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Well, I want to create a top 10 list for both the best and worst dinosaur documentaries out there.
But there’s one problem, I’m not sure how I should rate them. Should they be based on the accuracy of the information, the production value of the show, or my own personal enjoyment. If I include ones that I love for purely selfish reasons, I might be giving praise for something that should objectively be on the ‘worst’ list. But I don’t want to just give people what they expect either. There are probably a million lists online that all have the same or similar order. But if I show my honest opinion, I may alienate potential readers. So, what should I do?
Raptor, have you ever read a Youtube comment section on any video with over a million views?
Man, you guys really aren’t helping.
As you can see, I’ve been having a hard time deciding which documentaries I should put on these lists. I new there were a lot of good ones out there, as well as a lot of bad. But when I started breaking down my choices, I found that deciding which ones go where was harder then I imagined. I realized there weren’t as many REALLY bad documentaries out there than I imagined, and there were also some shows that I personally enjoyed but objectively weren’t very good. I had to take into account scientific accuracy, production value, and my personal tastes. They all have an influence on what goes where on these lists. So in the end, this is what I decided. I’ll begin with the Top 10 Best, and do the Worst afterwords. On a side note, if I haven’t yet reviewed a documentary shown on the list (which is most of them to be honest) don’t worry, I hope to look at all of these more in depth down the line. So, without further adieu….
Top 10 Best Dinosaur Documentaries
10. Dinosaur Revolution
This one was a tough one. It made it on the ‘Best’ list by the slimmest of margins, and almost topped the ‘Worst’ list. Why is that? Well, because I’m not sure what to think of this show. There is a lot here to like about it, but there are also many moments in the show that make me scratch my head and go ‘what the hell was that?!” I don’t want to spoil too much because I do want to eventually look at this series in depth, but I’ll give you both the good and bad this show offers.
First the good; this show has some excellent production value. The computer models for the show are really good (still television grade CGI, but on the higher end of the spectrum). The designs for the dinosaurs are also really cool. Each design is very original, not looking like any other depiction of the creature. They are all distinct, and the use of color is very imaginative without being too distracting. The accuracy is also really good, with many of the dinosaurs depicted being the most accurate I’ve seen from a documentary. Sure, it has many mistakes, as all dinosaur documentaries do, but it also gets a lot right that others before didn’t.
So, what is it about this show that keeps me from deciding whether I love it or loathe it? Well, the main problem with the series is how the dinosaurs behave. They are way too anthropomorphisized, almost like cartoon characters. They have very readable human emotions, reacting in ways a person would to a situation as opposed to an animal. There is a lot of weird slapstick and out of place humor peppered throughout the show too, and ‘antagonistic’ characters often get their comeuppance, as opposed to nature documentaries preferring not to take sides. In fact, the characters are so anthropomorphic they are just a voice over way from becoming Disney’s Dinosaur. It doesn’t feel like a documentary, it feels like a movie (and there are legit reasons for this, which I will get into when I fully review this show).
On a side note, there are also a few instances of speculation that are really out there, and probably would have been better if left out. Nothing about it is too bad, but it can really be distracting if you prefer no speculation in your dinosaur documentaries (good luck finding one without that, though).
So, you can see I was very wishy-washy about my opinions on the show, but in the end I felt like there was enough good in it to merit a spot on the ‘Best’ list. When I take a closer look at this series, I think you’ll better understand what I am talking about. This might be one of those shows you’ll just have to watch yourself and make your own conclusions.
9. Monsters We Met
I’m sure this is one you didn’t expect, as it is rather obscure. But this is one of my personal favorites, as it depicts a time in North America’s history that I am really interested in. The basic premise of the show is following early man in a world that they have yet to dominate, and see the mega fauna that once inhabited our world not too long ago. The first episode is my favorite, as it highlight’s a group of nomads traveling from Asia to Alaska in the Pleistocene. When they reach America, they meet a multitude of creatures that once inhabited the land only a few thousand years ago. They meet woolly mammoths, a short faced bear, a sabre tooth cat, a giant ground sloth, and even lesser known Ice Age mammals like Homotherium. Many modern animals live act themselves to further illustrate the variety of life during those times. This includes lions, bison, musk oxen, wolves, horses, camels, reindeer, sheep, and many others. It really shows just how biologically diverse the area was at the time, and kind of makes me want to have a movie depicting Pleistocene North America accurately.
