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The Land Before Time

tn_landbeforetimelucasminusstarwarsTHE LAND BEFORE TIME is a good example of a movie legacy destroyed by a “franchise.” Throughout the ’90s the name was synonymous with candy-colored sing-along babysitters in clamshells thanks to thirteen straight to video sequels (THE LAND BEFORE TIME XIV: JOURNEY OF THE BRAVE starring Damon Wayans Jr. and Reba McEntire drops February 2nd – not a joke), and 26 episodes of a TV series. So I was surprised to watch the original – executive produced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and directed by Don Bluth (THE SECRET OF NIMH, AN AMERICAN TAIL), none of whom had anything to do with the sequels – and find out it’s a pretty solid animated feature in the mold of early Disney.

Apparently Spielberg conceived it as BAMBI with dinosaurs, and that’s pretty much what they made. It’s an admiring depiction of the world of dinosaurs, with children being born into a scary world, making friends, experiencing danger and death. It is not a musical, the comic relief is minor, any cuteness is juxtaposed with an overall tone of melancholy. I mean, it’s about plant-eating dinosaurs in a world with almost no plants left.

After we learn a little about the dinosaur world – divided between flat-toothed leaf-eaters and the “sharp tooth” predators that eat them – an earthquake separates the children from their parents, forcing them to journey alone to find “The Great Valley,” one of the last places to find plants to eat. It’s a desolate, starving world, and a non-talking t-rex keeps trying to eat them. But the kids all band together to survive and keep each other company. Well, except for the stubborn “three horn” Cera (Candace Hutson, DOLLY DEAREST), who is too proud to accept any help or show friendliness. She has to lead them. There’s a moment when she realizes she’s been going the wrong way, but is too embarrassed to admit it, and continues. A sad and too true moment.

The saddest part though is when the “long neck” Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon, ROBOCOP 2) sees his mother (Helen Shaver, Poltergeist: The Legacy) die in front of him. He’s too young to understand death and can’t figure out why she won’t get up. Later he thinks he sees her alive, but it’s really his own shadow stretched out and looking huge. What better visual way of saying that she will always be with him, because he is a small piece of her?

mp_landbeforetimeLike in BAMBI the kids have authentic kid voices, and many of the adults (who are drawn in more detail with more accurate proportions don’t talk at all. The colors are muted and change with the lighting, so Cera (who I think is supposed to be a pale yellow) is often painted grey.

Later Bluth movies (ROCK-A-DOODLE, THE PEBBLE AND THE PENGUIN) were much cutesier, but I think this was his younger sensibility. According to the book The Animated Films of Don Bluth by John Cawley, “Spielberg saw animation as mostly a child’s medium, much to the disappointment of Don and others.” The movie is ridiculously short – about 69 minutes including the end credits – in part because Lucas and Spielberg insisted on cutting out 19 finished scenes (about a million dollars’ worth) that they thought were way too scary for little kids. They also redubbed the children’s screams to be lower the amount of bloodcurdling. After consulting psychologists about the mother’s death scene they also had him add the character Rooter (Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie) to give Littlefoot some comforting words.

Bluth – who, like Lucas, was a guy who’d gone off and started his own independent studio – disagreed with the changes. He lost the argument. A few more seconds were later cut out for video too (I think including the new Blu-Ray, but I could be wrong). Maybe some day Scream Factory or somebody will get the COMPLETELY UNCENSORED TOO HOT FOR GENERAL AUDIENCES DIRECTOR’S CUT THAT LUCAS AND SPIELBERG DIDN’T WANT YOU TO SEE.

They might’ve been right though. Even after the cuts there’s kind of alot of dinosaur peril for a real young audience, and then it gets a little too “I feel like I’m babysitting a bunch of obnoxious kids” for adults when it gets all the dino-babies into one group talking to each other for the last act of the movie. And then the two kind of combine when the kids come up with their plan to use Sharp Tooth’s short arms against him to trap him in water and bash his fucking head in with a rock. I know it’s self defense, but it still feels a little like kids conspiring to murder an adult.

Anyway, maybe it’s best for all of us that we get through it in just over an hour.

THE LAND BEFORE TIME is a decent example of the ’80s-but-before-LITTLE-MERMAID era of animation – Disney inspired talking animals, but kind of gloomy and dour, so they feel like a poetic meditation on the struggles of living or some shit. This one is one folk song short of being kind of a bummer. Instead they have a ballad called “If We Hold on Together” by Diana Ross over the end credits. The score itself is by James Horner (WILLOW).

Though it pre-dates Disney’s THE LION KING by 7 years, it mentions Littlefoot’s mother’s death as part of a “circle of life” and has her later appear to him in the clouds, just like fucking Mufasa. PLAGIARISM.

The script was written by Judy Freudberg & Tony Geis (AN AMERICAN TAIL) based on Lucas and Spielberg’s ideas, but then rewritten by Stu Krieger (MONKEY TROUBLE) when they thought it was too much kiddie bullshit (paraphrase). One of Lucas’s contributions was to suggest the baby triceratops character be a girl. He made sure it wasn’t another one of these prehistoric sausagefest cartoons that everybody else was making.

Bluth had started as a Disney animator but had defected and, kind of like Lucas, set up his own studio. During the making of this one he moved it to Ireland. He found himself at odds with Spielberg, though the latter was busy filming INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, keeping him out of the loop some of the time. Lucas’s biggest contribution came when the production was about halfway complete. They then sat down for “a two-day marathon story session” where, according to producer John Pomeroy, they “made major structural changes” and “80% of the story came from that story meeting,” including the death of Littlefoot’s mother.

