Directed by Don Bluth
Written by Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss, and Stu Krieger
I have, it seems, spoken out of turn about Don Bluth's third animated feature, The Land Before Time. I've said things like "it's not as good as you remember," and "it's no classic," and "maybe it's not even as good as The Secret of NIMH," and I regret them. I expect this has something to do with the odd fact that, despite being a very popular family film, it didn't have a good home video presentation until as late as 2015, and the last and only other time I saw it as an adult was on a shitty DVD sourced from a cropped scan for VHS. I also wonder if I was just in a crabby mood for that viewing, or even if I was unduly sensitive to this one, for besides the whole "climate catastrophe" thing that drives its plot, there are a lot of scenes of newborn dinosaurs who, in their faintly-confused laziness, tore my heart out in every frame because they reminded me of my cat who died last month. (And I don't think I'm just imagining that: for whatever reason, the model for much of Bluth's baby dinosaur animation really does seem to have been "feline," though I suppose I approve.)
That's my obligatory disclosure, though I think, once you finally see it on a proper blu-ray, it can surprise you how good it is. It is not the perfect movie, but it is so much the platonic ideal of the kid's movie—dinosaurs! action! cuteness! color-coded characters! awesome Diana Ross ballads! (why not!)—it's like somebody built the thing in a lab. And that is sort of exactly how it came to be: The Land Before Time was the brainchild not of Don Bluth, but Steven Spielberg, and it represents Sullivan Bluth Studios' second and final collaboration with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, the closest thing there was to a factory for making perfect kid's media as existed in the 1980s. For his second production with Bluth (the first being the very successful An American Tail), Spielberg even brought in his friend and colleague George Lucas, just in case there was any sector of the kid's audience Spielberg might have missed. Thus "the platonic ideal of a kid's movie" is pretty much how it shook out, and it has the thirteen sequels to prove it.
That is not exactly how it started, however; Spielberg and Lucas's original plan, believe it or not (and it is frankly very hard to believe they entertained the idea for long), was to have a dialogue-free tale of the most lightly-anthropomorphized dinosaurs possible, drawing heavily upon Walt Disney's mystic exploration of prehistory in the "Rite of Spring" sequence of Fantasia.* At some point very early in development, the uncommercial austerity this would've necessarily imposed was abandoned, though Spielberg, Lucas, and/or Bluth's approach did not deviate that much, so that the "perfect kid's movie" turns out to be "Fantasia's 'Rite of Spring,' but with the plot of the first half of Bambi, and filtered through the sensibilities of a Saturday morning cartoon show," which I suppose is how this film was so easily able to kick off almost two decades' worth of feature-length direct-to-video episodes. It does not quite capture the majesty of either of its two biggest influences, but it sometimes comes close—on some other metrics, it legitimately exceeds them—and I might be willing to give it the top spot as Spielberg's best dinosaur movie, too. After all, Jurassic Park is scarcely less "for children," plus it has a bunch of condescending, moralizing humans running around and gunking up the appeal of the premise. Meanwhile, The Land Before Time is so beautifully bite-sized: at an hour and nine minutes, I wonder if it's the shortest feature film given a major theatrical release since the 1950s. (In recognition of this, it was released with a Brad Bird short.)
The story takes us back to an, ahem, fantasia of the Mesozoic—it cherry-picks beloved dinosaurs from across sixty or so million years of evolution, many of whom would have never come close to co-existing—though there is also a subtle but insistent suggestion that we might be on the wrong side of the K-T boundary anyway, for the world of our baby "longneck," or apatosaur, dubbed Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon), is a world defined by ecological collapse. It is to this end that his family, led by his mother (Helen Shaver), has determined to follow the "big circle" westward toward a so-called "Great Valley," where green leaves still grow in abundance. But disaster strikes, in the form of a "sharptooth" (a tyrannosaur), and also a great "earthshake." Between the two, Littlefoot, scarcely a few months old, is left to cross the great dead wasteland alone. Or rather, he would be alone, but Cera, a baby "threehorn" or triceratops (Candace Huston), has been separated from her family as well, and Littlefoot finds other unlikely companions in the form of Ducky, an extroverted "bigmouth" or hadrosaur (Judith Barsi), Petrie, a nervous "flier" or pteranodon (Will Ryan), and Spike, a hungry, vaguely-aware "spiketail" or stegosaur, who remains unvoiced to the extent I believe he doesn't make any noises whatsoever, not even Welkerese, and as he is from the oldest lineage of dinosaurs here, evolution-wise, I guess this "makes sense." They learn to work together despite their differences—speaking frankly, it's only Cera who ever makes this difficult, as Cera has internalized toxic lessons from her bigoted father (Burke Byrnes), referred to in the credits (and mercifully never in the movie itself) as "Daddy Topps"—and the five new friends make their way to the place where Littlefoot's promised paradise awaits. (I cannot prove this, but my suspicion is that the producers and writers at least half-jokingly played around with an idea for an unbearably depressing version of Land Before Time where the Great Valley never existed except in Littlefoot's imagination, particularly since we know extinction is coming for them eventually, and "Rite of Spring" ended with precisely that.)
