Ahead of the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, join us as we pay homage to the franchise and the beasts who dominate it. Welcome to Dinosaur Day!
When the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise arrives on Friday, audiences will finally see what happens when dinosaurs roam freely across the globe. (While a Tyrannosaurus rex went on a rampage through San Diego in The Lost World: Jurassic Park so that Steven Spielberg could scratch his Godzilla itch, its reign of terror was cut short.) I’ll go out on a limb and say this is not going to go well for the humans of Jurassic World Dominion, but as a lifelong dino lover, this movie might as well be the Super Bowl.
Of course, Dominion is hardly the first time dinosaurs have taken center stage in pop culture. People have obsessed over dinosaurs for decades, imagining them as everything from ravenous monsters and sports team mascots to prehistoric pals and video game characters. But which pop culture dinosaur is the apex predator of our hearts? That’s what The Ringer’s resident dino lovers—myself and Megan Schuster—set to find out. For anyone familiar with this website’s arbitrary pop culture rankings, this isn’t uncharted territory for the two of us: We’ve ranked bugs, popes, babies, sharks, and so on. During this most recent ranking process, we made blogging history with the first-ever tie for the top spot, resulting in a spirited debate over which dino figure deserves the crown.
Which pop culture dinosaur comes out on top? Read on to find out. —Miles Surrey
25. Dinobots, Transformers: Age of Extinction
Surrey: We don’t need to spend too much time dunking on a Michael Bay Transformers movie. Age of Extinction is the fourth entry in the franchise, so you know exactly what you’re going to get at this point: explosions, shameless product placement, robots fighting each other in an orgy of CGI scrap metal, and even more explosions. The biggest selling point of Age of Extinction was supposed to be the Dinobots: transformers that are, well, robot dinosaurs. Dinobots sound awesome, but guess what? They show up only at the end of the film and barely get to do anything. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to make the dumbest blockbuster on the planet, I demand at least an hour of Optimus Prime riding a robot T. rex into battle.
24. Rex, Woog, Elsa, and Dweeb, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story
Megan Schuster: This film should be a cuddly, adorable tale about four dino buds who romp around New York City. And there is potential here. The voice cast is loaded: John Goodman, Walter Cronkite, Jay Leno, Julia Child, Martin Short, and more. Plus the animation is cute. But it has just a 38 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes (and got a one-star review from Roger Ebert) for a reason: The story line is weirdly complicated. Seriously, just look at the first paragraph from the plot section of the movie’s Wikipedia page:
A scientist, Captain Neweyes, wants children of the present day to see real dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era. He invents ‘Brain Grain’ cereal to anthropomorphize them and increase their intelligence, and hires the alien Vorb to go back in time to capture dinosaurs, give them the cereal and send them to the present day. The dinosaurs Neweyes has collected include Rex, a blue Triceratops named Woog, a purple Pteranodon named Elsa, and a green Parasaurolophus named Dweeb. Neweyes welcomes them aboard his ship, explains his plan to take them to Dr. Julia Bleeb, who will guide them to the Museum of Natural History, and warns them to avoid Professor Screweyes, his nefarious twin brother who causes mischief after having lost his left eye several years ago.
Normal stuff, right?
23. Rex Raptor, Yu-Gi-Oh!
Surrey: As his name suggests, Rex Raptor is a duelist whose deck is composed of dinosaur monsters to stomp and chomp opponents. But while Rex is meant to be one of the top duelists in the world, my guy doesn’t win a single on-screen showdown in Yu-Gi-Oh! Hell, Rex is the first person who loses to Joey Wheeler when the character doesn’t even have a firm grasp of the game yet. And for someone who supposedly loves dinosaurs, it’s telling that his best card—the Red-Eyes Black Dragon, which ultimately comes into Joey’s possession—is a fucking dragon. (Work on your branding, Rex!) At the end of the day, Rex is more comic relief than worthy adversary, and with all those notable L’s, his reputation as a talented duelist is long extinct.
(Side note: I could’ve written an entire novella about Yu-Gi-Oh! dueling dynamics, but I’ll spare everyone the trouble until we launch Shadow Realm Week at The Ringer.)
