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This series tells the extraordinary story of life before the dinosaurs, a time when strange and savage creatures forth a ruthless battle to rule the Earth. [...] This is Life's forgotten story, an epic war for our world. A war between MONSTERS.
—Extracted from Walking With Monsters trailer

A subtrope of What Measure Is a Non-Cute?.

Basically, if you are an extinct animal you'll be automatically qualified as a Prehistoric Monster. Even though you're small and would appear cute and harmless to modern humans. Even though you are closely related to modern animals that are commonly regarded as beautiful and majestic. Even though all extinct species were well adapted to their environment in the period they were around, otherwise they would have never appeared in our planet. Even though the only real difference between prehistoric and modern animals is that the former didn't have the fortune (or misfortune) to know modern humans, and if they were still alive today they will probably be considered "charismatic megafauna" and hailed by conservationists as modern animals are.

This trope has been with us since the very first paleontological discoveries at the start of 1800: a lot of old paleo-art portrayed prehistoric worlds filled with nothing but monstrous creatures that fight each other, followed soon by popular writers and then film-makers that consolidated the trope (see Dinosaurs Are Dragons for more about this). The fact we don't exactly know how extinct animals behaved (and even looked precisely) has contributed to make them appearing mysterious, and we humans have the silly habit to qualify every unknown creature as a horrible "monster" (see Loch Ness and Yeti examples).

Interesting to note that certain modern animals have (or had) such a reputation in media as well: giant squids, anacondas, great white sharks, bats, tarantulas, scorpions, and so on. As well as gorillas, whales and other giant mammals, but these examples are now usually discredited, because Most Writers Are Mammals. However, even these misunderstood animals have the concrete possibility to be portrayed in a more positive manner because they are still-living, and thus they may get a consideration among animal rights and/or environmental groups in Real Life; an impossible thing for creatures which are already extinct. Thus, nobody (except perhaps some paleontologists and paleo-fans) normally complains when hearing things such as Stegosaurus, Woolly Mammoths, Pteranodons and Trilobites qualified as "scary monsters" in Prehistoria -related stories (and with their appearance modified to make them look scary).

Even popular-science works such as documentaries or non-narrative books often do play straight this trope, probably for sensationalistic purpose. Many modern paleo-artists tend to do this in a subtle way, depicting their dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mammals, fish, invertebrates and whatnot as nasty as allowed by scientific accuracy: the fact that the skin texture/color and, above all, the appearance of the eyes are almost always unknown, all this allows imagination to travel freely, of course. Just for example, compare this Compsognathus with this one, and guess which plays it straight and which averts it. When a watcher see such depictions, he usually has nothing to say against the Darker and Edgier varieties since they still remain anatomically accurate (useless to say that Rule of Cool plays a strong role in this psychological mechanism).

Some people might see this trope a bit more justified than What Measure Is a Non-Cute? however. This because modern animals are often persecuted by humans in Real Life, and their portrayal in fiction may affect negatively their public image and thus all the efforts to protect them; while extinct animals may get considered expendable by writers since they don't live alongside us in our modern world, so the same aforementioned moral issues cannot be applied to them.

Of course there are also popular works which tend to avert this trope, especially in the last decades, in part thanks to the influence from popular documentaries like Walking With: no doubt however the traditional "prehistoric = monstrous" thing is all but a Dead Horse Trope even today (think about the recent Primeval). It's worth noting at this point that Prehistoric Monster may be considered a subtrope of Somewhere a Palaeontologist Is Crying only when anatomical inaccuracies are present as well. If extinct critters are portrayed in an unpleasant but still scientifically acceptable way (at least in respect to the knowledge of the time the work was created), it may be qualified more as a subtrope of Rule of Cool.

See also Dinosaurs Are Dragons, Reptiles Are Abhorrent, Everything Is Trying to Kill You, Frazetta Man, Kaiju, Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever, Our Monsters Are Weird, Historical Villain Upgrade, and Our Monsters Are Different. If you want to see some Real Life infos about extinct critters, see here.

Examples of Prehistoric Monster include:


Advertising

  • Nissin Cup Noodle advertisements feature many oversized ancient animals that either want to eat humans, or feel the urge to be utter jerks to them.


Anime and Manga


Comic Books

  • The comic series The War that Time Forgot featured prehistoric monsters capable of battling humans with World War II level armaments -- and WINNING.


