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The 20 Best (and 10 Worst) Dinosaurs of Pop Culture

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The 20 Best (and 10 Worst) Dinosaurs of Pop Culture

When the wide release of Jurassic World arrives on Friday, it will end a 14-year drought since the last Jurassic Park-series film, which seems almost impossible. Can it really have been almost a decade and a half since the last time these beasts ran wild (in the thoroughly underwhelming Jurassic Park III)? Moreover, can it really have been 22 years since the original, 1993 film?

The first Jurassic Park represented a tidal shift on multiple fronts: In visual FX, in the definition of a summer blockbuster and in the public’s cultural consciousness of dinosaurs in general. We’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs—what child doesn’t go through a dinosaur phase?—but Jurassic Park brought the pop culture appropriation of dinos to new heights as only a touchstone cultural event can.

In fact, for creatures that haven’t existed on Earth for 65 million years, it’s sort of amazing how deeply the concept and knowledge of dinosaurs permeates our culture. Ask an average person walking down the street, and they can probably name at least a handful of dinosaur species. Pick the right nerd, and you could be there all day. They’re in our movies, our TV shows, our videogames, our music, our books. They’re everywhere. By the way—I don’t consider Godzilla a “dinosaur,” for the record—so don’t ask.

With that in mind, then, here are the 20 best cases of dinosaurs in pop culture—I’m warning you now, we may have been a little free-wheeling in our definition of what qualifies for that label. And as a bonus, enjoy the 10 worst dinosaurs in pop culture as a shameful little bonus.


20. Gertie the Dinosaur

Gertie was the creation of pioneering animator Winsor McCay in 1914, one of the first animated characters in history and the first recorded animated dinosaur. Her 12-minute film, with McCay acting as ringleader and pet-owner of sorts, was really the first exposure that many audiences ever had to an animated character, and she was groundbreaking in being the first animated character to “interact” with a presenter and show personality. She’s frisky, juvenile and a little bit capricious, ignoring some of McCay’s commands and crying when scolded. Most importantly, Gertie is also illustrative of how pop culture’s fascination with dinosaurs was present from the very beginning.

19. The Dinos of Dino Riders

T. Rex with freaking lasers on it’s head? Check. A Diplodocus that carries a highly armed mobile base on it’s back? Check. Even though this series aired with the sole purpose of launching a new line of toys, it really doesn’t get much cooler than warring humans and humanoids, dueling while riding armed-to-the-teeth dinosaurs. A must-own on VHS, if you can find it! And the toys are pretty neat as well. — Sean Doyle

18. “Grumpy”/”Scarface” the T-Rex, Land of the Lost

There isn’t any version of Land of the Lost on TV—not the 1974 series or the 1991 reboot—that doesn’t make for some supremely weird viewing. These shows were just a melange of bizarre, goofy-looking costumes and deadly danger mixed in right alongside classic sitcom tropes—you never knew if you were getting an after school special or someone attempting to murder the family. At least with the resident T-Rex—“Grumpy” in the 1974 original and “Scarface” in the reboot, there was no doubt, as his one and only objective was the utter destruction of the Marshall or Porter families. The serialization of his appearances makes for an odd characterization—an unintelligent villain who still pops up repeatedly as a “main character” to be repeatedly foiled. I particularly liked Scarface in the 1991 version of my childhood, where the family constructed an elaborate network of tin cans on tripwires to know when the T-Rex was coming.

17. The dino-babies of Prehysteria!

For a movie directed by low-budget kingpin Charles Band, he of Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man fame, the little puppet/stop-motion dinosaurs of Prehysteria! actually look shockingly serviceable—this movie seriously looks better, effects-wise, than stuff Charles Band was making a decade later. The film, meanwhile, is just a fun, perfectly ‘90s trifle of a kids movie, coming out the same year as Jurassic Park as if to say “Hey parents, is your kid too young to see men devoured by the T-Rex? Here’s some rambunctious dino babies instead!” They even get adorable, music-related names: Elvis, Paula, Jagger, Hammer and Madonna—how ‘90s is that? The film was successful enough on the home video market to inspire two more sequels that just rehashed the same concept over again—they sure as hell weren’t going to build new models, so the baby dinosaurs just never grew any larger over the span of three films. Might want to check their vitamin regimen, guys.

16. T. Rex (the band)

Originally formed as an acoustic group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, the band saw moderate success until embracing their wilder (dare I say “Primeval”) sides—going electric and shortening their name. T. Rex started climbing the charts with Electric Warrior, which included what would become the now instantly sing-alongable song, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)”. By decree, every “fun” film set in the early ‘70s must include this song at some point. — Sean Doyle

15. The dinosaurs of King Kong, all versions

Kong’s battle against two massive therapods in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake is thrilling and a visual marvel that outdoes just about any action sequence from the same time period, but it’s the dinosaur fight in the original 1933 film that really blew people’s minds when it first appeared. There had never been anything like Willis O’Brien’s stop motion animation work when Kong showed up in cinemas, and his masterpiece in that film is the battle between the giant gorilla and an even more menacing-looking T-Rex. These were visuals moving with such fluidity that this sequence seriously wasn’t surpassed for decades—not until the heyday of Ray Harryhausen at the end of the ‘50s. The T-Rex may be killed by Kong (in a gruesomely satisfying manner), but it left an indelible impression in the consciousness of an entire generation.

