The Land Before Time: A Look Back

Film review

December always puts me in the mood for nostalgia. With it being cold and damp out and whatever’s left of the holidays promising a particularly miserable time this year, all I want is to cosy up on the couch with a hot cocoa and a childhood movie. As this difficult year draws to a close, I think it’s time to finally talk about the ultimate childhood dinosaur movie. After all, it still counts as Vintage Dinosaur Art, doesn’t it? (this review contains spoilers for a 32-year-old movie that you’ve seen a hundred times)

Here’s the story once again, real quick. It’s the late 1970’s, Disney’s in a slump, animator Don Bluth leaves Disney, starts his own animation studio, makes a couple of good movies in the 80s, makes one about dinosaurs. The Land Before Time does gangbusters at the box office. Then Bluth stops making good movies, Disney makes The Little Mermaid, starts evil intergalactic monolithic cultural empire, Bluth reduced to begging crowdfunding. But, for a while there, in the second half of the 1980s, it really seemed like Disney had met their match (it wouldn’t be the last time a rival for Disney would rise up from their own ranks). And if it wasn’t for the succes of The Land Before Time, co-produced by one Steven Spielberg, well… who knows what other Spielberg-helmed dinosaur movies we would have missed out on?

I was a bit too young to have seen The Land Before Time (released in 1988, just like me) in the cinema, but I (along with everyone else I knew) certainly had it on home video, and you better believe it was in high rotation.

The Land Before Time is, of course, infamous for its absolutely unbelievable amount of sequels (13 to date, plus a TV show), none of which involved Don Bluth in any way. These sequels are light-hearted and colourful and adventurous and play to young kids only. The original film is not like that at all. It’s a tale of loss and hardship, and of found family forged in fire. Its colour palette is famously dark and earthy. The environments are all red skies, barren wastelands and dead tress. The charcters are rough around the edges, both in look and in personality. Combined with a very brief running time (the film has several deleted scenes that were never recovered) and the fact that the animation is not quite as smooth and polished as in so many other classic 2D animated films, it all adds up to kind of a grungy, scrappy little movie.

Everybody in this movie is really clumsy. The dinosaurs tumble over each other, bump their heads, fall over, get tangled up and get covered in gunk. It’s not just the kids; the giant Sharptooth lumbers and stumbles around, getting itself stuck, missing leaps, falling into holes. It’s a scrappy, imperfect movie about scrappy, imperfect characters that bumble and break their way though life, but make it in the end anyway.

Watching the movie now through adult eyes, it’s this scrappiness that really stays with you. In terms of themes or values, the movie isn’t really about anything. I sometimes see people criticising this movie for ham-fisted moralizing, but I don’t get that at all. There’s just a bunch of dinosaur kids to whom stuff happens, and then they find the Great Valley and it ends. Sure, there’s the bit at the beginning about dinosaur species keeping to themselves and Threehorns not talking to Longnecks, but that bit is pretty much dropped the moment the gang’s together. (Yes, I know it’s much more of a thing in the sequels, don’t @ me.)

There are several loose character threads, including Littlefoot’s grief and self-doubt, Cera’s inherited prejudice, Duckie getting a little brother and Littlefoot and Cera arguing about who should lead. None of it amounts to very much in the end; there’s no grand epiphany where Cera or Littlefoot learn that they are wrong and need to grow as charcters. They don’t get along at fist, and then at the end they sort of do. Petrie’s character beat, his fear of flying, is the only one that really gets resolved in a traditional, heroic way. He gets a Disney Death for his trouble.

The movie seems to operate on a much more raw, primal, emotional level. It thinks the way children think. It’s less about overrarching themes and more about the immediate emotional reaction to what happens. Whatever the story of Littlefoot and his friends might mean, you are with them every step of the way. You share in their hardships and their triumphs. Every simple, little moment feels big and important, viewed through the eyes of these young characters that have to fend for themselves.

That is where this movie shines. Even though the movie is short, it feels big. Not until The Lion King did an animated movie feel this (I hate using this word but it’s warranted here) epic. The narrator, voiced with dignity by Pat Hingle, tells the story as if it is a weighty piece of history. It’s like kids at play with toy dinosaurs, played completely straight and serious every step of the way. To kids, playing with toys is serious stuff. This movie understands children in a way that few other films do; Cera and Littlefoot are some of the most believable kid characters in the whole canon of animated films.

The Land Before Time is a movie for the heart, not the head. What surprised me on recent viewing is that one of the longest sequences is one where the kids go to sleep after Littlefoot and Cera had one of their fights. The other kids side with Cera first and go to sleep next to her, but they one by one end up cozying up to Littlefoot instead. It’s not a story beat; it’s an emotion beat. This is the sort of thing the movie is interested in. Bluth wants to tug at your heartstrings in a very immediate way.

When Bluth goes dark, he goes dark. Another thing I find noteworthy: this movie has a full-on revenge subplot. At the beginning of the movie, Littlefoot’s mother is killed by Sharptooth. Then, at the end, Littlefoot outright kills Sharptooth. He devises a plan to “get rid of him once and for all” and then he just goes and does it. No questions asked, no mercy given. He uses his friends to get his revenge, closing the circle of violence. That’s kind of hardcore, actually. It’s a clumsy assassination attempt, sure, but ultimately a succesful one. Do not mess with that little sauropod.

I’ve also seen people criticize this movie for being “cutesy”, but the characters aren’t cute in the traditional Disney way. These dinosaurs aren’t the precious twee kittens from The Aristocats. Bluth isn’t afraid to make them kind of ugly and wrinkly, and to let characterization do the work at making them cute and likable. That’s down to the excellent cast, but expecially the wonderfully characterful animation. The character animation is pretty amazing, especially for the 1980s, and certainly much better than anything Disney was getting up to at the time. It is this stellar character work that makes the movie hold up after all those years.

If I’m completely honest, The Land Before Time might be my favourite dinosaur movie, ahead of that-other-Spielberg-movie-with-too-many-sequels. Jurassic Park puts dinosaurs in a human world. The Land Before Time puts dinosaurs in a dinosaur world, a world much stranger, more dangerous and more beautiful than any tropical island, and that will always be more fascinating to me.

But anyway, none of this is what you’re here for.

You’re here to see us make fun of ugly dinosaurs. I mean, to see us review palaeoart and dinosaur designs and place them in the social-cultural and scientific context of their moment in time. Next time, I’ll talk you through every single one of the creature designs in this movie and tell you exactly what I think about them! That’ll be fun. Happy Sinterklaas!

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  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    December 4, 2020 at 7:41 am

    Being a few years older than you, I saw this when it was new, and loved it. Very much looking forward to the next article.

    The lack of grand epiphanies is a plus to my mind. They’re far too common in cinema, and far too often unconvincing.

  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    December 4, 2020 at 8:32 am

    I never liked this film very much as a small child, in spite of the dinosaurs. I always much preferred seeing dinosaurs depicted as animals. Fantasia was rereleased around that time and I loved the Rite of Spring segment. Nature red in tooth and claw. This may reveal more about me than I’d like.

  • Reply
    Colin Mathura-Jeffree
    November 19, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    Beautiful words. I absolutely agree.

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