22. Dino-mutants, Dinoshark and Dinocroc
Schuster: If I’m honest, I’m a bit disappointed we don’t have Dinoshark and Dinocroc higher on this list. First off, those are A-plus names for these genetic monstrosities: Why get inventive when the perfect titles are staring you right in the face? Second, perhaps the only shark combination cooler than Dinoshark is Sharknado, and we had that ranked way higher on our 2019 list of movie sharks.
That said, what are sharks and crocodiles if not dinosaurs? And if that’s true, then aren’t the words “dinoshark” and “dinocroc” just repetitive? I appreciate what the creators of these films were going for, but when the fear factors of these creatures all come from the same place, combining two just feels unnecessary.
Surrey: We have to deduct points because you could just slap “dino” in front of any animal and make it sound way gnarlier, which feels like cheating. That said: I would pay good money to watch a Dinocroc go up against a Dinohippo™.
21. Grumpy, Land of the Lost
Surrey: How was the 2009 remake of Land of the Lost? Here’s what the former Universal Pictures studio head, Ron Meyer, said about the movie at the Savannah Film Festival in 2012: “Land of the Lost was just crap. I mean, there was no excuse for it. The best intentions all went wrong.” The original creators of the Land of the Lost television series from the ’70s, Sid & Marty Krofft, went even further by calling it one of the worst films ever made. Now, not a lot of the blame falls on Grumpy, the movie’s ferocious T. rex who eventually befriends Will Ferrell’s paleontologist Rick Marshall after [deep breath] swallowing him and pooping him out. (Grumpy was happy that Rick cleared up an intestinal blockage—OK, yeah, this is a really terrible movie.) But it also doesn’t help that poor Grumpy’s CGI is quite awful.
And to think Land of the Lost came out more than 16 years after the original Jurassic Park, which boasts special effects that still hold up to this day. Land of the Lost already feels fossilized, and everyone—especially the people responsible for making it—wants to make sure the film stays buried in the minds of moviegoers.
20. Aladar, Dinosaur
Surrey: On the subject of crappy CGI, look at the main character from Disney’s animated feature Dinosaur, an iguanodon named Aladar. But before you do, it’s worth stressing that this movie was released this century and cost more than $100 million to make.
No offense to Aladar, but I’m kind of rooting for the asteroid.
Schuster: Why … why does he have a human face? Dinosaurs shouldn’t have human faces?
19. Dinosaurs, Fantasia
Schuster: Dinosaurs appear in the 1940 Disney film during the fourth segment, titled “The Rite of Spring,” and are shown being created after the Big Bang, interacting with one another, and then getting wiped out when food and water becomes too scarce for their survival. It’s beautifully depicted, and of course, the music is lovely—an Igor Stravinsky ballet tells the story just as much as the animation. Walt Disney also put in an effort to make this telling as realistic as possible, to the extent that “Rite of Spring” was screened for science classes in the decades after its release.
All in all, though, dinosaur depictions have evolved quite a bit in the 82 years since Fantasia’s release, and that’s why this entry isn’t higher.
18. Tyrannosaurus and Vastatosaurus Rex, King Kong
Surrey: From the original 1933 film to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake featuring the Vastatosaurus rex—basically a bigger, nastier version of the OG that evolved on Skull Island—the T. rex has been a recurring adversary for King Kong. Their face-offs are always epic, but the problem for the T. rex (or V. rex) is that Kong is always going to be on the winning end; these are his movies, after all. In a showdown between a prehistoric creature and a fictional giant ape, the outcome also feels somewhat plausible: Kong can just repeatedly punch a T. rex in the face because it has only shrimpy arms to defend itself.
Conversely, in any scenario of pure dino-on-dino action, you can’t help but root for the T. rex. (I couldn’t have been the only person who lost their mind when Rexy emerged at the end of Jurassic World to take on the Indominus Rex?) But on Skull Island, there’s a reason that Kong is King.
17. Reptar, Rugrats
Schuster: Reptar is a fun obsession of the Rugrats babies, a Godzilla-like creature who features prominently on cereal boxes, as a mascot at public events, and even in on-ice productions. If you recall, a malfunctioning robot version of the creature is the reason Tommy Pickles and Co. go to EuroReptarland in Rugrats in Paris: The Movie and Chuckie Finster gets a new stepmother (and stepsister). Reptar isn’t technically a “character,” but all shows and movies need touchstones to build their own cultures and ecosystems, and Reptar is a major part of that for Rugrats.
