Since the dawn of cinema, kids have been obsessed with dinosaurs on the big screen. It makes sense: Dinosaurs are big, cool, and extremely fun to impersonate. They’re also kind of terrifying, which makes selecting good kids dinosaur movies pretty difficult. A child who thinks a dancing dad in a T-Rex costume is awesome might be scared of a movie during which one, say, munches on a lawyer hiding in a bathroom. If you’re looking to foster a growing interest in the Jurassic, not to mention Triassic and Cretaceous, the best way in is with a fun, entertaining, but not necessarily scientifically rigorous film — at least when it comes to their violent lives.
“I think the best dinosaur movies are any that inspire kids and their parents to think about dinosaurs as real animals, prompt questions about how scientists have come to know what they know, and generate curiosity about how our world has changed and is changing over time,” says Danny Barta, a doctoral candidate at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School. Which is exactly what the movies here do. Consider this list of the best kids dinosaur movies a gateway to a lifetime interest in paleontology
Dinosaur Train: Dinosaur Big City (2011)
For the uninitiated, Dinosaur Train is a Jim Henson Company-produced PBS series about a cartoon family of pteranodons and their adopted T-rex brother who board a locomotive and meet a different species of dinosaurs each episode. But despite the talking dinos riding the rails, this is actually one of the more educational offerings about prehistoric life out there, as each episode functions as a (very cute) crash course in dinosaur behavior, from aquatic predators to herbivorous titans. Plus, it’ got a rocking alt-country theme song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Burt Reynolds’ trucker movie. The multi-part mini movie Dinosaur Big City is the perfect introduction to the series, which will no doubt become a gateway to more mature Jurassic action for any toddler with even a passing interest.
The Land Before Time (1988)
This beautifully animated, somewhat traumatizing, ultimately sappy offering from Don Bluth has become the de-facto entry point for dino-loving kids since it debuted in 1988. And while it does explore some pretty intense issues — parental death, cross-species prejudice, terror, and other things you’d probably expect from the director of the traumatizing The Secret of Nimh — the plucky characters and colorful scenery should pacify jumpier kids. Just be wary of the 13(?!) sequels it spawned, which generally decrease in quality with each cash-grabbing release.
A noble experiment for Disney that combined live-action backgrounds with cutting-edge computer animation, this story of an orphaned Iguanodon traversing a harsh landscape in search of a new home shares a lot of themes with The Land Before Time, but manages to improve on all of them. A shame, then, that it’s so seldom overlooked amid the studio’s offerings. But for fans of paleontology, it’s simply eye-popping, with gorgeously rendered creatures.
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
The third installment of the hugely popular animated series, in which wacky sloth Sid is kidnapped after getting one the bad side of a mama T-rex, has everything that kids want out of a dinosaur movie: cute characters, the occasional poop joke, some exciting action, and a couple mildly intense moments. One thing it doesn’t have is serious scientific value, what with its Ice Age characters coexisting with actual dinosaurs. Still, it’s an enjoyable excursion — bound to satisfy a young dinosaur-lover while packing in plenty of under-the-radar jokes for parents as well.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Many consider The Good Dinosaur to be a lesser Pixar production, but lesser Pixar is generally as good as the best animated films from other studios — and this is no exception. The simple tale takes place in an alternate ancient world where dinosaurs and humans coexist, and even buddy-up to travel through the colorful terrain. There are some moments of peril here, but The Good Dinosaur is light entertainment that should captivate young viewers while still giving older kids (and grownups) plenty to marvel at.
Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985)
Compared to Jurassic Park, the animatronics featured in this forgotten ‘80s gem are pretty dated. But for younger viewers not yet ready to endure the sight of Sam Jackson’s severed arm (remember that?), this tale of explorers protecting a baby brontosaurus from poachers after discovering it in the African jungle is a solid introduction to dinosaurs in their non-animated forms. The environmentalist lessons still ring true, and for ’85 that’s a pretty great dinosaur robot.
Jurassic Park (1993)
This is the granddaddy of all dinosaur movies, and parents who grew up with it will certainly be clamoring to share the experience with their kids. Here’s some advice: Don’t rush it. The film has offered as many nightmares as it did gobsmacked moments of wonder since it came out 25 years ago, so you’ll want to proceed with caution, keeping the remote handy in case things get too intense for any kid under the age of 13. Some younger kids will certainly adore Steven Spielberg’s tale of genetically engineered dinosaurs running amok in the jungle and devouring hubristic scientists. But this is a startling, often horrific story that should be approached with caution for even the most dino-loving kid. It’s PG-13 for a reason.