Five Films For Kids Who Love Dinosaurs (But Are Too Young for Jurassic Park)
Next week, on Friday, April 5th, Jurassic Park celebrates its twentieth anniversary and storms back on to the silver screen in 3-D.
While undoubtedly a groundbreaking and all-around great film that changed forever how we view dinosaurs, it may not be for everyone. Children may be traumatized by a T. rex crushing a car with two kids in it or the sight of a severed arm. Even I, a life-time dinosaur lover, may have been put off from dinosaurs for good if I had been allowed to see it as a four-year old when it was originally released.
What, then, do you show your children without frightening them or stifling their love of these remarkable creatures?
Below are five quality films and programs to show dinosaur-hungry kids who are too young to handle the gore and terror of Jurassic Park. While some may appeal to older viewers more than others, no kid will walk away from any of them without wanting to see and know more about dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts.
5. Dinosaur Planet (2003)
4 episodes, 45 minutes each
This Discovery Channel program is admittedly a soft recommendation.
While cutesy nicknames and Christian Slater's narration may turn teen and adult viewers off of this hit-or-miss program, children will be sold on its dynamic digital dinosaurs and their struggles for survival. In addition, Dinosaur Planet is rather accurate for such a kid-oriented series and features many lesser-known and recently discovered dinosaurs. If nothing else, this program will give you and your children a far better idea of what Velociraptor was like than the more reptilian villains of Jurassic Park.
I should note that Dinosaur Planet is not free of gore--albeit far more restrained than anything in the Jurassic Park movies--and the perilous night flight of the baby Saltasaurus may not be the best thing to show toddlers.
4. Prehistoric Park (2006)
6 episodes, 45 minutes each
Released by Impossible Pictures (the creators of the Walking with... series and Primeval) and first airing on ITV, Prehistoric Park follows real-life naturalist Nigel Marven as he ventures into the past and rescues dinosaurs, mammoths, and giant insects from the brink of extinction. Once he's brought them to the relative safety of the twenty-first century, he and his staff attempt to care for and breed them in a giant wildlife sanctuary.
This mockumentary is probably the most family-oriented dinosaur program out there. Adults will be interested to see how the park keepers operate on a wounded dinosaur, while children will be engaged by the deadly chases and narrow escapes Nigel and his crew make throughout the series. The fun he's having acting against the mostly great CGI and animatronic creatures is also infectious and convincing in itself.
Like Dinosaur Planet, Prehistoric Park does have a few bloody or even frightening moments, but nothing gratuitous or over-indulgent.
3. The Land Before Time (1988)
69 minutes long
Directed by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, this emotional animated epic focuses on Littlefoot, an orphaned Apatosaurus who leads a rag-tag band of young dinosaurs to the Great Valley, a lush oasis in a barren land teaming with famine and predators. Though not a Disney production, The Land Before Time has the occasional darkness of classic Disney films like Pinocchio and Bambi, yet manages to be charming and fun at times without feeling schizophrenic or negating any of the sadness.
The actual dinosaurs, in hindsight, aren't the most accurate reconstructions put to film, but are well-animated and by no means slow or cold-blooded. Also, the fact that the film deals with purely human emotions like grief and loneliness and gives a lot of humanity to its characters (save the T. rex, who's pure monster) is a credit to it, rather than a detriment.
NOTE: While The Land Before Time can stand toe-to-toe with some of the strongest Disney films and doesn't talk down to its core audience, the same cannot be said of the dozen direct-to-video sequels that came out of Universal Studios over the next two decades.
2. King Kong (1933)
100 minutes long (104 minutes with overture)
One of the most famous films of all time, King Kong shows both the mighty, twenty-foot tall gorilla and the men who seek to capture him do battle with a variety of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures before the titular monster is brought to Manhattan. Eighty years later, Willis O'Brien's stop-motion monsters and Max Steiner's moody score still make this a thoroughly exciting film, and the black-and-white photography helps mask some of the technological shortcomings of the time. The dinosaurs may be dated in their reconstruction, but are no less fearsome than Kong and set the standard for how dinosaurs would appear on screen until Jurassic Park was released sixty years later.
If nothing else, showing this film to children at a young age will help them develop on an appreciation of classic and black-and-white films as they grow older. It may also make some of the scenes that terrified viewers in the 30s more palatable to children raised in the twenty-first century.
While the 2005 Peter Jackson version is also an excellent film and a nice love letter to the original, its CGI monsters may be too close for comfort for younger viewers and the film does not shy away from gore and gruesomeness.
1. Rite of Spring Segment from Fantasia (1940)
Segment is 23 minutes long (full movie is 125 minutes)
The fourth segment of Walt Disney's animated masterpiece depicts Earth's tempestuous first days, the emergence of its first lifeforms, a lone fish crawling to the surface, and finally, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. All this is set to roughly two-thirds of Igor Stravinsky's heart-pounding ballet, which perfectly captures the mystery and peril of prehistoric Earth. The animation is some of the most colorful and impressive ever to come from Disney, from angry red volcanic landscapes to the menacing blues of the iconic battle in the rain between Stegosaurus and T. rex.The Land Before Time would not be what it was without this segment: The opening few minutes clearly owe a lot to the underwater scenes in it. This portion of Fantasia was so instrumental in shaping the film, in fact, that Spielberg and Lucas originally conceived it as a film with no dialogue.
Like King Kong, the Rite of Spring segment is sweeping, dramatic, and, despite now-outdated models, resurrects the dinosaurs and their contemporaries as mighty, wonderful, breathing, living animals. And like King Kong, Fantasia as a whole is an excellent gateway to classic film (as well as classical music) for younger audiences.
Even if, for whatever reason, your child doesn't enjoy this segment, there are still seven more brilliant pieces of the film to show them.