The Land Before Time (1988) | This Ain’t No Kid’s Movie
Just as with The Brave Little Toaster and An American Tail, The Land Before Time is one of those rare animated features that deeply affects your emotions as you watch, and long after the movie had ended.
The reason I want to talk about this movie is not because I believe it is an underrated classic. On the contrary, I’m sure most people who are aware of this film put it on a decently high pedestal. But truth be told, compared to the amount of people who are aware of the Disney classics, this Don Bluth/Steven Spielberg/George Lucas project is much less remembered. Unlike the Disney films, which have a huge fandom and backing behind them to give all of the high-def, Blu-ray releases with brand new special features and documentaries; the Don Bluth films have been relegated to the children’s DVD section and have been given generic styled kiddie covers that make the originals look just as dorky as their cash-in sequels.
The people who distribute these films, more-or-less, simply want them to be sold to none-the-wiser parents who could care less about the quality, beauty, or well-crafted nature of some of these films. Personally I believe that The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and the Land Before Time are three of the best animated features of all time, and should be respected and considered timeless classics that deserve to have proper releases and proper cover art. The original posters produced for these films were striking and cinematic; just like any other live-action film at the time. So why can’t they continue to be? Couldn’t there be a common ground between these two extremes of kiddie-cover versus serious dramatic artwork? I think so.
But let us now move into the narrative and the plot for a deeper discussion of content.
The opening of The Land Before Time is very haunting. It’s dark, it’s muffled and hard to see: and intentionally so. Animals are doing things that we can’t quite make out, and they do not speak. And just like the opening of The Brave Little Toaster, we have to wait about a minute or so before anything happens on screen other than slow visuals, credits, and music. As such, it is another animated movie that takes it’s time and utilizes a slow build-up, rather than a fast-paced, exciting opening sequence. Most modern films are not so bold.
I must mention here that the music by James Horner (who has composed many of my favorite animated feature soundtracks) is very well ingrained into my childhood memories. This opening track made an impact on me; and it still carries its magic, its classically inspired magnitude, and child-hood wonderment to this day. I still get chills down my spine. I especially recall the high pitched flutes used to accompany the babies hatching out of their eggs and exploring the world for the first time. It suggests small size as well as innocence: which of course, tends to make me tear up. You would have to be a lying fool to say that Little-foot’s baby yawning did not make you giggle and go “awww!” when you saw it.
As the movie progresses into Little-Foot’s youth, we see him begin to interact with some of the other dinosaurs around him. And he comes upon Cera, a triceratops with a rather pushy, self-centered attitude. Little-Foot tries to be nice, but proves he can have a bit of a temper of his own, and the two fight for a bit before noticing all of the bubbles popping up around them. And they start to have a little fun, prancing around in the lake.
Now… when Don Bluth wants to scare the snot out of you, he can, and he can do it very well. If you look at his 4 early films, including his second Dragon’s Lair arcade game; Don has been able to animate some of the biggest, meanest, nastiest looking demon spawn on the face of the planet. You look on Youtube and you see all those cute cat videos, and you think to yourself, “cats are nice, cats could never look scary.” But then you watch the opening to “An American Tail,” and you see those nasty, cloudy eyed, drooling hell-furries, and it might just make you second-guess yourself for a moment..
Well Don and his team have frequently been able to create some very intense sequences that are almost 3-dimentional. Where we as an audience are relating to the victims in an intense sequence; the attacking evil creature is very fast, very fluid, and has some very realistic attention to perspective. So-much-so that the creature feels like it’s coming straight towards you through the screen. This is a testament to the power and believability that hand-drawn animation can have. I’m sure they referenced something to get these kinds of shots to look that good. Some of Don’s movies do have very clearly roto-scoped elements in certain shots, but none-the-less the final image looks very scary indeed.
I have to say, I don’t think I have ever seen any other film that pulls this many punches in the first opening minutes. I said it before that the award for the most heart-wrenching, striking, serious and mature animated movie goes to The Brave Little Toaster, with The Land Before Time at a close second.
Well, here’s why:
the opening sequences of both films are fairly similar; they both have nothing but dark visuals and credits with music, they are also both slow moving and slow building.
…Toaster has the radio and the lamp duke it out down the stair-case with very intense music despite them just fooling around. Then there’s a sad sequence of the Blanket getting anxious and then deeply depressed that the car driving by wasn’t the Master once again. Finally ending the first 10 minutes with a terrifying and sad sequence of the Air Conditioner dying on screen from over-heating (which I considered akin to a heart-attack).
The Land Before Time also has two characters foolishly fight in the beginning. Which leads into a T-Rex chase sequence, followed by a fight between it and Little-foot’s mother, followed by a cataclysmic continental divide which splits up the dinosaur families, concluding the first 10 minutes with by Little-foot watching his mother die.
