Out of the many topics and fascinations that grip the imaginations of young children, few are as widespread, and beloved as the dinosaurs. There’s a certain mysticism and majesty associated with the animals unlike anything else in the world. Young children are usually introduced to them early in life through toys, picture books, or even animated feature films like Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time. Despite their omnipresence, pre-1990s pop culture, many still had a fixed idea of dinosaurs as slow, lumbering beasts living in swamps and by volcanos, popularized by books and documentary pieces.
This all changed in 1993 when Steven Spielberg brought the dinosaurs into the forefront of pop culture with Jurassic Park. The film served as a way not just to make dinosaurs seem like something adults could enjoy, but also to modernize how they were perceived, portraying them as fast and intelligent animals. As the films have progressed however, the dinosaur interpretations have stayed true to Spielberg’s 1993 film, causing these once cutting-edge creatures to become more and more outdated over time.
It’s worth comparing the movie to Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name as, despite having many differences, Crichton still strove to make his book scientifically accurate. Paleontologist Jack Horner was one of the scientists referenced by Crichton as an influence on his book’s direction, even partially basing the character of Alan Grant (Sam Neil) on him. Horner would go on to have a close relationship with the series, serving as a technical supervisor on every one of the Jurassic Park films. He worked closely with Steven Spielberg as well as Stan Winston and the effects department to do the best possible job of producing authentic dinosaurs.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex is just one example of how Horner’s influence impacted the film. Despite being the most recognizable dinosaur on the planet, many in the public sphere still had an outdated view of the animal in their heads. Compare the T-Rex in Jurassic Park to something like the T-Rex in the original King Kong. The more accurate Jurassic Park depiction has a box like head with a body and tail that are parallel to the ground as opposed to an upright stance. This new T-Rex is warm blooded and is smarter and faster than her early 20th century counterparts. These updates, combined with some incredible practical effects and CGI, created one of the most iconic creatures ever put to film.
Not all of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are home runs, of course. The Velociraptors are notoriously inaccurate, not just due to their lack of feathers, but because they are far too large. Real Velociraptors were only about the size of a turkey, while the film’s man-sized creatures are closer to Deinonychus or Utahraptor, though neither are a clear-cut match. Despite these few hiccups, the film was still revolutionary in its depictions of dinosaurs. For better or for worse, these incarnations became their definitive interpretations by the general public. This was great for the time, but naturally science always advances, and these depictions would grow obsolete as time moved on, coinciding with the franchise prioritizing suspense over beauty.
Spielberg’s sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, would release a few years later in 1997. The dinosaur designs remained consistent, and the film actually makes a point to ground them a bit by showing a pair of Tyrannosaurus actually caring for their young like real animals. Despite this, The Lost World began the trend of shying further and further away from the majesty of the first film and more towards a traditional monster movie. This is the most apparent in The Lost World’s climax where a T-Rex gets loose in San Diego and goes on a rampage. Such a sequence isn’t present in the novel at all, but it serves as a memorable, albeit very over the top, finale to the film.
This trend of “bigger and better” would become a focal point of the next film, Jurassic Park III (2001), and there’s no better model for this line of thinking than the Spinosaurus. Horner, while meeting with the writers who were looking to come up with a dinosaur to replace the T-Rex, proposed Spinosaurus as the new antagonist. Horner famously was a proponent of the T-Rex as a scavenger, not a hunter, and, as revealed in the production notes for Jurassic Park III, advocated for Spinosaurus as a true hunter. Ironically enough, as recently as April 2020, evidence has come out that Spinosaurus was an aquatic creature who likely would have spent more time preying on fish and other marine life, making the film’s depiction wildly inaccurate.
Despite the new addition, other iconic dinosaurs like the raptors remain mostly unchanged from previous depictions. Some of the raptors sported a few feathers on the top of their heads but otherwise nothing was done to push them to be more accurate. It had been nearly a decade since the original film and the presence of feathers on dinosaurs, especially raptors, was becoming more commonly accepted. Despite these inaccuracies becoming more and more obvious, the argument could be made that the filmmakers just wanted to keep consistency between entries.
The Jurassic franchise would enter a long hiatus until 2015 and the release of Jurassic World. Despite still being in continuity with the previous films, there was a significant time jump, promoting a new park with greater scientific advancements. It was as good a time as any to introduce more accurate dinosaurs, and yet the film still uses designs mostly unchanged from the 1993 incarnations. The T-Rex is stated to still be the original T-Rex so that is understandable, but the new raptors looks just like how they did in 1993, even losing the feathers from the last film. Jurassic World also introduces an entirely new species, brought about by gene splicing, the Indominus Rex. This takes the monster movie aspects of the second film’s San Diego sequence and the third film’s Spinosaurus to a whole new level.
The Indominus Rex has unnatural abilities, Velociraptor intelligence, and a size that rivals the T-Rex, and is only taken down by the combined efforts of the original Rex, “Blue” the Velociraptor, and an incredibly inaccurately sized Mosasaur. The follow up, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom would feature more of the same inaccurate dinosaurs and bizarre genetic hybrids while playing up the scare factor once again. By now, the featherless T-Rex and the oversized Velociraptors are just part of the series’ DNA and a Jurassic Park film without them simply doesn’t feel right.
So are the Jurassic Park films a scourge to science and paleontology? Of course not. The first film remains a Spielberg classic and played a huge role in making dinosaurs a popular topic again. However, in spawning a franchise, each film must now meet certain expectations per entry. They’re in a unique position where the understanding of its subject matter is always changing, leaving the older films more outdated. That doesn’t necessarily mean the newer entries are bad films, as, regardless of opinion, they’re meant to be entertaining thrillers. Regardless of accuracy, the all-important theme about the dangers of meddling with nature are on display in each film, so they manage to stay relevant in some small part. Regardless, it’s hard not to imagine what a Jurassic Park film focused on newer discoveries could mean in shaping the popular perception of dinosaurs once again.