- Prehistoric Planet is a popular dinosaur documentary that uses computer-generated ‘live’ action to bring dinosaurs to life.
- When Dinosaurs Roamed America was shot in HD and showcases the lives of dinosaurs in what is now America.
- Walking with Dinosaurs is a highly acclaimed documentary that uses animation and animatronics to explore the lives of dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs are some of the most incredible creatures to ever roam the planet, and while they have never been seen in person, they continue to capture imaginations worldwide. Having roamed the Earth from about 245 to 66 million years ago during the Mesozoic Era, dinosaurs were Earth inhabitants millions of years before the first modern humans would appear.
From visions of dinosaurs as gentle giants to vicious monsters, dinosaur documentaries have tried to paint a picture of what life was like for these incredible creatures.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 9 best dinosaur documentaries you can watch today.
#1: Prehistoric Planet
When it comes to dinosaur documentaries that attempt to capture dinosaurs in their natural habitat and create an immersive experience, Prehistoric Planet is the way to go.
Produced by Jon Favreau (yes, that Jon Favreau) and narrated by the one and only David Attenborough, this Apple TV+ exclusive was originally released in May 2022 and was a huge hit.
As of September 2023, Prehistoric Planet is so well-liked that it’s currently sitting at 90% on the Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes and has a 97% average audience score. A second season of the multi-episode documentary was released in May 2023 to similar scores and currently sits with a 100% average audience score.
The reason behind Prehistoric Planet’s popularity is the computer-generated “live” action that shows dinosaurs as if they were alive. Featuring multiple species, the show does a fantastic job of showing what day-to-day life would have been like for these creatures and does so in a way that they seem like they are still alive today.
#2: When Dinosaurs Roamed America
A two-hour program that aired in July 2001, When Dinosaurs Roamed America was a Discovery Channel production that was hugely popular.
Showing what life was like for dinosaurs that roamed what is now America over 160 million years ago, the show was a huge success for Discovery.
Narrated by actor John Goodman, the entire production was shot in HD, well ahead of HD being the standard for television as it is today. Shot in various locations around the world including Argentina, Tasmania, and Florida to find the right backdrops for what America would have been like millions of years ago, the show was edited over a total of six months.
Starting with the late Triassic period, New York City is the backdrop for how dinosaurs like the Icarosauras roamed around what is likely Manhattan. The rest of the show featured areas like Pennsylvania, Utah, New Mexico, and South Dakota, highlighting dinosaurs like the Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Zuniceratops, and the Ceratosaurus.
#3: Walking With Dinosaurs
- Featuring Tiya Sircar, Justin Long, and John Leguizamo
- 1 hour and 28 minutes runtime
- Multiple Formats, Animated, AC-3, Dolby, NTSC, Subtitled, Color, Widescreen
A 6-part documentary produced in 1999 by the Discovery Channel and BBC Worldwide, Walking with Dinosaurs is often regarded as one of the “biggest science documentary series ever made.”
Over 15 million people watched the first episode and the entire series is still the most-watched science program in British history and the recipient of multiple awards. Fast forward to September 2023 and the documentary still holds a 100% average Tomatometer score, which is a testament to its excellence.
Making heavy use of animation (think CGI) and animatronics, Walking with Dinosaurs made use of over 80 animatronic models throughout the series. The series itself is said to have been inspired by the success of Jurassic Park and helps bring dinosaurs to life in a way that feels very familiar to anyone who has seen the film.
Even if some of the science here has been disproven since its release, none of this takes away from the incredible success and narrative storytelling that Walking with Dinosaurs explores over its 6-episode run. The 2nd episode, in particular, is a fan favorite as it explores a Diplodocus from the beginning of its life after hatching.
#4: The Ballad of Big Al
- Ranked #270,027 in Movies & TV
- Must-see for all dino fans
- 2001 release
Something of a sequel to Walking with Dinosaurs, instead of a more standard-fare documentary, The Ballad of Big Al is a special episode produced in 2000 by both the BBC and the Discovery Channel.
A 29-minute program, The Ballad of Big Al tells the story of one of the famous dinosaur skeletons, an Allosaurus named “Big Al.” Following Big Al’s story from his time as a hatchling, to 1-year-old, to 2 years of age, the story is a fascinating one as it puts a face to dinosaur documentaries in a way that had never been done before.
As years pass, the story continues to follow Big Al as he reaches his full size at 33 feet long and his attempts to mate and hunt until his untimely death as a result of a hunting accident. Over the course of 2 episodes, the story of Big Al is a fascinating one of what life was like and how his discovery millions of years later helped produce one of the most engaging dinosaur documentaries of all time.
#5: Last Day of the Dinosaurs
A 2010 Discovery Channel documentary, Last Day of the Dinosaurs explores what life was like on the day an asteroid hit Earth and began the extinction of dinosaurs as a species.
Believed to have happened around 65 million years ago, Last Day of the Dinosaurs shows various areas of the world as they are immediately impacted by the asteroid’s impact.
In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the story follows a Tyrannosaurus hunting for prey and two male Triceratops fighting for mating rights. In Mongolia, you follow along as a herd of Charonosaurus are resting by a water hole, while in Mexico, Alamosauras are roaming the land in search of food.
