Oh, the cozy amber-tinted memories of youth. A simpler time of simpler tastes. As the cynical, crushing weight of adulthood often sends us nostalgically yearning to revisit the things we once held dear, we tend to find that those special things are not quite how we left them. Like a favorite climbing tree’s branches that we once had to leap for, now boringly coming up waist-high, the films we adored as children and tweens typically do not measure up the same now. Sometimes old favorites are best left to our memory. Yet now and then they miraculously hold up, or even prove to have hidden subtext we never realized. They say you can’t go home again, but I think it is high time that I tried.
The Artifact: The Land Before Time (1988)
What Is It: Theatrical feature film.
The Background: The project began in the minds of Steven Spielberg and beard buddy George Lucas, who between them had their respective fingers in seemingly every noteworthy family genre film of the 1980′s. Both men were keen on the idea of expanding the “The Rite of Spring” segment (ie, the dinosaur segment) from Walt Disney’s magnum opus of animation, Fantasia. Originally the two men wanted to get all Jean Jacques Annaud on kids’ asses, and render the film completely dialogue free – also what Disney Studios themselves initially wanted to do with 2000′s Dinosaur – but Spielberg and Lucas eventually pussied out for obvious money-making reasons. Spielberg had previously partnered with animation maverick Don Bluth to produce Bluth’s An American Tale, and so the film, originally known as The Land Before Time Began became an Amblin Entertainment, Lucasfilm, and Sullivan Bluth Studios joint.
The Memory: I don’t know if a greater universal truth has ever been so succinctly expressed as the one in this graph:
Like all kids (at least all boys), I loved dinosaurs. Couldn’t get enough. Museums. TV specials. Coloring books. Toys. Despite it being “agonizingly boring” – in the words of my older brother Eric – I would oft demand to watch Fantasia specifically for “The Rite of Spring,” which should really tell you how much I loved dinosaurs considering how morose and depressing that segment is. Similarly my favorite “ride” at Epcot Center was Universe of Energy because of its inclusion of dinosaurs. So, needless to say, I was pumped by the existence of The Land Before Time.
I really don’t recall much of the story, per se. The film’s imagery blurs a lot with Fantasia in my mind. I know there is a small group of baby dinosaurs – led by a baby Brontosaurus or whatever – who get separated from their parents and must journey across a dying landscape on their own, while evading a freaky T Rex who is stalking them. Other than the T Rex chases, I don’t remember any other specific set pieces. I liked this movie a lot, and I know I saw at least the first sequel (though I was annoyed they added musical numbers to the series).
How Long Has It Been: 22 years.
The Reality: My memory of LBT‘s story was actually fairly accurate, because there really isn’t one. It is geniusly basic. The film opens with baby dinosaurs being born, and we meet our two primary baby dinosaurs, Littlefoot the “long neck,” a Brontosaurus (or as scientists now want us to call them Apatosaurus), and Cera the “three horn,” a Triceratops. Oh, I get it now. Tri- Cera-tops. Cute. Littlefoot is cheerful and friendly and wants to play with Cera, who is stubborn and proud and wants nothing to do with Littlefoot because dinosaur species aren’t supposed to mix. The land is dying so everyone is packing up a moving to the legendary “Great Valley,” where “tree stars,” aka leaves, are abundant. Along the way the one-two punch of an earthquake and an attack by a “sharp tooth,” a T-Rex, kills Littlefoot’s mother and separates the lil’ guy from the rest of his family. Several other babies are separated from their parents – including Cera, as well as Ducky, a hyper duck-billed dinosaur, Petrie, a Pteranodon who is afraid to fly, and the mute glutton Spike, a Stegosaurus – and they decide to team up and find the Great Valley themselves.
Wow, this is even more of a kids movie than I remembered. If I had to describe it in single words, they would be words that rarely exit my mouth when talking about cinema: Adorable. Precious. Awww. The movie is an almost nauseating orgy of cuteness. Which is different than being an orgy of cutesiness. Cutesy is how I would describe The Care Bear Movie. This film is just cute. Cute isn’t really something I need in my life as a grown man, but I certainly can’t deny its general merits. And Jesus, is The Land Before Time fucking cute. From the opening of the film featuring numerous baby dino-births, to the characters being voiced by actual children, to the scene where our baby dinos all snuggle together for warmth, to a silly bit of slapstick featuring a nest of baby pterodactyls fighting over a berry that culminates in the victor trying to cheer up a recently orphaned Littlefoot. It is relentlessly adorable.
But beyond its cuteness, is it any good?
