T. rex on the Silver Screen
A history of dinosaur movies
by Beth Rowen
With the enormous success of the Jurassic Park film franchise—the first two installments are among the top 25 highest-grossing films of all time—one would have anticipated a series of ripoffs and copycats. But this hasn't happened, and a look at pre-Jurassic Park cinema reveals that dinosaur movies aren't as plentiful as could be expected.
It's a tricky genre for filmmakers. Pre-teens are obsessed with dinosaurs, but the theme lends itself to violence and gore, taboo for this age set. Several animated dinosaur films geared specifically for moppets have done well at the box office and in video, although many of the live action entries have not found wide audiences. Many of these are worth a look if only to see how technology has advanced.
Jurassic Park triumphs
Jurassic Park (1993), the special effects extravaganza directed by Steven Spielberg, was one of the first films to be dominated by computerized wizardry. In fact, the film was entirely effects driven and sacrificed suspense and narrative for visual spectacle and grandeur. If anything, the film illustrated that the future of film lay in computer-generated imaging (CGI).
Despite its mega budget and the fact that it was released four years after the original, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), didn't introduce any groundbreaking technological advances, nor did Spielberg and company focus on plot or character development. Nevertheless, the film remains one of the most commercially successful sequels of all time and broke several box office records in its opening weekend, taking in a whopping $92.7 million.
From cuddly to carnivorous
Years before Jurassic Park, there was The Land Before Time series of animated films. The first, The Land Before Time, debuted in 1988 and has been a perennial favorite of the tots. The series follows the adventures of Littlefoot, an irresistibly cute brontosaurus, and his pals as they use their endearing pluck to maneuver themselves out of precarious situations. Direct-to-video entries followed from 1994 through 2000.
In Dinosaurus! (1960), a T. rex, brontosaurus, and a Neanderthal man are accidentally unearthed on a tropical island in modern time and encounter culture shock and terrorized civilians. Gregg Martell plays the caveman who runs into a woman and is as scared as she is when he sees her makeup and attire. More fun than frightening, the film, directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., is suited to both children and adults.
Believe it or not, there was another dinosaur movie in 1993. Carnosaur, produced by king of camp Roger Corman, featured Diane Ladd (mother of Jurassic Park star Laura Dern) as a mad scientist who breeds a T. rex by combining dinosaur and chicken DNA. The creatures hatch and wreak bloody havoc on Nevada. The doctor doesn't stop there. She also infects women with a virus that causes them to give birth to baby carnosaurs. Disturbing but well-acted.
Before the age of technology
The Land Unknown (1951) shows just how far special effects have come. On their way to the South Pole, a pair of explorers (Jock Mahoney and William Reynolds) and a reporter (Shawn Smith) make an emergency landing in the Antarctic, where they discover a kingdom of prehistoric beasts and an out of control man-eating plant. Somehow, the explorers find time to compete for Smith's affections. The dinosaurs look more like angry, drooling kangaroos than reptiles, but the film makes for good late-night entertainment.
Edgar Rice Burrough's World War I science fiction novel, The Land That Time Forgot (1918), was adapted for the big screen in 1975 by Kevin Connor and starred Doug McClure and John McEnery. A German submarine downs a U.S. ship, but a handful of survivors commandeer the vessel, which then runs aground on Caprona, an island in the South Sea. In addition to fighting the elements and attempting to repair the sub, the survivors battle enormous dinosaurs and a group of hostile cavemen. The film spawned a sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1976), which picks up with McClure stranded on Caprona fending off the beasts and cavemen and awaiting rescue.
Dino flicks in the 21st century
Reminiscent of the classic Jungle Book storyline, Dinosaur (2000) is a story of an orphaned iguanodon, Aladar, who is adopted by a pack of lemurs. After a meteor strikes Earth, Aladar and his new family must flee their island home and search for a safe breeding ground. Aladar is forced to grow up quickly as he meets others of his own kind, travels across a hot desert, and defends his new friends and family against the violent velociraptors and carnotaurs. It is up to Aladar to keep his family, his fellow dinosaurs, and himself safe.
Based on the eponymous 1974 television series, Land of the Lost (2009) is the story of Dr. Rick Marshall (Will Ferrell), a time–traveling scientist who no one seems to take seriously. After successfully achieving time travel by harnessing the power of tachyons, Marshall is sent back in time to a world of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures; he must rely on a monkey named Chaka to return him to the present. The doctor and his companions must avoid becoming dinner for a dangerous T. rex and a host of frightening reptiles—or even worse—becoming permanent residents of "the land of the lost."