The other two episodes are less exciting, but have their high points. The next episode deals with the Aborigines making landfall in Australia, and they meet the fabled Megalania, a Komodo Dragon the size of a bus.
The next episode deals with natives making landfall on New Zealand, and facing the gigantic Haast Eagle (live acted by a modern Harpy Eagle with editing making it look larger). I don’t find these segments nearly as good as the first one, but I think that’s enough for you to at least give the special a watch. The CGI isn’t all that great, but it makes up for it in enjoyability.
8. Prehistoric Park
This is another entry I struggled with on whether I should put in on the good or bad list. The premise is admittedly completely ridiculous, but opens itself up to a lot of story opportunities. Through the use of time travel, Nigel Marvin goes back to the age of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts to bring them back to the modern day and display them in a prehistoric zoo called Prehistoric Park. So, it’s basically Jurassic Park except nothing goes wrong and the method of bringing prehistoric animals back is even more bonkers. It’s not really a documentary per se, it’s more of a science fiction series with a scientific and educational leaning. I know it may sound stupid, and I personally was struggling with the idea of whether it was good or not, but in the end I find it a highly enjoyable series. The stories don’t just involve bringing the dinosaurs back to our time, they also involve taking care of them once they are here. The scientists have to figure out how to help the creatures cope with the modern day environment and make sure they are comfortable. This leads to both some really interesting and silly events.
The science is mostly good, with some noticeable errors here and their however. The CG, on the other hand, is great. I love how many of the animals look in this show.
7. Planet Dinosaur
OK, now we get to the shows that are actually legitimately good. Planet Dinosaur was a documentary made by the BBC and released in 2011. What separates it from other similar shows (like Walking With Dinosaurs, which was made by the same people) is that instead of using real backgrounds to put the CGI dinosaurs in, the entire scenery is rendered in a computer. This cut the cost immensely, allowing ti to made at a fraction of the cost Walking With Dinosaurs was. You may think this would make the series look cheap, but I think it benefits from this in several ways. First of all, this allows many more species of dinosaurs to be featured. Most dinosaur documentaries are impressive to have more than 25 different species depicted. This series has over 50! Secondly, this allows them to create period accurate dinosaur landscapes. Any modern area they would like to film in would never be 100% accurate to the actual Mesozoic (the Mesozoic had very little to no grass, yet you would never know from most dino docs, which feature vast grasslands all the time). Thirdly, this allows the dinosaurs to flow seamlessly in their environment. In most dinosaur documentaries, you can tell where the camera footage begins and where the CG begins, and can be distracting to some. But here, the dinosaurs actually look like they belong to the environment.
The science in this show is really good too, and it’s one of those dinosaur documentaries that takes itself seriously and doesn’t try to dramatize itself (which is a real problem with some entries of the genre). The science displayed in the series is very accurate for the time of it’s production (although some of it now looks outdated thanks to even more recent findings). It also focuses on a lot of dinosaurs that haven’t really had the spotlight on them yet, as well as some old favorites. I highly recommend it.
6. Walking With Beasts
I’ve already talked about this show, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but I do want to reiterate how much I like this series. I’ve always had a soft spot for Cenozoic mammals, but they always seem to get sidelined unless they’re woolly mammoths or saber tooth tigers. This show finally puts them in the spotlight, and rather magnificently so if I must say so myself. Like all in the ‘Walking With…’ franchise, it suffers from inaccuracies and wild speculation, but it’s probably the most accurate of the series, and is really enjoyable overall.
5. Dinosaur! (Hosted By Christopher Reeve)
Remember when I talked about the Dinosaur Renaissance? Remember how I said it caused a giant dinosaur craze and spawned a million dinosaur specials on TV? This was probably the best of the bunch, and yes, it was hosted by Superman.