In the execution anyway, The Land Before Time becomes, just like An American Tail before it, a story about children creating a polyglot society, and somehow it's an even more direct fable about racism than the movie that starts with a porgrom. It likewise means that Land Before Time, in addition to Fantasia and Bambi, is a little reminiscent of the last movie Bluth worked on for Disney (but from which he had his name removed), The Fox and the Hound, though there is never the disquieting pessimism of that movie, and Land Before Time cheerfully announces via its extremely unnecessary narrator (Pat Hingle, who has previously informed us that Littlefoot has been separated from his family, in case we did not notice the giant chasm that has opened between them) that a handful of small children were indeed able to solve society all by themselves.
Well, it's still a very nice moral—albeit one that, in order to get there, has to define Cera as a useless load of threehorn chauvinism who never contributes to the group in the slightest way until the very, very end—and I freely concede that it makes me happy to watch it play out, despite the way it's channeled through some inordinately-sugary child performances. In fact, I think the cuteness works to its benefit; it's allowed to come naturally, and unlike, for example, Fievel, the cast here is allowed to be adorable simply because they are dino-babies, voiced by well-calibrated human babies, and you never get the sense that Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, and the other animators are forcing adorability onto these characters, certainly not the way they were with An American Tail's bleakest moments of compulsory d'awwing. I expect this was to an extent locked in here: I don't mind calling Land Before Time Bluth's best-animated work by a considerable margin (at least of his first three films, but, potentially, ever), and a big part of that is because, in doing Bambi, even an attenuated Bambi, Bluth has obliged himself to treat his dinosaurs as if they were actual animals or at least something pretty close. So we get dinosaurs with just enough humanization in the eyes (and eye placement, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, eye lashes) to read as characters, but also with enough weighty realism in their movement, and enough attention to their musculature (and the skin over their musculature), that watching them can suggest the animated prehistoric docudrama Spielberg and Lucas originally wanted. If nothing else, the constant aggravating over-gesticulation that had become so common in Bluth's character animation was bound to be much less feasible when most of his characters were quadrupeds.
Wondrously, there is much else! The cast's tininess gives the animators an excuse to play with scale and perspective in downright dizzying ways. This is true of Littlefoot's mom especially: approximately two thousand times her offspring's size—this being a fairly accurate representation of the life cycle of an apatosaur—she's rendered almost godlike in her enormity. There's one shot in particular where her head, mounted on her long snakelike neck, swings from the deep, deep background, out of the frame entirely, and back into the frame, that takes my breath away. The tyrannosaur is gorgeous, too, in its manner—third place goes to some pachycephalosaurs, who show up for no special reason except I think Spielberg simply must like the silly things—but, the tyrannosaur is the closest we get to a photorealistic dinosaur here, and it's an obvious trick that works despite its obviousness, investing the predator with an almost demonic countenance in comparison to its anthropomorphized prey. Of course, if it raises questions about why a tyrannosaur would expend so much energy trying to capture fun-sized snacks, surely the polite thing to do is not to ask them. Besides, its hunger for Littlefoot provokes a titanic battle between tyrannosaur and apatosaur that, in terms of thrilling intensity, is just about the equal to Wolfgang Reitherman's epochal work with clashing dinos in "Rite on Spring"—I love the way the earth decides that this is the moment to just tear itself apart—and it's only a little short in terms of grave seriousness. (And even being "a little short" is a terrific accomplishment, considering that in An American Tail Bluth was totally okay with using a pogrom as a vehicle for cartoon japery. Like a miracle, Land Before Time never veers off course tonally—it doesn't even really have "comic relief characters" as you'd usually define them. There's only one comic beat that I would deem genuinely "goofy," and while I wouldn't claim that it's hilarious, it slots in fine, using the denouement of a "serious" scene to give the other four a chance to punk Cera, who, naturally, is still being a miserable asshole even after fifty minutes of film have gone by.)
If you recall Land Before Time (and you almost certainly do), you will have noticed that I'm referring to the first half a lot more than I am the second. It's true that it's a very frontloaded film: most of its really amazing stuff arrives immediately, one scene after the other, in a film that is somewhat split, between the magnificence promised by those extremely Fantasiaesque opening credits and the marketable band of plush-ready dinosaur pals who eventually crystallize around our hero. The only thing that is uniformly strong throughout is James Horner's lush but delicate score, which (talking miracles) is not just Horner trying to keep his Trek scores from busting out instead.