14. The dinosaurs of The Land Before Time

Quick—can you guess how many shitty Land Before Time sequels have been cranked out in the past 20 years? Four? Seven? How about 13? Yes, there have been 14 total entries in the Land Before Time franchise, all direct-to-video musicals of uniformly low quality except for the original of course—we’re talking movies with subtitles like The Wisdom of Friends and Invasion of the Tinysauruses here. The original 1988 film, though, is still a classic, probably the best animated dinosaur movie ever made, at least until Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur finally arrives later this year. It alternates between cutesy with its central characters—Littlefoot, Cera, Petrie, etc.—and quite scary/thrilling in the sequences with the terrifying Sharptooth, who is animated in a completely different style. It’s still a pretty, entertaining children’s movie almost 30 years later—show your kids sometime, they’ll probably love it.

13. Reptar, both the band and the Rugrats character

Athens rockers Reptar the band burst onto the scene in 2011 with their debut, Oblangle Fizz Y’all. With a summer-y, Talking Heads-esk vibe, this band is perfect for long days spent in the sun. Do yourself a favor and throw on a Reptar album and hit a beach. The band takes it’s name from the Rugrats character Reptar, who is an irradiated green Tyrannosaurus Rex that is known to sometimes appear “on ice.” — Sean Doyle

12. The player-controlled dinosaurs of Primal Carnage

Making great dinosaur-based videogames has, perhaps surprisingly, not been a very easy thing to do over the years, especially when it comes to playing as the dinosaurs. When Primal Carnage was released in 2012, then, it was a breath of fresh air—it’s not the deepest game, and didn’t have the backing of a huge studio, but finally a game captured the fun of dinos vs. humans in a way that was equal parts compelling and humorous. Playing as a dinosaur is a blast, whether you’re pouncing on unwary stragglers as the novaraptor or crushing people underfoot with the T-Rex—the controls have a near perfect degree of heft and intuitiveness to make each feel different. The variety of classes give quite an exciting variety of play, and the action is fast-paced and gleefully ridiculous. These might be the best videogame depictions of dinosaurs so far, or at least playable ones.

11. Gwangi from The Valley of Gwangi

Ray Harryhausen did a lot of dinosaur movies, but this is the last and best from the greatest stop motion animation artist of all time, one of the last applications of everything he learned from his start in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms through a career of monster features. Unlike One Million Years B.C., its dinosaur isn’t living alongside cavemen, but a relic trapped in a lost world and discovered by American cowboys. Gwangi is a vicious Allosaurus brought to life by Harryhausen’s stop-motion artistry, and his artfully filmed interactions with them elevate this B-movie into a genre classic—particularly Gwangi’s battle with a Styracosaurus and the scene where the cowboys ROPE A FREAKING ALLOSAURUS and manage to bring him down for transport back to town. Naturally, Gwangi breaks free shortly thereafter and goes on a spree of destruction, ending in a classic sequence in a burning church. Gwangi is the best old-school, stop-motion dinosaur.

10. Dino from The Flintstones

On The Flintstones, Dino is prehistoric man’s best friend, the dinosaur equivalent of a faithful hound. He also shares a few characteristics with Hobbes of Calvin & Hobbes, namely a propensity toward meeting Fred at the door in mid-air at high speed. He’s like the template of every animated pet/best friend—endlessly faithful, comic relief, hyperkinetic. The line toward Brian on Family Guy begins with Dino on The Flintstones. He even had his own “marshmallow Dino-licious” breakfast cereal, seen above.

9. The dinosaurs of Dinotopia

As a child I was always more drawn to words than illustrations, but even I was absolutely spellbound the first time I picked up a copy of James Gurney’s first Dinotopia book. The illustrations, suffice it to say, are absolutely gorgeous, and both the first book and its sequel won Hugo Awards for best original artwork. They tell the story of a naturalist and his young son who are shipwrecked on a beautiful, mysterious island where humans and intelligent dinosaurs live side by side in a collaborative culture. Seeing its illustrations hit me right in my dinosaur-loving heart—they remain the best printed images of anything dinosaur-related that I can imagine, evoking both the majesty and fierce nature of everything dinosauria.

8. The Toronto Raptors’ Vince Carter

Look, we said we were going to be thinking outside the box on this one, okay? Vince Carter, drafted originally by the Golden State Warriors, was quickly traded to the Toronto Raptors, where he became the franchise’s best-ever player, winning Rookie of the Year in 1999 and becoming an eight-time all-star. In terms of lasting pop culture impact, though, it’s all about the dunks. Carter is unquestionably one of the best dunkers in NBA history, and his accolades include everything from an instant classic victory in the 2000 NBA slam dunk contest to the infamous dunk he hit by jumping clear over 7’2’’ French player Frederic Weis during a game at the 2000 Summer Olympics. It was such a devastating sight that the French press called it le dunk de la mort, “the dunk of death.” That’s worthy of comparison with all other raptors, we think.