Sadly, a battle between Superman and dinosaurs doesn’t occur.
What does occur, however, is arguably much better (arguably). I don’t want to spoil too much because I do want to talk about this special in it’s own post, but I will say what is seen is very well done. It sets out to teach the audience new theories about dinosaurs that surfaced in the 80’s. such as dinosaurs being warm blooded and active, to sauropods preferring land over the swamps, to (of course) dinosaurs taking care of their young. There are some animated segments with dinosaurs in the show, which were animated by Phil Tibbitt (of Jurassic Park fame) with a stop motion animation technique he calls ‘go motion’ (which basically means he adds motion blurs in between frames of the animation to make it look smoother). This results in some of the greatest stop motion I’ve ever seen, and some incredible looking dinosaurs. I won’t spoil it until my full review of the show, however.
4. When Dinosaurs Roamed America
One year after the Britain based BBC produced Walking With Dinosaurs, America based Discovery decided to create it’s own dinosaur themed documentary. For it. they decided to focus on the dinosaurs of North America. Now, I know what you are thinking: do American dinosaurs really need more exposure? And I can certainly see your sentiment. However, this series does a lot more then you might think. Sure, it features all American classics like Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus, but it also features many creatures that have yet to have their spot in the lime light. The CGI isn’t nearly as good as it is in Walking With Dinosaurs, but it’s certainly passable for the time. However, I think the most remarkable thing about the show is that it was the first to depict raptors with feathers. I remember this was the first time I saw these dinosaurs reconstructed that way, and my mind was blown. I knew about the theory at the time, but this was the first time I had an idea of what it would look like.
The show has some very good science for the time, and was probably the most forward thinking dinosaur documentary ever when it was released. It also has a really good energy to it, making it very enjoyable. There is also a lot less speculation than in Walking With Dinosaurs, instead keeping mostly with what we know about the creatures (speculation is still present though, it would be impossible not to be). It also has a few problems with dramatizing and romanticizing the dinosaurs instead of really depicting them animals, but it’s still one I really recommend.
3. Dinosaur Planet
Made by the same people as When Dinosaurs Roamed America, this show acts as a spiritual successor to the above special. It consists of four episodes, each based on actual findings and told from the point of view of the dinosaurs themselves (well, kind of; not really). Narrated by Christian Slater (yeah, I know), each episode takes us to a new locale and follows the lives of several dinosaurs whose stories constantly intertwine. One of the great things about this show is that it focuses on dinosaurs that haven’t really had many depictions in media before (who would have thought a Pyroraptor would be the star of an episode?). One episode is about Velociraptor, and it sets out to correct the stereotype of this dinosaur from the Jurassic Park films by showing it how it really was; small and feathered. What’s more, each episode is based around an actual fossil finding, giving more credit to the scenarios depicted.
Once again, the animation isn’t nearly as good as some other dinosaur documentaries, and the stories can get a bit dramatized, it’s still a highly enjoyable experience. The science depicted is excellent for the time, although it has it’s problems like any other show. But it’s still a great series and worthy of more recognition.
2. Walking With Dinosaurs
What can I say about this show that I and countless others haven’t already? It was absolutely revolutionary. Most shows like it before would mostly show paleontologists talking about dinosaurs, the science behind paleontology, and maybe a few animations of dinosaurs doing their thing. Walking With Dinosaurs was the first to use the format of a nature documentary, watching dinosaurs behave like animals in their natural habitats. It has spawned countless copycats (many of which are on this very list) and really changed the face of the genre. sure, it’s notorious for several inaccuracies and rampant speculation, but the final product is still spectacular.
1. PBS’ The Dinosaurs!
Yes, I understand this may not be a popular choice, and some of you may or may not have even heard of it, but trust me when I say it’s one of the bests (however, it may be here purely for selfish and nostalgic reasons). Released in the early 90’s, and very much influenced by the Dinosaur Renaissance, this four part series covered almost all the basics of the science behind dinosaurs; their discovery, the work behind paleontology, and new theories about dinosaur behavior that was coming out around that time. Seems pretty basic, right? Well, one of the most intriguing aspects of this series are the animated segments, which are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. To the untrained eye they may just look like cartoon dinosaurs, but as an animation fan I see some really interesting techniques in the segments. The animation almost looks like an oil painting come to life, and there is so much attention to detail. You can tell that every frame of movement was an incredibly detailed sketch, with each image meticulously drawn to give us movement. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I wish more dinosaur documentaries used this technique. Here is a sample.