16. Dino Nuggets
Schuster: All right, I’ll say it: Dino nuggets aren’t any better than regular chicken nuggets, and all chicken nuggets are inferior to chicken tenders. Dino nuggets are fun for kids—a good way to learn about the Mesozoic Era and get some protein—but outside of that, they don’t offer much functional, or nutritional, value.
Surrey: This is such a disheartening take, Megan: Everyone knows that food tastes better when you put them into cool shapes. I’ll take dino nuggets over boring, regular-ass nuggets any day of the week.
15. Dilophosaurus, Jurassic Park
Schuster: The dilophosaurus plays a few big roles in Jurassic Park. Its initial absence from its enclosure is one of the early bummer points for Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) on their initial tour of the park, and it single-handedly stops Wayne Knight’s Dennis Nedry from getting to the boat during the tropical storm and delivering stolen dino-DNA to an outside corporation.
But when your main power and effectiveness comes from acid-vomiting onto your prey, there’s only so high you can climb on a list like this.
14. Gwangi, The Valley of Gwangi
Schuster: The Valley of Gwangi wasn’t especially well-received at the time of its release. Interest in these types of monster-fronted movies was dropping off in 1969, and Warner Bros., the film’s production company, released it without much publicity. But while it wasn’t a huge commercial success, Gwangi was one of the later films put out by famed animator-special effects creator Ray Harryhausen and it has been an important touchstone in other media since. Steven Spielberg replicated the shot of Gwangi popping out from behind a hill and capturing a fleeing bipedal dino in Jurassic Park. And the film has been referenced or partially shown in Friends, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and other productions.
13. Arlo, The Good Dinosaur
Schuster: Poor Arlo is probably most often thought of as the face of one of Pixar’s biggest flops. He’s not even the most famous apatosaurus ever depicted on-screen—that honor belongs to Littlefoot of The Land Before Time (more on him later). There’s nothing wrong with the story—it’s a sweet tale of a timid dinosaur who’s outshone by his two siblings and struggles to find his place in the world after his father’s death. But even the best reviews of the movie largely deem it to be average, which isn’t enough when compared to some of Pixar’s greatest successes.
12. The Great Valley Gang, The Land Before Time
Surrey: While Littlefoot has his own spot in our dino rankings, we love The Land Before Time so much that we also wanted to highlight his best friends in the Great Valley: Cera the triceratops, Ducky the saurolophus, Petrie the pteranodon, and Spike the stegosaurus. All the characters have their charming quirks—Petrie is extremely neurotic, which is a great survival instinct—but there’s nobody more relatable than Spike. Spike almost never talks, always goes with the flow, and is completely obsessed with eating. Not everything about being a child dinosaur is smooth sailing—the characters constantly find themselves in the crosshairs of dangerous carnivores—but Spike has his priorities figured out and I respect the hell out of him for it. (They are my priorities too.)
Schuster: Ducky, despite her annoying quirks (and there are many), will always have a special place in my heart. I mean, she just wants to make friends!
11. Dino, The Flintstones
Schuster: What can I say about Dino other than: good dog. Dino is the lovable pet dinosaur of the Flintstone family, best known for knocking Fred down and licking his face, and playing happily with Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm. He’s a bit of an idiot, but he tries his best, cosplaying as a bodyguard, a rooster when he barks, and even a lumberjack. Overall, Dino is a very good boy who, like many of the best dogs out there, will never understand that he is not lap-sized.
10. The Toronto Raptors
Surrey: As a Washington Wizards fan, I look at the Toronto Raptors with envy. They’ve got an über-talented head coach responsible for their first championship in 2019, a front office that knows what it’s doing, and an intriguing roster that includes an undrafted All-Star and another All-Star who almost became a Catholic priest. The Raptors are also the only Canadian franchise in the NBA, which is a fun way of discovering who’s unvaccinated on opposing teams. And if that’s not enough, the Raptors had one of the coolest NBA stars of our lifetime, Vince Carter, whose performance in the 2000 dunk contest is an all-timer.
