Dinosaur 13

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Dinosaur 13 Movie Poster Image
Joyful discovery and dry legalities in dino documentary.
  • NR
  • 2014
  • 95 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie explores thorny legal issues involved in excavation of "Sue," the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton found to date. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Gives a sense of what it's like to work in the field in search of fossils, and the sense of wonder and joy when discoveries are made.


Infrequent mild profanity: "crap," "damn," "pissed."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Champagne toast after an important moment for the paleontologists. Lawyer smokes a cigar upon leaving a courtroom. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dinosaur 13 is a 2014 documentary that tells about the discovery of "Sue," the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever unearthed, and the thorny legal issues that followed. While kids, especially aspiring paleontologists, will find interest in the scenes that show the challenges and difficult work that went into the triumphant discovery of Sue in the Badlands of South Dakota, the second part, which focuses on FBI raids and the complex legal matters concerning who actually "owns" Sue, will most likely not interest kids. Infrequent mild profanity includes "crap," "damn," and "pissed." There's a brief shot of a champagne toast, and a shot of a lawyer leaving a courtroom while smoking a cigar. 

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What's the story?

In DINOSAUR 13 we learn that before 1990 only 12 Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons had been discovered, and of those, only 40% of the bones had been found by paleontologists. This changed when members of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, including the paleontologists Sue Hendrickson and Pete Larson, discovered and painstakingly excavated a nearly complete T-Rex skeleton in the South Dakota Badlands. They christened her "Sue," and as they began the laborious yet rewarding task of assembling the 80% of Sue's skeleton they had unearthed so far, their intention was to build a nonprofit natural history museum in Larson's home of Hill City, South Dakota. However, this dream turned into a 10-year nightmare that began with an FBI raid of the institute and the seizing of Sue because she was found on federal land, and seemingly endless litigation between the institute, the landowner on whose property Sue was discovered, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This documentary chronicles the legal woes Larson faced as the courts tried to determine who had the legal right to Sue, and follows Sue's rocky journey from discovery to star attraction at the Field Museum in Chicago. 

Is it any good?

This documentary chronicles how an astounding scientific discovery descended into the madness of academic, governmental, and judicial controversy. While the story of "Sue" -- the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found -- is ultimately a happy one in the sense that she's available for public viewing in the Field Museum in Chicago, the journey to get there was one filled with years of legal complications, prison sentences, controversial FBI raids, and the hurt pride of South Dakotans hoping that Sue would remain in the state where she was first found. What emerges is that Sue's discovery ends up being so much more than the actual discovery, raising so many less-interesting issues of property rights and private enterprise in work that's typically the exclusive province of academia.

For kids, the first third of Dinosaur 13, with its story of finding Sue on that brutally hot August afternoon in the Badlands of South Dakota and the obvious joy and passion these paleontologists felt upon realizing their find, is thoroughly engrossing, especially for the budding paleontologists of the family. However, as the movie gets into the federal government stepping in, and all the court cases that happened after, it's easy to imagine kids' interest waning. Not that the story isn't interesting, harrowing, and tragic, because it is, but the difference between the discovery and the discussions of the gray areas in American property law as it pertains to public and Native American lands is the difference between seeing Sue reassembled and towering menacingly over museum-goers and seeing parts of Sue kept in boxes seized and guarded by the government. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about documentaries. How does Dinosaur 13 compare to other documentaries you've seen? How does the movie use interviews and archival footage of home movies and news reports to tell the story? 

  • What are some of the takeaways from the movie in terms of the amount of intense work that goes into discovering dinosaur skeletons? 

  • How did the movie try to present all sides of this controversy? 

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dinosaurs

Themes & Topics

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