Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Land Before Time

Film review Vintage Dinosaur Art

Hello! With the review of the actual movie out of the way, today I’m going to review all the creatures great and small from Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time! Somebody’s gotta do it. It’s too late to celebrate the movie’s thirtieth birthday and it’ll be a good while before another significant anniversary comes up, so now is as good a day as any. I’m just going over all creature and character designs roughly in order of appearance. Let’s see if we learn anything along the way. Enjoy!

The Newt

This is the creature the movie opens with. Immediately, it’s a bit of a puzzling one. It’s an aquatic, newt-like creature with a fin on its back that makes me think it was based on, of all things, Longisquama. Longisquama was a bit of a stock prehistoric creature back in the day, appearing in many vintage books, so it would have immediately invoked that “prehistoric” feel without being a dinosaur. Of course, the ‘squama probably wasn’t aquatic (though lord knows that scientists and pseudoscientists have projected plenty of their own bizarre pet ideas on the poor thing) but this movie isn’t as much about real prehistory as it is about the idea of prehistory.

The Fish

The Longuiswimmer is immediately threatened by this fish, establishing right off the bat that this movie takes place in a dangerous world. It’s hard to get good screengrabs of this critter (that will be an ongoing problem) but I rather like this design. It has the body of a pike-like fish but the head of a gnarly crocodile. If it’s meant to be a gar of some capacity, that would be major nerd points to the designers. More likely, it’s just a prehistoric looking mix-and-match fantasy creature.

Littlefoot and the Longnecks

Okay. Now on to the real stuff. I sometimes hear people say that this was the first movie to bring the ideas of the Dinosaur Renaissance into the mainstream. That’s not wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. More accurately, the movie is halfway there. The sauropods spend most of their time walking on land with their tails off the ground. Their walking animation is based on how a giraffe walks, which looks weird on a sauropod. Nevertheless, there are still some shots like this where they are halfway submerged in a swamp and munching on kelp, as if straight out of a Knight painting.

Some fans want to say the Longnecks are based on Alamosaurus, which would handily place them in Late Cretaceous North America along with Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. I don’t think that’s the case. Bluth’s movie paints a more broad, archetypical version of the Mesozoic, using an imagined version of Dinosaur World to tell a universal story. The classic apatosaurine bodies combined with the stocky heads are a dead givaway. These are old school brontosaurs.

Littlefoot himself is a reasonably decent protagonist. He has slightly more of a personality than your standard animated movie main kid. The movie shows him being shy and confident, patient and unreasonable, desperate and determined, prone to losing his temper but also wise beyond his years as a child who had to grow up way too quickly. Bluth does not shy away from showing his grief after losing his family head-on. Disney has had its share of dead parents, but no movie did it better than this one. Actor Gabriel Damon is excellent in the role, as are all other child actors here.

Cera and the Threehorns

Everybody thinks they know what Triceratops looks like, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one in pop culture that acutally looks halfway accurate. The shape and proportions of the head and all it has going on – the horns, the snout, the beak, the frill – are tricky to get right (the brow horns especially are almost always up way too high on the head). All this is true of the Threehorns, but they are still recognizable as Triceratops. What I find noteworthy is that the adults have a ridge of crocodile-like scutes along their backs.

By the way, Cera’s dad is canonically called “Daddy Topps”, which I bet is also what Don Bluth’s wife calls him. I’ll get me coat.

Cera especially looks absolutely nothing like a real baby Triceratops, which is probably a good thing, given how cute actual baby trikes surprisingly aren’t. Cera is the most flawed and therefore most interesting member of the main cast. Her overconfidence and impulsivity combined with her clumsiness is a constant source of conflict and comedy. Candace Hutson’s vocal performance is one of the standouts in the film.

Duckie and the Bigmouths

The hadrosaurs are interesting. Again, they don’t look much like the real thing. Instead of a bill, they have these huge Bluthian lips (Don Bluth loves him a big-lipped reptile) and instead of a crest, what’s jutting out of the back of their necks looks more like a blunt horn. There is some uncertainty on whether the Bigmouths are Saurolophus or Parasaurolophus – I tend towards Saurolophus, as the crest is quite short and pointing upwards. These are especially retro, being explicitly swamp monsters who are often shown swimming. They don’t seem to have webbed feet, however.

Duckie is somewhat of a hard character to talk about without going into the heartbreaking fate that befell her voice actress, Judith Barsi. Duckie’s role is very much the emotional heart of the film, helping Littlefoot snap out of his depression and generally keeping the spirits of the group up. Her design is impossibly cute, with those big eyes and eyelashes, but at the same time she has a lot of that somewhat grotesque, wrinkly Bluth look going on that some people criticise this movie for. I think it’s a great point in the movie’s favour that its characters can be ugly and cute at the same time.

The Egg Thief

EGGS! Oh no, sorry, that’s the sequel. We don’t talk about the sequels.

