The Land Before Time (1988)
Dir. by Don Bluth
Starring Gabriel Damon, Candace Hutson and Pat Hingle
A group of young dinosaurs, led by the Apatosaurus Littlefoot, are separated from their families by an earthquake. Together they seek out the Great Valley, the only place remaining with abundant plant life, while attempting to avoid the predation of a hungry T. Rex.
While I’ve been told that The Black Cauldron was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and I know I saw An American Tail as well, this is the first movie that I actually remember seeing in a movie theater. I had a Littlefoot stuffed animal that I loved growing up, and watching this kicked off a several-year-long obsession with dinosaurs.
It must have been at least a quarter century since I’ve seen this movie in its entirely. We probably sold the VHS in a garage sale some time in middle school, and I don’t even recall watching any scenes on Youtube or anything. However, it’s so ingrained in my childhood that I found myself recognizing scene after scene as if it had only been a couple years at most since I’d watched it.
I’m well aware of Don Bluth’s reputation for producing dark children’s fare, and from what I remember of his three other big 80s movies (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and especially All Dogs Go to Heaven) that’s a deserved reputation. This movie isn’t really an exception, though I found that the antics of the young dinosaurs cut the darkness with significant levity in a way that I don’t remember from the other films. While most of the movies have a single comic relief character (usually voiced by Dom DeLuise), all five of the main dinosaurs here take turns providing the physical comedy. When you think about it, the concept of five dinosaurs, who may or may not be orphaned, who have to travel across a deserted, blasted landscape while being stalked by an enormous predator, is inherently dark and disturbing, so the extra humor to break the mood was actually quite appreciated.
The animation itself is simply gorgeous. A relatively large part of the movie is dialogue-free, which allows even more emphasis to be placed on the artwork, especially all of the backgrounds. This was also the first major dinosaur movie made after the 1970s renaissance in paleontology, and the animators clearly showed their work, at least up to the level of knowledge they had available in the mid-80s. These definitely aren’t the swamp-dwelling, sluggish creatures of prior decades (and films), even if they do get a couple of dinosaurs from different periods mixed together.
I actually liked all of the vocal performances, even the “annoying” ones, and also appreciated the decision to leave Sharptooth the T. Rex unvoiced, as it’s just as much of a force of nature for Littlefoot and co. to overcome as any of the earthquakes and tar pits. While on the subject, I do feel like I need to touch on the tragedy of Ducky, whose voice actress, Judith Barsi, would be murdered by her own father before the movie would come out in theaters. I really can’t think of either this or All Dogs Go to Heaven without thinking of her (and if you’re not crying yet, Ducky’s “Yep Yep Yep” catchphrase is inscribed on her tombstone).
Another thing I’d completely forgotten about in the intervening decades was just how short this movie is. Animated movies not produced by Pixar tend to be on the shorter end as is, but this movie was short even for most theatrical animation, barely making the 70 minute mark. From what I’ve read, over ten minutes of completed animation had to be cut out of the movie to earn a G rating (this was a time when G was the expected rating for all animation. The first Disney movie to get a PG rating, The Black Cauldron, had debuted only a couple of years earlier, and had bombed in part as a result).
This included fairly graphic sequences of Sharptooth mauling Littlefoot’s mother, a scene that remains in the movie only in the form of shadows against a wall. Reportedly, Steven Spielberg himself, no stranger to child endangerment in his movies, told Don Bluth that he’d have “kids crying in the lobby” if he didn’t make the edits. As far as I know, none of the removed footage has ever shown up on any print or home media release, but I’d love to see it if it ever became available. Especially given that the scene in question is clearly an homage to a similar one from Fantasia, one of the most blatant nods to Bluth’s former employers in the film.
Inexplicably, this rather dark, dangerous dinosaur journey would go on to spark a very long-running franchise of happy, bright direct-to-DVD animated musicals. I wonder how many of the kids who grew up with those movies have ever gone back to watch the original, and been completely shocked by how different from them it is. While it’s a little too slight for it to have a lot of rewatch value for me now, especially when compared to Bluth’s other 80s movies, I can still definitely appreciate the impact it had on me as a child.
-I didn’t mention it above, but the score for the movie, composed by James Horner, is really quite excellent as well, and gets more of a spotlight than most scores due to the lack of dialogue in a lot of scenes.
-My favorite scene in the movie is actually the one scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the narrative. For about two minutes, the movie comes to halt while we watch a group of small pteradons fight wordlessly over a cherry, until eventually another unrelated lizard saunters up and eats it. They’re all dejected, until the mother shows up with a cherry for each of them. Finally, as they’re walking away, they pass a depressed-looking Littlefoot, and one of them attempts to give their cherry to the dinosaur to cheer him up. It feels like something out of the golden age of Disney animated shorts, and I found it positively charming.