I used to watch this special all the time as a kid, and was always excited when PBS would air it again. Not only are the dinosaur segments incredible, I have yet to see another dinosaur documentary touch nearly all aspects of dinosaur science throughout human history as precisely as this one. It’s a great introduction to anyone who wants to learn about dinosaurs, and really helped to push forward the misconception of dinosaurs being slow lizards.
OK, I’ve showed you my favorite dinosaur documentaries, so now I’m going to have to give you the worst. I won’t spend as much time on these as I did on my other ones, as I’ll probably be reviewing them in full eventually anyway. Also something to consider is that very few of these programs I truly hate or think are terrible (things don’t get really terrible until about the halfway point of the list). It was actually pretty hard to find dinosaur documentaries that were truly reprehensible, so quite a few on the list I do find some enjoyment from. So, let’s move on to….
Top 10 Worst (or at least not as good as the ones above) Dinosaur Documentaries
10. Walking With Monsters
Now, I’m not going to say I hate this show, or even dislike it. It’s very entertaining, just like the other entries of the ‘Walking With…’ series. But out of all the ‘Walking With…’ titles, this one relies the most on speculation. Speculative behavior is often presented as fact, animals are shown to be direct ancestors of later species even though we aren’t sure if those creatures are connected in such a way, and it is probably the entry to have the most factual errors present. This has garnered it an unfavorable reputation among some circles who prefer no speculation in their prehistoric speculative documentaries (like I’ve said before, no speculation in a show like this is next to impossible). It’s not a bad show, however. I still recommend it and wish for you to draw you’re own conclusions.
9. Dinosaurs: Those Terrible Lizards
I remember renting this short film from my local library on VHS as a kid. I remember liking it OK as a kid, although I do remember finding it a tad boring. It came out in 1970, but with the science given to us it might as well have come out decades earlier. Dinosaur science between the 40’s and the 70’s seemed to be sort of a progressional wasteland when it came to dinosaurs (except for the discovery of Deinonychus, but even then it would seem he wouldn’t get his due until the 80’s). Dinosaur depictions between those decades were interchangeable, strange considering the modern paleontological climate where dinosaur depictions seem to be updated on a yearly basis. This short (and I mean short, it lasts just under 10 minutes) isn’t bad, it’s just unremarkable. The stop motion is good, though, and the models would later be used in the Land of the Lost series. But the science is very stagnant, even for it’s time. I still enjoy it as an animation fan, however. The entire short can be seen here.
In this Discovery Channel series, the audience was taken to a famous city in America and learn about how the landscape and wildlife in that area has changed throughout prehistory. Seems like a pretty cool concept, right? Well, what we got was pretty unremarkable. Like the others, it isn’t really bad, it’s just forgettable and boring. We go back in time and see prehistoric creatures do their thing, but it’s not in the least bit engaging. Not to mention the CGI on the animals is very sub par and can be distracting. I think the worst thing about this program is that it’s kind of just ‘there, it doesn’t really illicit an emotional response from me. And to me, that’s an even worse crime then being bad.
7. Chased By Dinosaurs
This two part special, which is technically a part of the ‘Walking With…’ franchise, is much more entertaining and engaging than the previous entry on our list. However, much like Walking With Monsters, it runs pretty heavily on speculation and inaccurate science. The premise of the show is that Nigel Marvin has gone back in time and is studying dinosaurs in their natural habitat (I wonder if this show is a prequel to Prehistoric Park). Certainly an interesting if not outlandish set up, but how is it presented? Well, much like the other entire of this franchise, the program suffers from style over substance; rule of cool over accuracy. There are some glaring instances of misplaced wildlife, and some of the depictions of the dinosaurs a woefully out of date. This program came out in 2002, so there is really no excuse for unfeathered coelurosaurs (Mononykus is shown marginally feathered, but it’s still treated as a rare and new thing). There are also many animals depicted living in times and areas that they weren’t present in real life. The show is very entertaining, and I urge you to see it and draw you’re own conclusions, but there are too many obvious mistakes in it that I have a hard time calling it ‘educational entertainment’.