This Lizard

How do you drive home the point that your movie takes place in Dinosaur World? You give sail backs to everything you can get away with, of course. Even though this design isn’t far off from a very much extant Hydrosaurus.

The Visitors

The first ten minutes of the film are especially rich in strange creature designs. These are the animals that visit Littlefoot as he hatches. Most of these are pure fantasy. I see some generic looking lizards, a toothy pterosaur and another sail-backed lizard. It’s probably not meant to be Dimetrodon, just something given a sail back because, again, sail backs look prehistoric. The creatures to its right are especially strange; two tiny, pterosaur-like guys with jet black eyes, fuzzy crests, bald vulture heads and dodo beaks. Among the myriad small creatures making one-off appearances in this film, these two are particular standouts.

All them Flyers

The movie, interestingly, has at least three very distinct designs for pterosaurs, all of them based on Pteranodon. The previous screengrab showed a motherly-looking Flyer with snaggle teeth, while these are the much simplified multicoloured ones with large beaks that appear in the famous berry scene.

Meanwhile, the Flyers of Petrie and his family look different still, more lithe and with knobbly, toothless beaks. Also: sexual dimorphism in the colour scheme is always interesting. The males are brown, the females are blue.

As for Petrie himself: I liked him as a kid. Looking back, though, he strikes a weird note. I’m not the first one to point out that he’s the only kid character among a cast of children to be voiced by a grown man. He brings a more exaggerated style of comic relief to the movie – previous to his appearance, most of the humour came from cute, gentle slapstick. He’s not too annoying, and Littlefoot’s line “but you’re a flyer, not a faller!” still gets me every time.

Hopper

How do you make a frog look more prehistoric? Apparently, by giving it pebbly skin and a knobbly back. It’s design choices like this that really reveal the philosophy Bluth and his creative team had for bringing the prehistoric world to life. Everything is a bit more rough, more gnarly, bigger, more dangerous. This frog is crunching a big dragonfly in its giant mouth even as it gives Littlefoot a cheerful smile.

Sharptooth

Speaking of gnarly and dangerous. Sharptooth, again, occupies a halfway point between old-school and post-renaissance. In this case, the balance tips more towards the modern side. Sharptooth often stands much more upright than we’d expect of a modern T. rex, but it is also active, fast and very muscular. It runs with its tail well off the ground.

It’s probably even more spry and sprightly than we’d portray it now. It does a lot of reckless leaping and running. It survives falls that would be extremely deadly to a real multi-tonne animal. Of course, as a movie monster, it roars away at the things it wants to eat, but it’s also shown to be cunning and capable of sneaking up on its prey. Need I even say that this thing scared the everloving jigamawhoozits out of me as a kid?

Shaptooth’s head is interesting. It is extremely blocky and square. Unfriendly shapes. Maybe unconsciously, the head has taken a lot of cues from crocodiles and even hippos, with the eyes and the nostrils so far at the top. Interestingly, it looks not a whole lot like a real T. rex skull while at the same time invoking the idea of a T. rex‘s head very well – no theropod has a broader face or stronger jaws. And yes, it has those big Don Bluth lips! See those enormous teeth? You don’t see them when it’s got its mouth closed (which is rarely).

Rooter

It is really quite appropriate that the resident Old Man character, who gives Littlefoot some words of wisdom at his darkest hour, has been given the most old school dinosaur design in this film. He is a Scolosaurus, straight out of an old Neave Parker illustration, complete with a rounded head, a low-slung posture and two spikes on the tail club. At least, I like to think that the retro-ness of Rooter was entirely deliberate and not the result of a complete lack of research.

Spike

For an alleged main character, Spike does bugger all. He doesn’t show up until halfway into the movie, doesn’t talk and doesn’t impact the plot at all. He just tags along and is reasonably cute, if the “dumb friendly big guy who eats a lot” trope is cute to you. What interests me is this: what is Spike? He is called a “spiketail”, and he is the only one that appears, so we don’t know what the adults look like. He is apparently a Stegosaurus whose plates haven’t grown in yet, but his design always read more like a nodosaurid ankylosaur to me. That big, broad head doesn’t look at all stegosaurian. What’s up with those ears? Having a nodosaur main character would have been a point in the movie’s favour, but I guess he’s a Stegosaurus after all.

A freaking Dimetrodon

Featuring a mishmash of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous animals (plus some of pure fantasy), the movie is a complete anachronism stew already, but this is probably the most egregious example. Especially since this Dimetrodon has a forked tongue and more of an Edaphosaurus-shaped sail (but not quite that either). It moves and behaves like a lizard. I understand that the film is a very broad portrayal of Dinosaur World, but this is going too far. Would it have killed you to do just a little research?

The Other Longnecks

As the movie progresses, it introduces fewer and fewer new creatures, but somewhere along the line these guys show up. Just as the children find some leaf-bearing trees, this herd of sauropods comes to rain on their parade. They are obviously not the same species as Littlefoot; they are long and slender and have a beakier face. If Littlefoot is a Brontosaurus, then surely these are Diplodocus.

