The Legacy of James Horner: No. 1 “The Land Before Time”
[This article is part of a 10 part short retrospective of the career of the late film composer James Horner. Be sure to check below for a link to the introduction, and a link to the next item in the Top 10 list.]
For this final selection on my Top 10 James Horner music retrospective, I found myself compelled to speak on two tracks from the same film, as I think both are necessary in order to comment fully on James’ unique skill in the matter of making what could otherwise be seen as childish, entirely epic.
You see, I don’t think we have ventured down the road of the harsh and the dramatic in quite a long time when it comes to animated films for families. Animated movies today–save for the occasional foreign film that decides to be a little more edgy in its grit or emotional moments–tend to lean on the side of “easy-going,” “family friendly,” “non-obtrusive,” “calm.” Not really anything that could leave you sad or affected in a perceivably negative way, even if it might be good to feel sad or affected after watching a harrowing story.
Plenty of movies used to be that way though, especially when it came to the 1980s. The last film that I think even managed to make such an impact as this was Toy Story 3, so they do still exist. But before that the last major one has to have been The Prince of Egypt, if not also Toy Story 2. So they are few and far between when it comes to American films anymore. Back in the day, however, the best in the business when it came to taking you on a dark and scary, but ultimately satisfying ride was Don Bluth. And I don’t think anyone was better at scoring for films of Don’s nature than James Horner. But Jerry Goldsmith on The Secret of Nimh comes at a close second.
For our last (but not least) entry on this Top 10 Retrospective, I’d like to highlight both the opening track, entitled “The Great Migration,” and the ending track, entitled “Discovery of the Great Valley,” of Don Bluth’s third film, The Land Before Time. As I believe they present two particular styles of scoring within one film that help to represent what I think is most impressive and most lasting about James Horner’s music: his soul.
“The Great Migration”
Playing out as a sort of homage to the evolutionary scene from the “Right of Spring” sequence in Fantasia, “The Great Migration” sequence takes us through a sort of evolutionary journey from small creatures through to big creatures, but all without actually showing us single-celled organisms or things changing from one to another. Instead we simply get up close and personal to some water-dwelling creatures in a swampy lake, and travel up through it into the trees, where we then are greeted by land creatures, and then the long neck dinosaurs.
This rather lengthy track by James Horner, perfectly encapsulates the size, scale, and mystery of history that is present in all of the visuals on screen. It also, once again, foreshadows the struggle, strife, and survival of our main characters later on in the story, as well as the spirit of the Dinosaur’s world featured all throughout. And in essence, this is what a main theme is supposed to do for a movie: it should describe in all of its facets, everything you need to know emotionally (through music) about the movie you are about to watch. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard another orchestral opening song do a better job of that than here in The Land Before Time.
“Discovery of the Great Valley”
By far my favorite uplifting James Horner piece, this song accompanies the moment that the five young dinosaurs finally reach their destination and reunite with all of their long lost families. It is such a beautiful and satisfying moment that I could not imagine any other music ever being associated with the scene.
There is so much soul, so much love, and so much magic in this one moment: primarily due to the strings and the stunning but subtle choir of what I assume are both women and young children. And this choir perfectly underscore the moments when Littlefoot, Sarah, Spike, Ducky, and Pitree find their families again, and reminisce on all of the difficult, magical, and friendship strengthening times that had while on their epic journey.
Just like with the opening song, which promises a magnificent and harrowing story ahead of us, I truly could not think of a more satisfying song to end a very dramatic and equally satisfying film, out of all of the films I have ever watched.
And sadly, that brings us to the end of our look back at the music of James Horner, here on the Cinema Warehouse.
I hope you have enjoyed going on this journey with me. And I hope if you have not been familiar with some of these films or songs before, that you go out right away and seek them out yourself, as I’m sure with most of them, you will not be disappointed.
Take care everyone. And rest in peace, James.