6. Sea Monsters
This is another entry from the above concept, in which Nigel Marvin goes back in time and meets prehistoric creatures face to face. This time he explores prehistoric seas. Once again, this is an interesting set up that offers itself up to many exciting possibilities, and for the most part it makes the most out of the concept. It is a very entertaining series, but I have a problem with the way it’s presented. It’s another case of sensationalizing the science behind the show for the case of excitement. The creatures are depicted more as monsters instead of animals, and each episode he sets out to find the most ‘dangerous sea’. Although it’s easy to be entertained by these types of shows, it’s hard to call them informative. It kind of borders on the ‘entertainment’ side of ‘edutainment’. It’s by no means terrible, it’s just a bit jumbled for my tastes.
You can probably tell that so far I haven’t really disliked any of the shows on this list; just mentioning that they have some distracting problems. None of them I would label ‘bad’ or even mediocre (for the most part). However, from this point onward we begin to look at documentaries that actually enraged me, programs that actually elicited feelings of anger in me for one reason or another. And these aren’t documentaries about fringe theories about how dinosaurs may still be alive today or once roamed the earth with humans or their connection with aliens (there are documentaries that deal with these subjects), these are meant to be scientifically mainstream, and for one reason or another, fail miserably at what they are trying to do.
Let’s keep going then, shall we?
5. Valley of The T. Rex
This program is, in short, a big fat infected middle finger to all fans of T. rex. It focuses on John Horner’s theories that Tyrannosaurus wasn’t the apex predator that we all thought it was, but instead it was a pure scavenger that lacked the capability to hunt live prey. Some say that Horner came up with this theory simply to garner media attention and was no more than a publicity stunt, but I think he truly believed this hypothesis. I greatly respect John Horner as an influential member of his field, but even I will admit that some of his theories are truly out there. He points out that a T. rex was way to big and slow to chase after it’s own prey, it’s arms were to small to be useful in combat, and that it had adaptations like forward facing eyes and enhanced smell that would be useful to a scavenger. Countless people smarter than me have made rebuttals to these claims; saying that although Tyrannosaurus probably wasn’t especially speedy, it’s prey wasn’t either, arms aren’t really needed in hunting when you have the world biggest mouth with the worlds biggest teeth, binocular vision and a good sense of smell would be useful for any meat eating animal, and the fact that an ecosystem can’t survive without an apex predator to kill the herbivores, and T. rex is the only creature in it’s area that fits that bill. Although the program does make some good points, all it really does it prove that T. rex was probably a hunter and a scavenger, much like nearly all apex predator today. I think Horner has since lightened up with this hypothesis, but he is still the guy that managed to piss off a legion of Tyrannosaurus rex fans (i.e. EVERYONE!).
4. Jurassic Fight Club
When I did a review of this show I said it was a guilty pleasure, and I stand by that statement. The CGI, while nothing spectacular, had a charm to it and it made the dinosaurs look really cool. But in reality, this show was nothing more than a mindless gore fest featuring not actual animals but sensationalized monsters. As far as dinosaur documentaries go, this is very low brow. It’s a whole lot of gratuitous violence disguised by a thin veil of ‘science’ from ‘experts’. This includes some credited scientists, but the majority of the information depicted comes from George Blasing, a dinosaur ‘enthusiast’ who gives some of the more crazy and over the top scenario depicted in the show (like Deinonychus using hand gestures to coordinate an attack and Tyrannosaurus ripping apart it’s opponents as a message to would be challengers). He’s not a paleontologist by profession, but refers to himself as ‘self taught’. So, he’s basically just an imaginative dinosaur geek that happened to book a show. That’s like using me as a scientific consultant on a show. Sure, I know a thing or two about dinosaurs, but I don’t have the qualifications to run an actual program. This is another one of the shows biggest faults; a lot of the info is from George’s imagination but presented as undisputed fact. This leads to some of the weirder moments in the show. Add featherless raptors and outdated into the mix and you’ve got yourself one of the most notorious dinosaur programs in the paleontology circles.
