Over the years, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have produced five movies together. Four of them are Indiana Jones movies. The fifth is The Land Before Time, a charming little animated movie that somehow managed to spawn a whopping thirteen straight-to-video sequels (by the time you read this, that number may be higher). The film was directed by Don Bluth (who had previously done exceptional work on The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail), but the idea for the movie was Spielberg's: Bambi, but with dinosaurs.
It's an ambitious idea, and the film's goals were particularly lofty during the early stages of pre-production. Lucas and Spielberg imagined the film as a dialogue-free visual symphony built around the “circle of life” themes that Bambi had addressed (and that The Lion King would touch on a few years later). Alas, compromises were made: dialogue was added to make the movie more kid-accessible, and large chunks of the film's initial cut were removed (a rare occurrence in animation, but Spielberg felt Bluth's original take was much too dark and violent).
Thankfully, what's left is still pretty good (only the brief running time offers an indication that this isn't the movie everyone set out to make). Bluth and co. might not have matched the Disney classic they're drawing inspiration from, but it's still a tender, handsome, simply-constructed adventure tale told with no-nonsense sincerity. It's also a good deal more kid-centric than Bluth's previous features: designed to inspire wonder and excitement for viewers young enough to be thrilled by the very idea of cartoon dinosaurs.
The story centers on a young brontosaurus named Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon, Star Trek: The Next Generation), who is traveling to the lush Great Valley with his mother and grandparents. When tragedy strikes and Little Foot is separated from the family, it seems he'll have to make the long journey alone. However, he quickly makes a handful of new friends that join him on his quest: Cera the Triceratops (Candace Hutson, Evening Shade), Spike the Stegosaurus (who never speaks), Ducky the Saurolophus (Judith Barsi, All Dogs Go to Heaven) and Petrie the Pteranodon (Will Ryan, An American Tail).
Admittedly, the movie uses different, less scientific terms to describe the various types of dinosaurs that populate the film. Littlefoot is a “longneck,” Cera is a “three-horn,” the T-Rex (who turns up once a reel or so to chase our little heroes) is a “sharptooth,” and so on (additionally, leaves are referred to as “tree stars” while the sun is simply “the bright circle”). Still, the film isn't always as cutesy as its terminology: the opening scenes have genuine tragic weight, as the death of a supporting character is dealt with tenderly but honestly. The rest of the film plays out as a pretty straightforward animated adventure, but the tragedy of the early scenes gives the movie a sense of danger that never really leaves.
Bluth's animation is particularly elegant this time around (it's probably his most polished work), and the film's best scenes have a balletic fluidity. For me, the most enjoyable thing about watching the film as an adult is getting the chance to hear James Horner's beautiful score in context. Perhaps the greatest contribution Bluth made to the world of feature animation was encouraging his composers to score his films like real movies instead of like cartoons (in other words, allowing them to score the emotions beneath a scene rather than having them musically mimic the action ala Carl Stalling). Horner's score is filled to the brim with rich melodies, and he turns what might have been mundane moments into something special (just look at the emotional power he brings to a scene that involves nothing more than the characters taking a nap). Older viewers who grew up with the movie might not find the film as gripping as they once did, but it's still a gorgeous music video.
The Land Before Time
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 69 minutes
Release Year: 1988