Am I somewhat overhyping the Raptors because I’m annoyed at the Wizards and don’t expect them to have any modicum of success in the years that I’m alive on this Earth? Possibly, but as far as cheering on other teams when your own is routinely knocked out of the playoffs early or absent from them altogether—trust me, I have plenty of experience in this department—the Raptors are easy to admire and root for. And to address the elephant (dinosaur?) in the room: Yes, they have an awesome mascot.
9. The Sinclairs, Dinosaurs
Schuster: I’m not going to lie, watching the Sinclairs at this point in my life is slightly nightmare-inducing. Sure, they’re harmless, a simple blue-collar dinosaur family who has your typical dinosaur family adventures. But they’re also anthropomorphic, and they aired at a time (the early 1990s) when that kind of thing took on a … frightening look. Just watch these clips of Baby Sinclair, voiced by Kevin Clash:
This family made the top 10 based on nostalgia and the pleasant feelings Miles and I had toward Dinosaurs from when we were young. But I gotta say now, the only anthropomorphic baby I find scarier than Baby Sinclair is the Pelicans’ King Cake Baby mascot.
Surrey: I just took off the nostalgia goggles, and now I can’t stop screaming.
8. Indominus Rex, Jurassic World
Schuster: As Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) explains to Mr. Masrani, Jurassic World’s primary investor, dinosaur theme parks can’t rest on their laurels. They need more—teeth, size, fear. And so do dinosaur movies. So Jurassic World invented the Indominus Rex, a 50-foot-long beast that can camouflage itself, become invisible to body-heat sensors, and outsmart even the most veteran animal caretakers. And oh yeah, did I mention it can communicate with raptors?
The Indominus is basically the culmination of Ian Malcolm’s Jurassic Park quote about genetic modification and recreation: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And while these scientists absolutely should not have, what they did create is one of the most fearsome movie dinosaurs ever.
7. Rex, Toy Story
Surrey: Like his flesh-and-blood counterparts, you’d expect a toy T. rex to be intimidating, striking fear into the (plastic?) hearts of his peers. But the beauty of Rex (voiced by beloved character actor Wallace Shawn) in Toy Story is that his dino-looks couldn’t be more deceiving. Rex is the franchise’s embodiment of anxiety: He worries over everything and is more frightened of change than my cat on moving day. As a child, Rex wasn’t my favorite character in the Toy Story ensemble; now, his neuroses are both hilarious and frighteningly familiar.
I don’t know about you, Megan, but when Rex says “I don’t like confrontations!” in the first Toy Story, I feel that.
Schuster: Rex is absolutely one of those Pixar characters who was actually created for adults. Relating to him feels like a final frontier in the crossover from being a child to being old. (Sorry, did I get too deep just there?)
Surrey: The Pippen to Mario’s MJ, Yoshi is the ultimate video game sidekick, and I can’t get enough of him. I’m convinced that having Yoshi behind the wheel in Mario Kart allows me to go faster; I wholeheartedly believe he’s got the meanest serve in Mario Tennis and could easily defeat that human pile of garbage masquerading as a professional athlete named John Isner; the fact that I struggle playing with him in Super Smash Bros. makes me only more determined to figure it out. (For whatever reason, I’m terrifyingly good as Mr. Game & Watch and nobody else?) Even the unintelligible noises Yoshi makes when he’s happy is pure serotonin.
It’s Yoshi’s world, we’re all just living in it.
5. T. Rex, Jurassic Park
Surrey: Celebrating the T. rex in Jurassic Park is really a testament to Steven Spielberg and his penchant for staging iconic sequences: the cup of water rippling as the dinosaur approaches the fence, the slimy lawyer getting yanked off the toilet, Jeff Goldblum watching the creature chase after a Jeep through the passenger’s side mirror. Combined with an impressive blend of practical and special effects, the T. rex in Jurassic Park transcends the screen: It feels like it’s really there, stomping through the theater or your living room. By the time the T. rex snatches a velociraptor in its jaws at the end of the movie as the Jurassic Park banner floats in front of it, a lifelong obsession was born.