The Bullies

Highly unexpected is this blink-and-you-miss-them cameo from a gang of Pachycephalosaurus that bully Cera as she gets separated from the group. I really don’t know what to make of these. Their design is all over the place. Gigantic hands, horns on the nose and a head dome that is not very pronounced. And they’ve got those big lips again! I wonder why these are acting so evil when elsewhere in the film the herbivores, while not friends, at least tolerate each other. It’s only a very short scene but it comes completely out of nowhere and the designs are really freaking odd.

And that’s all the creatures from The Land Before Time! I love revisiting this movie from time to time. What’s your favourite creature design from The Land Before Time? Did I miss any? Do you rate this movie at all? I love to hear from you. Next time: probably a book!

19 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Land Before Time

  1. Good analysis! I have a theory about the Bullies, which is rooted in 1980s pop dinosaur books. I think they are supposed to be Troodon. Hear me out! Between 1924 and 1945 the family Troodontidae meant more or less what Pachycephalosauridae means today, and my understanding is that Troodon wasn’t completely severed from pachys until Phil Currie’s work in the mid-to-late 80s. In the David Lambert/Diagram Group dinosaur books of the 80s there was still a lot of confusion, and Troodon was sometimes described as the only carnivorous ornithischian. So I think what made it to screen in The Land Before Time was a sort of Troodon-as-carnivorous-pachycelphalosaur. Which if true is kind of amazing, as probably the only pop culture expression of that particular idea mashup, and also an interesting memetic fossil of a very specific (and nowadays obscure) bit of taxonomic and paleobiological confusion.

    1. That Troodon as ornithischian idea was one of the topics that intrigued me. I did some research and someplace I have a drive with my notes. I first saw it in Colbert’s Dinosaurs: Their Discovery, Their World (1961), where he synonymizes it with Stegoceras, following Gilmore’s 1924 paper (Troodon was one of Leidy’s “tooth taxa”, named in 1856, so Stegoceras would be the junior synonym). In 1945,Charles M. Sternberg published a paper rejecting the Stegceras/Troodon connection, but it seems that the idea was a long time dying. The latest that I recall seeing it is Lambert’s Field Guide to Dinosaurs (1983), although there is a comment in a c 1982 Science Digest article about an (unnamed) “carnivorous ornithischian”.Troodon became a “mediastar” in connection to Horner’s work at Egg Mountain (c 1982).

      1. Wow, that’s fascinating! I knew something of the Troodon/Pachy connection, but I didn’t know how deep it went. Would be really interesting if it’s true. Thanks for sharing this!

      1. It’s a nice theory, but it’s not true. The script for the movie explicitly calls them Pachycephalosaurus.
        https://landbeforetime.fandom.com/wiki/Bonehead_Pack?file=SCRIPT_Land_Before_Time%2C_The_%281988%29-Page_58.jpg

        As for the Fantasia example, I’m not completely sold on that being a Troodon. It looks more like a badly-drawn Ornitholestes, and the fact it’s chasing after an Archaeopteryx only makes me more convinced that’s what it’s supposed to be.

        1. So they are evil because they reminded the scriptwriter a little of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Ain’t pop culture wild? Eat your heart out, Guillermo del Toro.

  2. I wonder why Longisquama has lost some of its popularity. I guess it might be because we still haven‘t really figured out jack shit about it since its discovery.

    Since Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs is now on Disney + you could maybe review that in the future. The designs are of course all inaccurate, but they are charming as all hell.

    1. Things drift in and out of consciousness. Scolosaurus, too (Even though it’s a valid genus again). Uintatherium. Cynognathus. In the 80 and 90, Saltasaurus was in every book. Now they will feature a dozen titanosaurs before that one.

      I’m not gonna do that Jim Henson show, I love Henson but I can’t bear to look at those things. Someone else would have to.

  3. Regarding Jim Henson and dinosaurs, arguably the Skeksis were his best theropods. They certainly had/have all the charisma of the real deal. I guess he was ahead of the science in giving them filaments. 😉

    For what it’s worth, Spike was always a nodosaur to me too, I guess the resemblance to the Normanpedia’s *Nodosaurus* was too large for me to ignore, though I now realise he is probably meant to be *Stegosaurus*.

  4. “It looks not a whole lot like a real T. rex skull while at the same time invoking the idea of a T. rex‘s head very well.”

    Yes! That’s it exactly!

    (It always bothered my boys deeply that this creature was called a Sharptooth when the one thing everyone knows about Tyrannosaurus is that it had blunt teeth.)

      1. And it’s allegedly the only time in the entire series any character does that. But naming conventions in TLBT are all over the place anyway. They do know the word for “dinosaur”, apparently.

        See also: Christopher Walken as a giant orangutan in the Jungle Book remake calling himself a “Gigantopithecus”. In the song, it rhymes with “Ridiculous”!

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