Documentary

  • The documentary series Walking With... played straight the trope in two cases (Walking With Monsters and Sea Monsters), but averted it in most part of the series: the original Walking With Dinosaurs, Walking With Beasts, Ballad of Big Al, but above all Prehistoric Park. In this spinoff prehistoric animals are described as "something which is missing in our world, amazing animals that time has left behind" and worth to be brought to life; moreover, they show up later in the park alongside their living relatives (Martha the mammoth with african elephants, dinosaurs with birds and crocodiles, sabre-toothed cat with cheetahs and so on). Here the discrimination between extinct and non-extinct animal is totally absent (a very rare example in media). The trope is even inverted in one case: keeper Bob being affectionate with the giant millipede relative Arthropleura and saying "this is not like spiders and other small modern creepy-crawlies, this is a proper animal".
    • It's worth noting the accompanying book "A Natural History" has a Darker and Edgier tone when talking about the same arguments portrayed in the TV show WWD.
    • Moreover, many WWD imitations portray prehistoric critters (not only dinosaurs) as nothing but ever-fighting brutes often with altered look to make them scarier: Jurassic Fight Club and Animal Armageddon are two main examples.
    • The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs may be counted as another example. Paleontology never tells actual "truths", it is more like an educated guesswork... maybe we will never be certain about how T. rex and raptors hunted their prey.
    • When Dinosaurs Roamed America and Dinosaur Planet tend to represent dinosaurs in a more realistic way than the aforementioned shows, and thus seem more related to the original documentation purpose which led WWD producers initially (even though certain scenes from WDRA look more violent than those from the BBC docu, while DP dinos seem a bit too humanized in their actions and feelings).
  • Walter Cronkite's documentary "Dinosaur!" (1990) plays it straight several times during the four episodes (especially the first one), and some puppetry scenes involving predatory dinosaurs hunting their prey may appear as Nightmare Fuel for some people. However it averts it in the last two episodes, where dinos are described in a more positive way, as intelligent, caring creatures.
  • The Hunt for Chinese Dinosaurs provides an example of Lampshade Hanging of the trope: dinosaurs are called dragons from the start to the end, but the narrator does specify at one point that this makes part of the cultural tradition of both Western and Eastern world.
  • The Italian documentary Planet of Dinosaurs (1993) averts this trope completely: dinosaurs here are never called monsters, and are portrayed like modern mammals and birds are, with social attitudes and colorful design (anticipating Walking with Dinosaurs six years before). At the end of the last episode (which tells about their extinction), they are described as "extraordinary animals that deserve to be remembered in their best moments, when filled the Earth with their strength and their vitality".
    • Interestingly, this series has also an accompanying book with a slighty Darker and Edgier style, just like the aforementioned "A Natural History".
  • Monsters Resurrected plays this painfully straight -- it's even in the title! The most notorious example may be the Spinosaurus, compared to which even Jurassic Park III's depiction of the animal could be considered realistic.
  • Dinosaur Revolution subverts this trope: The animals act more like cartoon chracters rather than savage monsters and Noisy Nature is averted. That said, this trope is played straight with the Saurosuchus and Torvosaurus.


