If you’re a fan of dinosaur movies, there really isn’t that much out there that’s what you’d call “good.” There are only so many times you can watch the first Jurassic Park, and I should know. I’ve watched it more than 100 times. Anything with a dinosaur might seem exciting, but more often than not, what you get most excited about ends up looking like this.
In honor of Jurassic World coming out, I decided to help people discover the best cinematic fights involving dinosaurs that are out there. There have been some good shows on Discovery Channel that animate fights to varying degrees of success, but I’m looking only toward film. I’m also considering monster movies to be different from dinosaur films. That means movies like Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Destroy All Monsters that otherwise would’ve made the list aren’t considered. I want to see some actual dinosaurs, even if they’re grossly misinterpreted because we once thought a Tyrannosaurus’ eyes went where his nostrils should be (more on that later). Let’s dive in:
Stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is responsible for any number of visual effects that hold up much better than they should. In 1969, he told the story of an Allosaurus captured into a rodeo show. If you’ve seen any version of King Kong, you know this sort of thing is a bad idea. Gwangi the Allosaurus is introduced battling a Styracosaurus. Like most meetings on this list, it could have never physically taken place because of when the species lived…and also because cowboys are riding around. The Styracosaurus is doing pretty well for itself before Carlos decides to go and stick a spear in its side. Not cool, Carlos. Not cool.
Steven Spielberg’s first dinosaur project, albeit only as producer, was a massively successful Bambi-meets-The Incredible Journey. It holds up surprisingly well, losing none of its tension or emotional impact. Is it scientifically accurate? Not in the least, but only two entries on this list really are.
While it may seem tame by today’s standards, this scene in 1933 was an unparalleled accomplishment in special effects wizardry. King Kong was such a game-changing film that it would be released 5 more times in the next 23 years, and this fight against a Tyrannosaurus Rex was the film’s keystone moment. To keep it from becoming repetitive, notice how they use Ann Darrow’s tree collapsing to reframe the angle of the fight halfway through.
I know, I know, I said I wanted to see actual dinosaurs. What the hell’s a Vastatosaurus Rex? Look, it’s close enough to a Tyrannosaurus that I’m willing to overlook it, and it pairs well with the original scene above that Peter Jackson based this on. Nevermind that Ann Darrow would’ve died from whiplash 50 times over, it’s a great scene in an under-appreciated remake. What happened in Jackson’s head to remove the tension and humor in his fight scenes by the time we got to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we may never know.
Sometimes forgotten in the middle of Fantasia is a terrifying battle between two foes that existed millions of years apart. Let’s get nerdy for a second: when Fantasia was made in 1940, Tyrannosaurus was believed to have three fingers, not two, and his eyes were always very far forward on his head – because of incomplete skulls, paleontologists initially placed his eyes where his nostrils would be. When you see Allosaurus on this list, he was treated in Hollywood as interchangeable with a T-Rex all the way through the 60s.
One Million Years B.C. is a product of the 60s if ever there was one. A fur-bikini clad Raquel Welch appeared on the posters three times taller than any of the dinosaurs that were supposedly the main attraction. Take a look at the Allosaurus (not a T-Rex as the clip states) battle below. It blends live-action and stop-motion together seamlessly, and the filmmaking employs caveman Tumak’s line-of-sight to direct the editing and help us keep track of the battle even when it’s taking place off-screen. It helps that the Allosaurus (Ray Harryhausen’s work again) has enough personality and detail that it can hold close-ups.
If you’re looking for a cheesy dinosaur fix, you could do a lot worse than One Million Years B.C. It’s the rare dinosaur movie that remembers to feature the dinosaurs, sometimes even having characters snatched from one beast to the next. Unfortunately, it’s probably also considered a documentary by the Creation Museum.
I’m cheating here. The first Jurassic Park contained no real fight scenes. We remember it as an action movie, but that’s not how audiences viewed it at the time, not when they were shrieking in their seats. Jurassic Park has the DNA of horror movies coursing through its veins, and this is what makes it so effective.
My favorite detail in this scene is the tapping of the sickle-claw. As she searches for two terrified children, one Velociraptor taps that claw on the ground in impatience like you or I would our foot. It signals to us that finding and tearing the children apart isn’t a possibility – it’s an inevitability. It’s the Velociraptor’s “Here’s Johnny!” moment, and it says everything about the Velociraptors’ role in that film.
How does the CGI look so good after 22 years? Because every Raptor close-up you see is a two-person puppet. CGI was used only as a last resort in Jurassic Park, when a dinosaur was required to do something that neither an animatronic nor a puppet could accomplish. And yes, 22 years later, this scene still sends shivers up my spine.
There is one more I’d like to share with you. It’s not a feature film, but it’s a short film: Phil Tippett’s Prehistoric Beast is an undeniable achievement. In 1980, Tippett was a stop-motion expert – he’d animated the tauntauns in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. By 1993, he was so good that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were nearly done in stop-motion as well, before Spielberg saw the strides CGI had made. Spielberg still kept Tippett on to do the previsualizations for the Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptors in stop-motion, a decision that did much to work out potential kinks and test risky shots before they happened.
Yet in 1984, his short film Prehistoric Beast told a stunning story of hunter and prey. Never has there been a better 10 minutes of dinosaur storytelling on film. Technology is conspiring against my embedding it in this article, but I urge you to check out Phil Tippett’s Prehistoric Beast on YouTube here.
What’s your favorite dinosaur fight scene? Did I leave something good off?