If the film peaks early, maybe that was unavoidable: the first act closes with the loss of Littlefoot's mother, and if you remember that I said that Land Before Time actually exceeds its influences in very (very) narrow ways, this is what I mean. I'm on record as saying that the death of Bambi's mother doesn't matter much to me. But the death of Littlefoot's mother? Apparently, it fucking wrecks me. If you do not cry at her brave attempt to stand after her fatal injuries, and the way she fails under her own weight, cracking the rock beneath her, while Littlefoot uncomprehendingly wonders what's happening to her, you might, like my spouse, be a sociopath. (I think I'm kidding...) And so, unlike Bambi's more objective (and perhaps more admirable) depiction of a deer losing its mother and getting over it in the space of a cut, Land Before Time demands that you soak in Littlefoot's extremely human-like grief for long minutes representing days or weeks of the apatosaur's life. It's a grief that manifests, in his starved, thirsty brain, as pitiful hallucinations of his mother—hallucinations made all the more affecting because even though this is a cartoon and hallucinations are "easy," we only see what is really, actually happening, namely Littlefoot desperately chasing down his own shadow and affectionately licking a rock. (I am also a very big fan of what may be the most Disneyesque thing in this movie that isn't a direct copy: it's a little bit of silent animator's joy, involving a family of squabbling pterosaurs being fed by their mother, and the smallest, most sensitive one offering poor Littlefoot the small piece of fruit it had acquired at great effort. Terry Malick stole the basic idea for The Tree of Life. It's true, ask him.)
The upshot is we spend a whole second act being invited to constantly bawl, and God does it work—almost to the point of overkill, considering the softness of its intended target. But while most of the best action and all of the dampest emotions come early, this is not to say that what comes after is at all bad—there's only like half an hour left, so it would barely have the chance to be—and what we have thereafter is solid piece of Incredible Journeying, founded upon an unusually severe tragedy and, indeed, undertaken across an unusually severe symbolic hellscape, even for an 80s Bluth cartoon.
This is where I have something genuinely negative to say about Land Before Time, but I'll start with the positive anyway: the Bluth aesthetic is ideally suited for a tale of dinosaurs trudging across a drying, dying planet. Like NIMH and An American Tail, Land Before Time has the same moodily diffuse photographic reproduction that, for whatever reason, seems to have attended Bluth's early features, and it bears a surprisingly dark palette for a kid's movie—there are so many burnt orange twilights here—and Land Before Time, set in the midst of the literal end of a world, gets to push the Bluth aesthetic even further, with its spectacular geological fancies and its small oases picked clean in an instant by gangs of ravenous adult sauropods. It is, even so, the first Bluth film where the backgrounds let you down, with our characters frequently inhabiting some very vague spaces—in a Bluth movie, it seems, you can't have "actually good character animation," "good story," and "uniformly good backgrounds" all at once, because then you might confuse it for a masterpiece. It's still atmospheric as anything, and the absence of any story objections lets this atmosphere settle better than either of its predecessors; but sometimes the shot opens up into a sub-Mary Blair storybook image of a "forest" that consists of about five brushstrokes per tree, and you remember you're watching something that was churned out too quickly for its own good.
It remains a great success, and one whose legacy has been so ruthlessly exploited by its distributor, Universal, that it's easy to underrate it for the achievement it actually was. And this achievement was not just artistic: Land Before Time opened on the same weekend as Disney's Oliver and Company—and Land Before Time won. (The ultimate box office totals suggest more of a tie, but even tying Disney is a hell of a thing.) The downside was that, whatever heartfelt emotions the thing imparts, Bluth himself found it a millstone around his neck. He'd had the idea of it imposed on him by Spielberg and Lucas in the first place; and, shockingly, Spielberg and Lucas had notes. Bluth spent the entire production chafing under the twin yokes of the two moguls—Spielberg, fearing for the kids despite being the guy who asked for this stuff in the first place, even cut full minutes of finished animation deemed "too scary." (It's strange that Universal has never done the obvious thing and released a director's cut. It seems like easy profit, but perhaps it has more to do with what Spielberg's excisions entailed—it's not like there's some "gore cut" of Land Before Time that Spielberg ruined.) Insofar as Bluth's whole artistic personality can be boiled down to "don't tell me what to do," perhaps it's no surprise that this put an end to Sullivan Bluth's collaboration with Amblin. Lord, does that ever make Don Bluth look like a fool: Spielberg's not a god (well, time will tell), but in 1988, it's hard to imagine a better friend to the cash-strapped artist, and it was practically inevitable that Bluth's pictures afterward became smaller and less likely to reach an audience. But here stands The Land Before Time: maybe his finest work, and as much as Bluth's entire goal as a filmmaker had always been to recapture Disney's legend, I suppose it was only logical that it required him to rip off Disney's finest Golden Age classics wholesale to get there. Indeed, the next time he'd touch greatness, it was much the same story, though in that case he was invited to rip off something much more contemporary.
*Fantasia being the film we watched to comfort ourselves when we got back from the veterinarian, maybe now I simply associate Fantasia and even things merely like Fantasia with my cat's death. Excelsior.