Film

  • The first live action dinosaur film, Brute Force (1914) started the tradition with a battle between a caveman and a Ceratosaurus.
  • 1925's The Lost World features the earliest Kaiju attack -- a Brontosaurus that goes on the rampage in downtown London with little provocation. At least it doesn't try to eat anyone.
  • King Kong - Skull island is full of nothing but Prehistoric Monsters. Both the original (1933) and Peter Jackson's (2005).
  • 1948's Special Effects Failure laden Unknown Island sports a Flesh-Eating Giant Ground Sloth and its Ceratosaurs are relentless predators.
    • Recent studies suggest some ground sloths may have eaten carrion as well as plants (but they certainly weren't active predators).
  • The Rhedosaurs from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and the Paleosaurus of The Giant Behemoth (1959) are the iconic images of what people think of when they think "Prehistoric Monster" (aside from Godzilla, see below).
  • Godzilla and many other Kaiju are real or fictional Dinosaurs--and not all of them are mutated by radiation to be 150+ft long.
    • Godzilla later subverts this in his later film appearances. He's shown as being rather intelligent (Generally about as smart as an ape) and as being a loving and protective father.
  • 1960's Dinosaurus! has a T. Rex which acts like a rampaging monster. The T. rex then fights a Crane. Really!
  • 1966's One Million Years BC (the image above comes from it) plays this trope as straight as possible. Here dinosaurs and other animals all seem to do nothing else but fight each other and menace cavemen (which are portrayed as the classic, prehistoric brutish savages; this trope may be applied to prehistoric and modern humans as well other than to beasts).
  • 1968's The Lost Continent has most of its monsters think humans are tasty.
  • 1977's The Last Dinosaur has a Great White Hunter battle a Prehistoric Monster type T. Rex.
  • 1978's Most of the large animals in Planet of the Dinosaurs are extremely dangerous. The T. Rex in this film acts like Jason Voorhees with a busted Calender. To him, every day is Friday the 13th.
  • 1988's The Land Before Time may be count as one of the first aversions in Movieland. Here the main characters are thinking dinosaurs trying to reach the Great Valley with the Power of Friendship; however the villain Sharptooth is one of the most ferocious T. rexes ever heard, although tyrannosaurs, interestingly, become humanized and even friendly in the Lighter and Softer sequels (Chomper). Also note the Fantastic Racism that permeates some adult herbivorous dinosaurs (most notably Cera's father and sometimes his daughter herself).
  • 1993's Jurassic Park film and its two 1997/2001's sequels seems to zigzaging this trope a lot. For example, in the first movie Alan Grant tells to a young boy that Velociraptors are scary killers, but much later he responds to Lex that carnivores behave only by nature. Furthermore, dinosaurs in this film are described as both terrible and attractive, with predators that correspond more to the former image and the herbivores to the latter (with the sick Triceratops being the best example). Interesting to note that the only one time in which a character calls the dinosaurs as "monsters" (Lex with the brachiosaurs), Alan says "These are NOT monsters, these're animals!".
    • However, in the two continuations the cloned animals appear more frightening altogether, and more like Everything Trying to Kill You: see the difference between the Triceratopses' attitude in Jurassic Park 1 and Jurassic Park 2. The scariest example, however, may be the tiny Compsognathuses acting as two-legged piranhas, tearing chunks of flesh from a human and devouring him alive. While in Real Life the "compies" will be not more dangerous than house cats.
    • Alan refers to the dinosaurs as "genetically engineered theme park monsters" in Jurassic Park 3. It appears to be justified however, since the paleontologist seems referring to the dissonance between real dinos and JP creations rather than the nature of prehistoric animals.
    • The fourth goes back to averting this for the most part, however the Indominus Rex was specifically engineered to be this, and the Dimorphodon oddly also play this unintentionally straight (according to many fans) in one scene where they torture the innocent Zara to death by waterboarding before she is eaten by the Mosasaurus. The sequel has the Indoraptor, and he proves to be an Exaggeration of this trope; a full-blown sadist!
  • 2000's Disney Dinosaur averted this trope (like the similar Land Before Time) having several humanized characters, many of them are gentle and likable, such as Aladar (baby Aladar is a very cute thing) and Neera, but also Eema, Baylene and Url; but played it straight with Carnotaurs and raptors, as well as (for some extent) Kron (as his motivations came from a very real and human sense rather than just being monstrous). Furthermore, one can note a crucial difference in portrait between the social, humanitarian lemurs and the self-centered "Social Darwinism" that permeate all the dinosaur of Kron's herd (even the old and the young ones, which should actually be the victims of this mentality). Please note that the lemurs are modern Sifaka lemurs and not prehistoric primates at all.
  • The Ice Age movies (the first of them comes from 2002) avert this as far as mammals and birds from the Cenozoic era are concerned. Dinosaurs and other mesozoic reptiles, however, get this treatment whenever they appear, be it frozen over and thawed, as in the second movie, or located in a Lost World, like in the third (with the exception of, ironically, the T. rex).
  • 2003's Ice Crawlers features killer trilobites.
  • Super Mario Bros. The Movie portrays the population of humanoid-evolved dinosaurs in the parallel world as rough, dumb, murderous and just plain rude. This may be true only for the carnivores, while the herbivorous dino-humans are more usually naive and absent-minded. However, production designer David Snyder and others on the production noted that they weren't meant to be "mean-spirited." They just liked living that way.