As the asteroid impacts and its effects start to be felt far and wide, the story is one of both heartbreak and mystery. As it moves beyond the initial impact, you also jump to 4 days and 10 days after the impact as food supplies are limited and surviving dinosaurs find it nearly impossible to live off the impacted land. Between dangerous gasses, no water, and barely any food, Last Day of the Dinosaurs is a sad but remarkable story of one of the most important scientific events in Earth’s history.
#6: Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough
- Palaeontologist Robert DePalma
- State-of-the-art visual effects
A recent documentary production, Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough was released in April 2022.
As is the case with any documentary narrated by Attenborough, this story immediately grabs your attention as Attenborough’s voice quietly narrates you through the final days of dinosaurs after the asteroid hit Earth some 66 million years ago.
At a site in North Dakota, Attenborough and other paleontologists attempt to piece together the extinction event of the dinosaurs as the Cretaceous period came to an end. Following dinosaurs like Pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Triceratops, Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough helps to piece together what took place immediately after the Chicxulub asteroid landed on Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula.
The result of the impact sent fires around the globe and wiped out around 75% of all living plant and animal species. The rising nuclear winter would spell the end of dinosaurs as a species and allow birds, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, and other animals to become the most dominant species on Earth.
#7: Planet Dinosaur
With a focus on more than 50 different dinosaurs, Planet Dinosaur is a highly regarded dinosaur documentary produced by BBC.
Narrated by John Hurt, the documentary first aired in 2011 and relied heavily on CGI to update the world on additional scientific discoveries since the airing of Walking with Dinosaurs.
Planet Dinosaur succeeded by utilizing moments in each of its 6 episodes to produce fossil evidence that helps support the theories around each of the dinosaurs included as part of the show. Better yet, dinosaurs that were previously unknown were also first introduced as part of the show’s look at the dinosaur world from 150 million years ago all the way up to 65 million years ago.
Prominent dinosaurs featured included the Spinosaurus, Gigantoraptor, Mapusauraus, Sinraptor, Rugops, Carchorondontosaurus, and Magyarosaurus. The show’s popularity even led to a companion book published in 2012.
#8: Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur
Airing on BBC One in January 2016, Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur was yet another dinosaur-focused documentary narrated and presented by none other than David Attenborough.
The program focuses heavily on the excavation of unnamed (at the time of airing) fossils that included 7 different individuals of the Titanosaur family.
Discovered in southern Argentina, this Cretaceous period species is believed to be around 101.6 million years old, had 80 teeth, and was over 37 meters long. Throughout the documentary, you hear about how paleontologists recovered over 223 bones from the 7 individual dinosaurs with a belief the animals died of thirst.
This is a fantastic look at a real-world expedition to uncover the mystery of this new dinosaur species and David Attenborough narrates with his typical soothing demeanor. While only one episode aired, the documentary was nominated for multiple awards thanks to its excellent storytelling and practical scientific judgments.
#9: Dinosaur, 13
Arguably the most controversial dinosaur documentary available to date, Dinosaur, 13 is a 2014 American documentary film produced by CNN.
Telling the story of events that began in 1990, the story focuses on American paleontologists Sue Hendrickson and Pete Larson and their work in South Dakota.
Believed to be the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found at the time, the documentary highlights the intricacies and difficulties involved with this type of archeological research. Ultimately, the film takes you on a journey with the fossil being seized by the American government 2 years after its discovery, which led to a 10-year battle that involved the FBI, the owner of the land where Sue was found, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
This is a fascinating story that has been criticized for certain scientific inaccuracies while still grabbing your attention throughout the entirety of its 100-minute production. Early reviews even praise the dinosaur documentary as something of a legal thriller wrapped in political drama while also including the wonderful world of dinosaurs.
The Best Dinosaur Documentaries: Summary
|Live-action show that highlights the world of dinosaurs
|When Dinosaurs Roamed America
|Showcases the world of what America was like when dinosaurs lived
|Walking with Dinosaurs
|Riding the Jurassic Park wave, this documentary is often regarded as the best dinosaur doc ever made
|The Ballad of Big Al
|This story follows one dinosaur from birth to death
|Last Day of the Dinosaurs
|Looks at the day the asteroid ended the dinosaur era
|Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough
|Similarly looks at the final days of dinosaurs as 75% of all life on Earth is wiped out
|Takes a look at over 50 different dinosaur species
|Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur
|Covers a real-world expedition to discover an unknown dinosaur species
|A controversial look at the discovery of the largest T-Rex fossil ever found
There is a good chance that at some point when you were a child, you were fascinated by the world of dinosaurs. Even though there is so much that remains unknown about this time, including what dinosaurs really looked like, each of these documentaries provides its own take, often based heavily on scientific evidence, about the world of dinosaurs as we believe it today.
While imperfect at times, all 9 of these dinosaur documentaries are worth a watch even if you only have a passing interest in these remarkable creatures that lived millions of years before humans populated Earth.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©AmeliAU/Shutterstock.com.