Up until Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth teamed up here the typical dinosaurs you’d find rampaging across cinema screens were treated as either life-threatening monsters or simply large dumb prehistoric animals that were best avoided less one gets stepped on, but in 1988 Amblin Entertainment gave the world its first dinosaur story that was from the point of view of the dinosaurs themselves, and through the medium of animation we not only got dinosaurs as protagonists we were also treated to something far beyond what stuff like The Flintstones had provided in the past, in this film we the viewers were taken back to a land before time.
When it came to making this film the edict given to Don Bluth from Steven Spielberg was clearly along the lines of “Give me a dinosaur version of Bambi, but let’s not traumatize the kids” and with that contradictory idea Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time was born, a tale of friendship, adventure and a dash of heart-stopping terror, which certainly sounds easy enough to pull off. The basic premise of the film has to do with several herds of dinosaurs seeking an oasis known as The Great Valley after the land has been struck with a massive famine, and when the group is attacked by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, referred to as a “Sharptooth” by the dinosaurs in this film, it results in the death of the mother of a young Apatosaurus named Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon), a tragedy that is compounded by a cataclysmic earthquake that divides the herds and forces a small group of young dinosaurs, led by Littlefoot, to find The Great Valley on their own.
Note: Bluth, Spielberg and Lucas originally wanted the film to have no dialogue at all, like the segment “The Rite of Spring” from Disney’s Fantasia, but the idea was abandoned in favour of using voice actors in order to make it more appealing to children.
Now, as much as Spielberg and Lucas wanted this movie to have the flavour of Disney’s “The Rite of Spring” it became rather clear to Don Bluth that any on-screen violence would have to be toned down considerably, with Spielberg stating, after seeing the first cut of the film “It’s too scary. We’ll have kids crying in the lobby and a lot of angry parents. You don’t want that.” To solve this problem the film focused on the idea that dinosaurs of different species didn’t actually get along, that Littlefoot being a longneck would not be allowed to play with a three-horned dinosaur and that they’re were taught not to associate with each other, in what could best be described as a not too subtle allegory for racism. But despite this institutional racism, our plucky protagonist picks up an oddball crew on his search for the Great Valley that includes Cera (Candace Hutson) a bossy and prideful Triceratops, a cute Saurolophus “bigmouth” named Ducky (Judith Barsi), Petrie (Will Ryan), a Pteranodon that can’t fly, and a baby stegosaurus they call Spike (Frank Welker), and with this assortment of friends, Don Bluth took us on a heartfelt voyage of friendship and discovery that would also be full of laughs and screams.
• Though this film doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of showing dinosaurs and mankind living side-by-side it does show a variety of dinosaurs that came from different eras and that were separated by millions of years.
• The narrator (Pat Hingle) tells us that Littlefoot was the only child born to this particular herd of “longnecks” but when we first see his egg it is surrounded by other eggs that looked to have already been hatched. Were these baby longnecks killed or eaten before they were hatched? If so, that is pretty damn dark.
• The film depicts dinosaurs as consisting of two class structures, herbivore and carnivore, but then it shows Petrie and all other Pteranodons as herbivores when, in fact, they ate fish, not plants. We also see a Pachycephalosaurus depicted as ferocious carnivores despite these creatures being either herbivores or omnivores.
• Littlefoot’s mother (Helen Shaver) plucks a lone leaf from atop a tree and gives this “tree star” to her son saying “It is very special and helps you grow strong” and the idea that Littlefoot wouldn’t immediately eat the leaf is hard to swallow.
• This mixed herd of dinosaurs are heading to what they call “The Great Valley” but none of the dinosaurs have actually seen this fabled valley and when Littlefoot asks how they know it’s really there his mother answers “Somethings you see with your eyes, others you see with your heart.” Is this film saying that dinosaurs had some kind of faith-based religion and if so, I’m not okay with that.
• Sharptooh and all the other meat-eating dinosaurs are depicted as mindless killing machines, that have no language of their own, and that’s just racists.
• Petrie rolls up Littlefoot’s “tree star” and puts it across his shoulder like a rifle, imitating a marching soldier on guard, despite guns and soldiers not existing for several millions of years to come.
Say what you will about the thirteen sequels and the television series that followed Don Bluth’s original vision what we got here was quite the spectacular achievement and the beautiful animation on display was more than equal to what Disney was producing at the time, unfortunately, to achieve a PG 13 rating eleven minutes of footage, comprising a total of nineteen fully animated scenes, were cut from the final film which resulted in an end product that was barely over an hour-long, but according to Don Bluth he claims to have a personal copy of his Land Before Time that has all that cut footage, so let us all say it together “Release the Bluth cut!”
It should also be noted that Don Bluth’s dinosaur adventure film was released the same day as Disney’s Oliver and Company and proved once and for all that the House of Mouse was not the only game in town when it came to animated movies and though this particular entry may have borrowed elements from Bambi, and its particular take on the prehistoric world won’t likely be showing at any natural history museum that I can think of, the film is still an incredibly entertaining adventure story with a lot of heart and an overall solid message of love and acceptance.
The Land Before Time (1988)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Don Bluth’s Land Before Time may have a few too many “cutesy” moments and its scientific accuracy towards the age of dinosaurs is vastly flawed but none of that stops this film from being a genuinely endearing classic that will no doubt entertain and capture the imagination of children for generations to come.