Literature

  • "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" written by Jules Verne may be the Trope Maker in literature, with the iconic battle between two monstrous (and rather improbable) marine reptiles called "Ichthyosaur" and "Plesiosaur".
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Pellucidar" series similarly depicted most prehistoric animals as dangerous monsters. On David Innes's advent to the eponymous world At the Earth's Core, he is attacked -- by a giant sloth.
    • In his Land that Time Forgot series, Burroughs does the same thing -- his Tyrannosaurus is an armor-plated dragon which sometimes runs on four legs, with three-fingered hands.
  • 1990 Crichton's Jurassic Park has a similar approach to Spielberg's movies (see above) but with a Darker and Edgier tone (as one may get soon after reading the summary).
  • In Robert E. Howard's "Shadows In Iron", Conan the Barbarian identifies the hide of a golden leopard and an enormous snake -- both of which had been extinct for years in his time -- as ways to deduce that something is very, very, very wrong.
  • Raptor Red averts it completely. Not surprisingly, since it was written by a paleontologist. And not an ordinary one: the guy who started the "Dinosaur Renaissance".
  • Averted by the Dinotopia series, in which all the dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are Intellectual Animals that for the most part exist peacefully alongside humans. The exceptions are the large uncivilized theropods of the Rainy Basin and even they get portrayed as Noble Savages that can be bargained with. Contrast the miniseries.


Live Action TV

  • Zig-zagged in Primeval. Every extinct animal has some dangerous aspect to it -- even dodo birds house deadly parasites. However, while plenty of the creatures are portrayed as terrifying predators (the anurognathid swarm, Deinonychus, mosasaur and phorusrhacids, for instance), others are only dangerous because they're large/powerful and panicked (the Embolotherium herd, Dracorex and Columbian Mammoth), still others are outright harmless (Scutosaurus) and some are so harmless they're adopted as Team Pets (Rex the Coelurosauravus, as well as the Diictodons, which are even mentioned in-series as Ugly Cute). Heck, even the Spinosaurus, in spite of being a huge predator, doesn't seem to be trying to eat anyone; it's just dangerous because it's a large, panicked animal in a populated area.
  • Lost Tapes features several surviving prehistoric animals that all think humans are VERY tasty...
  • Barney and Friends may be one of the greatest aversions ever.

Tabletop Games

  • The original 3rd Edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons inexplicably classified all prehistoric vertebrates as "beasts", not "animals", thus lumping them together with fantastical monsters such as the ankheg. This meant that dinosaurs and other creatures extinct on Earth couldn't be affected by magics or class abilities targeting the "animal" creature-type, even if they still constituted a natural part of their native game-worlds' contemporary ecosystems. This arbitrary and pointless distinction lasted until the 3.5 revisions sensibly abolished the "beast" creature type.


Toys

  • Averted by many earlier LEGO themes, such as the Duplo line that had cavemen and dinosaurs living together peacefully, or the dinosaur-related subline of Adventurers, which was about saving the animals from falling into the villains' hands. It is, however, played straight in Dino 2010 and especially in its American counterpart, Dino Attack, which centered around destroying the evil beasts using the most over-the-top weaponry.


Video Games

  • Several Pokémon fall under this category. Obtaining them requires the player to obtain their fossils[1] and use the DNA extracted from them to resurrect the creatures.
    • Averted, actually. None of the ancient Pokémon are treated as dangerous monsters, and most don't even look more scary than average.(With the exception of Kabuto/Kabutops.) In the anime a couple of them are mean, but it's not a general rule. However, Pokémon that look like dinosaurs are usually treated as extremely destructive, even if their stats say otherwise.(Such as Aggron, which isn't that strong but looks scary...and is therefore treated as scary.)
  • Silver Horns from Mega Man X: Command Mission is the only prehistoric Maverick in the game and one of the nastiest in the entire series. There have been a number of other prehistoric Mavericks in the series, too.

Web Original


Western Animation

  • The Flintstones (started in the 1960s) completely averts the trope, showing funny prehistoric animals that behave either like living tools or pets (Dino).
  • The first aversion was the lovable Gertie the Dinosaur (ironically, the very first prehistoric critter to show up in cinema, in 1914).
  • Invoked in Phineas and Ferb when Doofenshmirtz resurrects dodos. He doesn't actually know what a dodo is, but they're extinct like dinosaurs, so he imagines it'll be like giant dinosaurs destroying the city. He is disappointed to find out that dodos are turkey-like creatures (and thus, actual dinosaurs).
    • Which is a bit ironic when you realize that dodos are dinosaurs.
  • In Transformers, dinosaur-based characters are usually good guys. However Megatron and Terrorsaur from Beast Wars play this straight. (though Megatron eventually becomes a dragon)

Real Life

Notes

  1. in Aerodactyl's case, its DNA was stored in amber
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