And you thought watching the ending to Toy Story 3 was tough. This is why I put this in my “Animated and Underrated” section; because THIS should be above Mufasa dying as one of the saddest nostalgic moments. Sure, when Bambi’s mother dies, she gets shot, and Bambi can’t find her, but he isn’t left totally alone: he has a father who can still raise him. And yes, The Lion King was a big block-buster and very popular, but it shouldn’t take away the fact that this very similar scene from The Land Before Time is honestly much more sad and serious.
And you know what really takes the cake even more than that? This movie doesn’t chicken out on the sadness by pelting you over the head with happy-go-lucky song afterwards. No, instead, Little-Foot is forced to walk out into the wilderness, cold and alone, and must now fend for himself. And the only way we are given some hope and reassurance of any kind for the kid’s well-being, is when the narrator appears as a dinosaur and gives him a minor pep-talk.
However, after that, then we get a slightly humorous sequence to lighten the mood, with some young Pterodactyls fighting over a cherry. It still kind of makes me tear-up because of how cute and adorable they are, and the little squeaky sounds they make. But I digress.
Little-Foot starts to regain some of his strength and his confidence after meeting Ducky, Spike and Petrie. They quickly become his friends and help to support him along his journey, because just like him, they have all lost their families and their herds. And soon after that, they come across Cera again, who had decided to stupidly venture into a cave and butt heads with, what looked to her, like a dead Sharp-Tooth (T-Rex).
The five of them, after teaming up; have to then deal with finding food, finding water, finding shelter, finding the land-marks that Little-Foot’s mother told him about how to reach the Great Valley, and eventually their own stubbornness; as Cera wants to do things her own way, and Little-Foot stands his ground that they have to follow his course.
Eventually, though, the biggest challenge they face is disposing of that Sharp-Tooth once and for all. So they devise a plan to kill it by luring it out to a pond beneath a cliff, where a large rock sits at the top; and they’ll push the rock down on top of its head. Ducky goes into the cave as the bait, and Petrie stands atop the mountain’s edge to call the signal when he sees the Sharp-Tooth is in position.
But the Sharp-Tooth doesn’t stay put, so Petrie risks his life in order to get the monster in just the right spot. And after the rock falls on them, it looks as if Petrie might be dead. But as always, he climbs out of the water and onto the cliff basically all still together. And our intrepid band of heroes ventures on to find the entrance to the Great Valley, which it turns out, is just around the bend.
The movie ends on a grand sequence of everyone reuniting with their families over the most uplifting and Angel-choir filled song you may ever hear.
To begin with some select analysis on the film’s design and production, I’ll start with Little-Foot.
If you’ve watched any of the sequels to The Land Before Time, you may notice that Little-Foot is decidedly more Orange (at least in many shots with certain lighting) in this original feature than he is in the sequels. First sequel out, they colored him a pale grayish/peach color instead. Actually, in looking at it more, he’s closer to shades of tan in the original, and closer to shades or pale purple in the sequels. Probably to make him stand out more against Cera, who is also quite yellow/orange in all of the movies.
Little-foot’s facial expressions in this original film are a lot more realistic to a young child growing up. He gets angry, he gets sick and tired, he also gets sad and depressed or even stubborn and enraged. And all of these emotions show clearly on his very rubbery face. Where-as none of the 12 D-T-V (Direct-to-Video) sequels ever so much as let him get ticked-off. Or at least if they did, they never let it show too much. Little-foot in the sequels is always happy, always content; his face never scrunches up and makes that distinct disgusted look.
But Don and his team certainly get expressive here. Kids can often get expressive with their faces if something bothers them or they don’t like what’s going on. This film stands out because in Don’s other productions, the faces tend to be round and cartoonish; but here the faces have more grit and detail and a more muscular design, allowing for more broad and varied expressions.
Something else they changed in the sequels, or rather, removed; is Petrie’s comedic personality. Not only is he clumsy and timid about things here, but when he is content and happy, he goes into this Robin Williams/Jim Carry routine of making jokes and making quirky body gestures to be clever and funny. In the sequels, they decided to remove this in order to give him a more consistent and recognizable stereotypical “wimpy” personality. “Simplification for the sake of the children”: doesn’t quite fly with me if the first movie worked so well that it was able to spawn 12 sequels. They really shouldn’t have tried to change much.
Funny thing, this entire movie feels like it takes place at either sunrise or sunset: a lot of 1980s artwork and fantasy films tended to do that. And if you watch the colors and the clouds in the background, they are always orangey and/or pinkish. It’s never a bright blue sky, never white clouds, and the sun is never at mid-day; it’s always dirty and brown and orangey.
Sound effects in this movie are fairly unique. Due to the abundance of none-speaking creatures, there was a need to have a lot of animal-like sounds. Some of which I don’t know where they came from, but they are also very ingrained into my subconscious. Like that evil sound of the Sharp-tooth: that screeching scream that it has is so haunting that I would get shivers down my spine if I ever heard anything close to it in the real world. There were also those little Pterodactyls I mentioned earlier with the high-pitched clucking/squeaky noises that nearly make me cry every time. The sound design over-all is very rich and well-crafted.