7. Rex, from Toy Story

Rex is a secret weapon of humor in the Toy Story series much in the way that his voice actor, Wallace Shawn, is in real life. People overlook Rex, people forget Shawn’s name. But all it takes is a few seconds of hearing that instantly recognizable, high-pitch voice to know exactly who he is. Rex, meanwhile, is funny in his contradictions—one expects the depiction of a T-Rex in just about any format, even toys, to be fierce and bold, and that’s not Rex. Rather, he’s sensitive, anxious and a touch paranoid, a meek sweetheart in the body of a giant (compared to the other toys). He’s a wonderful subversion of what we expect from dinosaurs, and he has many of the series’ best lines, considering a small amount of overall screen time.

6. Grimlock and the Dinobots, from Transformers

Forget anything in the most recent Age of Extinction, we’re talking O.G. Grimlock here, from the Transformers toys, comics and original animated TV show—aka, badass Grimlock. In fact, all of the Dinobots in the original transformers are badasses—they’re like the ultimate group of tough-as-nails mercs, and when they show up on the scene you know shit is about to get real, whether they’re in the shape of dinosaurs or robots. Grimlock can transform into a T-Rex, which naturally makes him into the leader, and he’s one of the few Transformers who is regularly shown to be on par, strength-wise, with Optimus Prime and Megatron. The Dinobots are technically Autobots, which makes them good guys, but they’re more like brooding anti-heroes, kind of stupid and keeping to themselves but always throwing in with the side of good at moments of extreme need. They’re the most fun to quote of all the Transformers.

5. The cast of the TV show Dinosaurs

You can’t deny it—as stupid as it occasionally looked, if you lived through the early to mid-’90s, you watched Dinosaurs at some point. Essentially a carbon copy of just about any other family sitcom, it got endless mileage out of instead being set in Earth’s prehistory, with actors wearing bulky (but amazingly interactive) rubber dinosaur suits. Earl Sinclair was a stand-in for other blue-collar TV dads such as Al Bundy, but the show could also be surprisingly subversive in its humor at times. It’s also indicative of what a cultural zeitgeist dinosaurs in general were riding in the ‘90s—even before Jurassic Park, a plethora of new discoveries had shed light on dinosaurs as more active, fascinating creatures than we ever imagined, and their frequent forays into our imaginations manifested itself even through family sitcoms like Dinosaurs. Call it silly, but it’s a perfect representation of dinosaur fever in its day.

4. Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr. was actually formed in the ‘80s under the name “Dinosaur” until some legal issues caused them to add the “Jr.” to their name. Punctuated by high gain, distorted guitar leads and Mascis’ drawing vocals, Dinosaur Jr.’s sound was hugely influential on the ‘90s alternative movement. With dino-sized hooks that can make you “Feel The Pain,” there’s nothing junior about this band. They’re the most influential of the dinosaur bands. — Sean Doyle

3. Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil

The most famous actual fossil in the world, the discovery of “Sue” the T-Rex sent shockwaves through the world of paleontology in 1990 when it was discovered in South Dakota. Simultaneously the largest, most complete and best preserved T-Rex specimen ever found, those factors all combined to equal dollar signs. A protracted legal battle over ownership inspired a documentary, Dinosaur 13, and the fossil was eventually sold at auction for the highest ever price paid for dinosaur bones: $8.36 million. The skeleton now stands at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where it’s enjoyed by millions every year and continues to inspire people young and old to do more research into dinosaurs. Sue is by far the most famous “real-life” dinosaur.

2. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park

You knew they would be high up on the list, of course. Jurassic Park’s massive blockbuster success and groundbreaking visual effects, both CGI and practical, helped send the entire world into a renewed period of dinosaur obsession. Everyone has their favorite—the T-Rex. The Velociraptors. The Brachiosaurus. The astoundingly inaccurate Dilophosaurus. The Triceratops, sluggish though she may have been—they all sold so many toys to young kids, myself included, and inspired a new generation of would-be paleontologists. Viewers had never seen dinosaurs brought to life this way before—it was one of those quantum leaps forward in how a subject had been depicted that changes expectations for everything that follows. If you were making a low-budget movie with dinosaurs in the years following the first Jurassic Park—well, good luck with that.

1. Yoshi, from Super Mario World

Yoshi may be the coolest, best sidekick in gaming history, and he also happens to be a dinosaur. Who doesn’t love Yoshi? Everybody wants to play Yoshi in Mario Kart. Everybody wants to play Yoshi in Mario Party. Everybody wants to play Yoshi in Mario Tennis. He has his own game series in Yoshi’s Island and Yoshi’s Story. Like Mario, he has come to completely own the name “Yoshi,” probably to an even greater extent. You can’t name a pet or child “Yoshi” without it being assumed that it’s a reference to the green dinosaur—that’s brand recognition, right there. Yoshi has been universally loved ever since he first started hanging around with Mario on the SNES. That’s why he’s the greatest dinosaur in pop culture.

Next: The 10 WORST dinosaurs in pop culture

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