3. Walking With Dinosaurs 3D
What pains me most about this movie is that it could have been good, nix that, it could have been GREAT! It had terrific animation, accurate science for the most part, and the name of one of the mot beloved dinosaur programs of all time. What pains me even more is not the fact that they added voice overs, but the fact that it still could have worked with the voice overs! Have you seen Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron?
It’s one of my favorite animated movies of all time. It’s about the life of a wild horse, and it’s mostly told trough the horses body language. However, every once and a while a voice over (played by Matt Damon) will explain the horses thoughts as if it was from the horse itself. The horse doesn’t really talk, it just narrates every once and a while. It isn’t too distracting, but it’s just enough not to alienate a general audience. That’s the perfect compromise for this sort of thing, and Walking With Dinosaur could have done it too! But no, it gives the dinosaurs cartoon voices and makes poop and fart jokes. None of that was necessary. I know they did that in fear of alienating audiences and not making any money, but honestly, I think that hurt the viewership even more. This movie had so much going for it, but in the end, studio meddling wasted it’s potential.
2. Monsters Resurrected
This was so close to being number 1, I had to bite my tongue until I swallowed it in order from keeping it from being number 1 (there is yet another more deserving). But this only makes number 2 by the slimmest of margins. If you thought Jurassic Fight Club was sensational, this show is a full on exploitation movie. It paints Spinosaurus as the perfect predator, and oh boy does it make sure you know it. This show sucks up to Spinosaurus so much it’s basically it’s ‘yes man’. It doesn’t portray an animal, it portrays a kaiju. This thing is a murderous rampaging monster if you believe this show. It rips animals to shreds and kills everything it sees. And the reason this show does this is because they think Spinosaurus is under appreciated in the eyes of the public (um, did they not see Jurassic Park 3?). I don’t want to say too much else because I want to review this program on it’s own eventually, but trust me, it’s one of the worst things I have ever seen in ANY genre. It physically pains me to watch it.
And it’s not even number 1.
1. Clash of the Dinosaurs
Never have I seen a dinosaur documentary that fails on so many levels. First of all, it’s boring as sin. Even documentaries I hated on a technical or scientific level I found somewhat entertaining. It only has a handful of dinosaurs, and they use the same footage over and over and over and over and over AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!!! The how promises to portray these creatures as actual animals but all I see are prehistoric monsters. It claims to show off new findings and theories but all we get is the same old crap we always get (and some new stuff that is beyond outrageous). The CGI is mediocre, and the dinosaur models range from generic to wildly inaccurate. But that’s not the stuff that pisses me off. Bad science in a bad show is one thing, but some of the things that happened behind the scenes of this program are morally reprehensible. An interviewed paleontologist is quote mined! Editing tricks make what he is saying more exciting and dramatic than he is trying to convey, and in at least one instance his words are turned around to sound like the exact opposite of the point he is trying to convey. In the interview he makes a point disproving the old theory that big dinosaurs may have had a second brain in their hips to control the latter half of the body. No one has taken this hypothesis seriously in almost a century. But the editors change his dialogue up to make it sound like the idea that dinosaurs had two brains was true!
The paleontologist became ridiculed in his field, and he became understandably pissed.
I don’t get it.
I just don’t get it.
What possible motivation did they have for doing this?
Did they honestly think it would make the show more exciting?
For a lot of these I say you should watch the show yourself and make your own conclusions, but I’m not giving this piece of garbage the benefit of the doubt. Avoid it like the plague!
So, there we have it. The list of my favorite dinosaur documentaries and the ones I consider at best sub par and at worst douche baggy. I hope this was informative to you and I hope to eventually review all of these in full.
Join me next time as I do another Dinosaurs Over The Years, except this time we aren’t talking about dinosaurs.
Let’s talk about pterosaurs.