Now if I could talk a little bit about Don Bluth’s animation style. There is a distinct choice that Don makes with all of his films, and indeed his entire approach to animation: in that every character in all of his movies must perform everything they say with big swooping motions of the arms and hands, as well as express every word they say with every muscle in their face. Every movement is over-exaggerated as if the characters are all in a broad-way or Shakespearian play performing for an audience, therefore needing to use big gestures and wide motions to express what they are feeling and saying to viewers 100 feet away.
I’ve just always found it strange that Don chose to take this approach. I think you can actually tell which characters were animated by Don in 1970s Disney movies because Don was the only one giving characters these big expressive motions and facial expressions. Everyone else, including the still working Nine Old Men, did not have this animation style and were much more naturalistic and restrained in their movements. Once Don left with some of the other animators in the late 70s, I guess he imparted his grandiose style onto everyone in his production company, and it just stuck. Even in The Secret of NIMH you can see this style; especially in Jenner: the villain near the end of the film. But the style becomes more prominent in An American Tail. And you can see how this expressive motion style translates to four-legged animals here in The Land Before Time. It’s actually quite brilliantly done. No one has ever animated like Don Bluth before, and I don’t think anyone ever will again.
But perhaps the one thing that makes this movie work more than anything else, is the background designs. Whenever the characters are going from one place to another, or from one area to the next, there’s a great sense of anticipation because some places are drawn at extreme angles, or some areas are obscured by large objects. Sometimes the characters have to slip and slide and crawl and climb to get to where they’re going, and the background art helps exaggerate their struggles to a perfect cinematic level.
I was especially impressed with both the scene where Little-Foot thinks his shadow is his mother; when the 5 protagonists discover the Rock That Looks Like a Long-Neck; the shot where we look down from the cliff to the Sharp-Tooth below; and all of the shots leading up to the reveal of the Great Valley.
The production team actually produced a total of 600 background painting, which should tell you how important the environments and individual shots were to them as well. If I could own any of these back-drops as artwork on my wall, I most certainly would. In fact, I believe I was lucky enough to see one of them in person.
In summation, this film was another very impactful film on my childhood. It’s one of the seminal films that taught me the power of animation and just how emotional and dramatic it could be, while at the same time showing us worlds and characters that you couldn’t do in live-action as easily. It’s a film that I greatly respect, and one that I am anxiously awaiting a Blu-ray for.
1. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who originally developed the idea for The Land Before Time, thought that it should have no dialogue and play very much like Bambi and “The Right of Spring” sequence in Fantasia. Which, at least in that respect, is very much what it is.
2. Don’s animation team did extensive research at animal history museums and the Smithsonian Institute in order to reproduce the anatomy, muscle structure, and natural movements of every Dinosaur in the film.
3. A full 19 minutes of completely animated scenes were removed from the final film in order to reduce the MPAA rating from a PG to a G, due to the distressful and highly dramatic nature of the scenes: most of which were the 5 main protagonists in ever increasing dangerous circumstances. I wish we were able to get back all of that footage for a Blu-ray special feature someday. But as it turns out, it looks like most of that footage in its final film-negative form has been lost and was never recovered. The animation drawings and backgrounds, on the other hand, is another matter.
4. I know I’ve done more than enough to explain just how emotionally impactful and mature this film is. But did you know that the scene just following the mother’s death, where that old man (named Rooter) gives Little-Foot the encouraging pep-talk, was suggested by psychologists in order to lighten the blow of the death-scene. So you see, we might not have even had that to ease the pain. But I’m actually glad that scene is in there; I actually think it needs to be.
5. The Land Before Time was released on the same day and Disney’s Oliver & Company in 1988, and beat Oliver at the box office; garnering a total of over $48 million domestically, and $84 million world-wide: which Oliver & Company was unable to beat.
6. The voice of Little-Foot is Gabriel Damon, who also performed the voice of Nemo in Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
7. Director Brad Bird’s pilot film for the short lived cartoon series, Family Dog, was released along with The Land Before Time as the opening short. Family Dog originally appeared as part of the anthology series, Amazing Stories.
8. If some of you don’t remember, this movie has no songs in it. The other 12 sequels, however, all have songs: as is per-usual for many D-T-V sequels.
9. The ending theme-song, sung by Diana Ross, became such a huge hit in Japan (and I’m not surprised, it’s a beautiful tune) that it has become a traditional karaoke standard. The Japanese do love their karaoke. =)
Because of the enormity of them all, I have no future plans to review any of The Land Before Time sequels. So if you are interested in learning all about the 12 Direct-to-Video films, you can check out MarzGurl’s extensive video review series about them here: MarzGurl Reviews
Coincidently, my sister and I watched the Japanese anime film, You Are Umasou, just the other day. So in keeping with the dinosaur theme for a moment, I will be writing up a review about that film very soon. When it is done, you can check it out here: You Are Umasou!