From an adult perspective there isn’t a lot in the story to glom onto, but it is hard to fault the movie for that when it is so clearly aiming at children — on the family film spectrum this is on the Cars end, not the Rataouille end. Even so, I never found the movie irritating or obnoxious. And the animation is fabulous. While it doesn’t have the electric vibrancy and verve of NIMH it is still signature Bluth (from before he downsized his animation staff), full of unusual but amazing color choices and intricate character designs. The sense of weight we get from the larger dinosaurs is extremely impressive physical animation, and the earthquake sequence is particularly well executed.
What I found really fascinating about the film is how closely it apes Fantasia‘s “Rite of Spring.” The Disney segment begins with a wonderfully done journey through evolution, as we watch a single creature evolve from the primordial soup into a variety of sea creatures before ultimately making that first bold journey onto land. LBT begins similarly in the sea. Though instead of witnessing evolution, we simply jump around to a variety of species before emerging from the sea to witness our baby dinos being born. The scenes of dinosaurs trekking across their barren desert home is also reminiscent of the uber-depressing ending to “Rite,” featuring dinosaurs trudging through a wasteland searching for water. But the biggest similarity is the first appearance of Sharp Tooth and his fight with Littlefoot’s mother. If it had featured rain, it would have been practically identical in tone, staging, and especially lighting to “Rite’s” stegosaurus/T-Rex battle.
The Sharp Tooth segments are the most engaging portions of the film for an adult. And they present Bluth at his purest, I think. I’ve always wondered what the trajectory of Don Bluth’s career would have been if The Secret of NIMH had been a big hit instead of a box office disappointment. NIMH was an overt move away from the more saccharine elements of Disney. But after the film fizzled with audiences, Bluth partnered with Spielberg for the much more Disney-like An American Tale, which unshockingly was much more successful too. I liked American Tale and Land Before Time when I was a kid, but neither truly connected with me on a deeper level, and I have thus never felt the urge to revisit them in adulthood — unlike NIMH which I have revisited several times. Spielberg and Lucas made Bluth cut an entire 11 minutes from LBT, almost all of which was related to Sharp Tooth; plus a couple scenes of the babies being really hard up and miserable. This was done to get the film down to a G-rating, as Spielberg and Lucas were concerned some of the Sharp Tooth scenes may cause children “psychological damage.” Considering there are 12 fucking movies in the The Land Before Time franchise, I can’t really argue against Spielberg and Lucas’s logic, but… holy shit does that make me want a The Land Before Time director’s cut! Seriously, where the fuck is it?
The Sharp Tooth stuff is pretty great actually. In particular a bit where Cera, alone, discovers Sharp Tooth dead at the bottom of a canyon. Cera’s favorite thing to do in the world is charge things/individuals like a bull and ram them with her head (I can respect that). So, as it were, Cera decides to head-butt Sharp Tooth’s corpse. In a fabulous bit of Bluth staging, Cera mainlines it for Sharp Tooth’s giant head, when suddenly Sharp Tooth’s eye snaps open. Oh snap! Good stuff I tellz ya. Even head-butting aside, Cera is an interesting female character, considering that she’s extremely aggressive and a proud bigot. Not something you generally get with young girl characters. Usually it is the little boy with the shit attitude.
The film is chock-full of positive messages for kids. Mainly about inclusiveness, racism, and pretty overt statements about faith. Oh yeah, and how to plot a perfect murder. The most unexpected and unintentionally shocking moment in the film for me was when our kids have finally had enough of Sharp Tooth stalking them and they decide they should do away with the big bastard. The immediacy, coolness and exactitude with which Littlefoot suddenly announces his brilliant gambit in which to kill Sharp Tooth is kind of awesome. All the characters go along with the plan so fluidly that the moment barely draws attention to itself. I mean, the villain often dies in animated movies, but it is always an accident or because of something the villain is doing at their own peril, forcing either circumstance or the hero’s hand at a sudden moment. Just imagine if Little Mermaid had climaxed with our characters huddled in a circle, plotting Ursula’s death like it was a bank heist. And they were adults! It is in these moments that the true Don Bluth shines through the cuteness and the hugs. Disney would have had Sharp Tooth tumble off a cliff while chasing our characters in a moment of karmic comeuppance. Bluth has the dino-babies plot and successfully murder him in cold blood.
Paradise Lost or Magic Reborn: Magic reborn. This movie is not aimed at me anymore, but I love me some classic Bluth animation, and children organizing and executing a well-planned murder gets a thumbs up from me any day of the week.