4. Velociraptors, Jurassic Park (and Jurassic World)
Surrey: As terrifying as the T. rex was in Jurassic Park, the characters could theoretically escape its humongous jaws on account of the dinosaur’s poor eyesight. (While experts believe the T. rex probably had great vision, let’s just go by the franchise’s rules, even if they aren’t scientifically accurate.) Because of this deficiency, there is objectively no dinosaur more dangerous to encounter than the velociraptor, which the Jurassic Park franchise has spent decades underlining as one of Mother Nature’s greatest predators.
For one, raptors hunt in packs—you’re never dealing with one of them. They are also extremely intelligent, whether they’re sneaking up on the park’s game warden (“Clever girl”) or opening kitchen doors. In short, raptors were the ultimate dino-villains of the Jurassic Park trilogy, which has made their image rehabilitation in the Jurassic World movies all the more fascinating. Thanks to the bond between Chris Pratt’s Owen and the raptor named Blue, viewers have been shown a more nuanced side to the dinosaur—now they seem akin to a much-less-cuddly wolf pack. But whether you’re terrified of them or secretly want to ride alongside them on a motorcycle, there’s no denying raptors are the MVPs of the franchise.
3. Barney, Barney & Friends
Schuster: As someone who could hum the Barney theme song before she could talk, let me assure you that no personal bias went into his position on this list. (OK, maybe just a little.)
Barney was, and still is, an institution. The show Barney & Friends was on the air for 18 years, and while it was canceled in 2010, episodes are still being shown on YouTube. Its retail sales at some points were more than $100 million a year. Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out and Judas and the Black Messiah fame, is even producing a live-action Barney movie for Mattel. “Barney taught us, ‘I love you, you love me. Won’t you say you love me too?’” Kaluuya told EW in 2020. “That’s one of the first songs I remember, and what happens when that isn’t true? I thought that was really heartbreaking.”
Yes, the reputation of Barney the dinosaur and the show has had its ups and downs through the years: The show’s parent corporation was sued multiple times in the 1990s for reneging on a concert series, infringing on the copyright of the “I Love You” song, and more. Plus, one of the actors who played Barney went on to run a tantric sex business after his role on the show (not exactly wholesome family entertainment).
But if we just take Barney for Barney, and what he meant and continues to mean for countless children, there’s no question he should be near the top of this list.
1A. Godzilla, Godzilla
Schuster: Miles and I went different directions for our no. 1 choices, and we decided to present them both as 1A and 1B because of the different dinosaur tropes they represent. Throughout television and film history, dinosaurs have typically been presented in one of two ways: as cute, cuddly creatures you’d want as a pet or friend, or vicious man-eaters who live to hunt humans above all else.
In Littlefoot, we have perhaps the platonic ideal of the former, a darling apatosaurus who has a great group of friends, a lovely temperament, and a sob-inducing backstory. And in Godzilla, we have the exact opposite.
You probably don’t need me to explain much about who Godzilla is, or his legacy: The fearsome monster, who first appeared in 1954, has been portrayed in more than 30 movies, countless comic books and video games, and undoubtedly in many children’s nightmares. The radioactive sea beast even went so far as to fight King Kong in 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong. Godzilla has set the standard for virtually every movie monster that has come since—in terms of fear factor and the recognition you can generate from uttering those three little syllables. And nearly 70 years later, he’s still inspiring filmmakers to try their hand at adding to his legacy.
1B. Littlefoot, The Land Before Time
Surrey: Megan, everything you’ve said about Godzilla is spot-on. It’s practically tradition for King Kong to beat the crap out of a T. rex in his own movie, but when he got completely washed by Godzilla last year in Godzilla vs. Kong, nobody batted an eye—that’s how formidable this mutant nuclear lizard has been for decades. But we’re not just here to crown the most badass pop culture dinosaur: we’re here to pick the best one, period.
I could make a longer case for Littlefoot, and how his perilous journey to the Great Valley channeled all the fear and courage of having to find your way home in an unforgiving world. Or I could just share the scene where Littlefoot’s mom died and dare you to make this dinosaur settle for second place. The choice is yours.
Schuster: A truly devastating parental cartoon death, second maybe only to Mufasa in The Lion King. I’m too sad to argue now, let’s just hug and say we’re all winners here.