved live-action Saturday morning serials of the 1970s. It’s a can’t-miss proposition, right? Universal certainly seemed to think so, given that the studio ponied up $100 million and a plum June release date for 2009’s Land of the Lost. Sadly, the result — which starred Ferrell as a nincompoop paleontologist who triggers a time warp and finds himself trapped in the distant past with a college student (Anna Friel) and a gift shop owner (McBride) — didn’t even try to recapture the low-budget magic of the original series, opting instead for a satirical approach that failed to resound with filmgoers and critics alike. “With his belligerent blankness and gawky aplomb, Ferrell has made me laugh as much as any comic of his generation, but he’s not doing anything fresh in Land of the Lost,” opined a disappointed Peter Rainer for the Christian Science Monitor.
World War I was pretty terrible, what with the trench warfare and the mustard gas and the screaming death — but for the unlucky survivors of a sunken British merchant ship who were taken captive by a German U-boat, the war ended up seeming like a vacation. For these poor folks, whose adventures were immortalized in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1918 novel and adapted for the screen in Kevin Connor’s 1975 The Land That Time Forgot, becoming prisoners of war was just the beginning of a journey that ended up taking them all the way to Antarctica — where they discovered a menagerie of supposedly extinct creatures, including dinosaurs and Neanderthal humans. Of course, the dinosaurs looked a heck of a lot like puppets — and the boat, for that matter, looked an awful lot like a model — but unless you’ve been to Antarctica yourself, who are you to judge? Audiences were only too happy to make the journey to this Land, making it one of the year’s surprise hits, and though most critics rolled their eyes at its low-budget effects and hammy performances, others appreciated its throwback matinee vibe. Time’s Jay Cocks, for one, promised that “instant second childhood is guaranteed in less than 90 minutes.”
Forget about traveling into the distant past or wasting time resurrecting a few measly velociraptors. For 1978’s Planet of Dinosaurs, director James Shea and an army of low-wage effects engineers cooked up a story about a spaceship crew crash-landing on a distant planet that just happened to be covered in dinosaurs. Shea didn’t have any stars in his cast or much money to work with (as the movie’s Wikipedia page politely puts it, Planet “was filmed on a significantly limited budget”), leaving his film to suffer an ignominious fate at the box office, but it’s developed something of an ironic cult following among the Rifftrax crowd — even if, as critics like Cinefantastique’s Steve Biodrowski caution, “Although set in the future, Planet of Dinosaurs is pure 1970s camp, with hairstyles and jump-suits that evoke unpleasant memories of the horrible disco era.”
Long before Cowboys & Aliens blended Westerns & sci-fi, The Valley of Gwangi imagined what might happen if a traveling Wild West show had its tiny horse stolen by a pack of gypsies and, in the process of trying to get it back, unwittingly unleashed stop-motion dinosaur havoc. While perhaps not objectively a “good” movie, Gwangi is notable for employing special-effects titan Ray Harryhausen, who brought his singular animation style to bear on the movie’s array of rampaging prehistoric creatures. “How can a dinosaur fan of any age not love Gwangi,” queried Commercial Appeal’s John Beifuss, “in which the title Allosaurus makes his public debut with the unscheduled addition of a screaming dwarf between his jaws?”
1993 turned out to be the year of the dinosaur for Steven Spielberg, who executive-produced this animated adventure through his Amblin imprint — and sent it to theaters just a few months after unleashing Jurassic Park on throngs of suitably impressed filmgoers. The reaction to We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story turned out to be quite a bit less enthusiastic, in spite of a family-friendly story about dinosaurs popping up in modern-day New York City and a bizarrely eclectic voice cast that included everyone from John Goodman and Rhea Perlman to Walter Cronkite and Jay Leno. “We’re Back is an exercise in endurance,” groaned James Berardinelli of ReelViews. “Not only is it dull, but it has such an overwhelming sense of sweetness that it threatens to become nauseating.”