But Bluth had a racial theme in mind. “As the storyboarding continued,” he claims, “we came up with another idea, that none of these dinosaurs get along with each other, they all hate each other. They’re taught from the time they were born not to associate with each other, that’s racism. They’re going to have to be untaught the racist idea and learn to like each other and therein lies the triumph of the movie. They would work together to overcome a common goal or enemy.” (I didn’t pick up on any of that.)

Early on Spielberg saw it as a no-dialogue dinosaur joint, citing the “Rite of Spring” segment of FANTASIA as a precedent. That’s weird because Paul Verhoeven also tried to make a movie like that, but his was supposed to be with go-motion animation by STAR WARS vet Phil Tippet, who had done an Emmy Award winning special called DINOSAUR!. After many years that evolved into Disney’s computer-animated talking dinosaur movie DINOSAUR (no exclamation point). At the time it was the most expensive movie ever made (because they created a new computer animation studio for it) but I am willing to bet that most of you forgot it existed until reading this paragraph. If you ever knew it existed. You know about LAND BEFORE TIME, though. The one with the cute dinosaurs and what not.

Five years later Spielberg returned to the world of dinosaurs in a movie called JURASSIC PARK. Tippett was originally hired to do the dinosaurs in go-motion, but the technology invented for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was headed for obsolescence the moment Dennis Muren at Lucas’s company ILM convinced Spielberg that he could do it with digital animation. But Tippett’s talents for breathing life into creatures through their movements transcends medium, so he stayed to supervise the animation. This time they decided not to make the dinosaurs talk.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 at 10:52 am and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Family, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “The Land Before Time”

  1. Man, I sure would love to see all those finished scenes put back into the movie. The home video additions of this have been pretty pathetic, mostly due to the reputation Land Before Time has earned due to the heinous sequels. Such a shame, because this was one of my favorites growing up. Even saw it in the theatre when it initially ran.

  2. Oh yes, Don Bluth. Even in his more family friendly movies, he snuck in some deliciously fucked up moments. (Also I credit his SECRET OF NIMH [Not one of the more family friendly ones] partly for my arachnophobia.)

    LAND BEFORE TIME was a weird one. I haven’t seen it since at least 20 years, but I was in the right age to see it during its original theatrical run. Me and my friends kiiiiiinda liked it, because it had dinosaurs and had some funny moments (mostly that little pterodactyl, who had some seriously bad grammar [don’t know if that was a thing that the German dubbing made up] and got quoted all the time on the playground) and also had dinosaurs and not to mention dinosaurs, but man, did we all hate the sad parts, where the parents died and shit like that. I also remember from around that time some report on TV, that asked kids what they liked. (I don’t remember the context of that report, though.) What stuck with me, because I agreed with him, was some boy saying: “I like funny cartoons, like Goofy. Not the sad ones like LAND BEFORE TIME.”
    Also I owned LAND BEFORE TIME bedsheets.
    And now I’m nostalgic for the old cinema down the streets, where I saw most movies of my childhood. Dammit.

  3. I didnt know until this year that all the mystical stuff and the feuding mice were not even the original Nihm book.

  4. I remember seeing this in the theater, and later that night getting one of the Ducky toys they were giving away at Pizza Hut.

    That night I also remember playing Was (Not Was)’s classic hit “Everybody Walk the Dinosaur” on the jukebox at the Pizza Hut because I didn’t want to come down from my dinosaur high. *

    *Oddly enough, that song’s hook transitions from “Everybody Walk the Dinosaur” to “Everybody Kill the Dinosaur” by the end of the song.

    Also, if people don’t remember how fucking FRESH the Dinosaur! television special was, here ya go. A special “dinosaur only” cut (no Christopher Reeves, sorry). Still probably my second favorite on-screen dinosaurs right after Jurassic Park.

    Dinosaur! (Dinosaur Only Cut)

    This is a fanboy edit for my four year old son, who seems to drift off when its just people talking... I encourage people to see Dinosaur! hosted by Christop...

    Phil Tippett is incredible. Those tense shots of the triceratops before the T-Rex attack are genuinely beautiful.

  5. You know what Don Bluth did that I loved? That glowy shit that was in all his movies. Does anybody know what I mean? NIHM had it all over the place, what with the magic and all.

    That really glowy, hand-animated 80s effect. I want that to make a resurgence.

  6. What, no (THE GAUNTLET) love for Pat Hingle? One of those actors who always made stuff better just by being there. Aside from the Eastwood movies, he was Colonel Tom Parker to Kurt Russell’s ELVIS.

  7. @Justin

    Of coarse! Don Bluth and co. made three video games based around the glowy shit!

  8. Another recent failed attempt at a dialog-free dinosaur movie was WALKING WITH DINOSAURS (2013). It was conceived as a scientifically accurate, dialog-free dinosaur film in the vein of the very good BBC documentary series of the same name. The studio panicked and ADR’d in a bunch of celebrity voices doing lame wisecracks. Everyone hated it anyway.

    THE LAND BEFORE TIME was one of my wife’s favourite films growing up and I couldn’t understand why, but when I finally sat down and watched it I enjoyed it. I was judging it on the mostly unwatchable sequels.

  9. I watched “Land Before Time” a lot as a kid, so much I doubt I can fairly judge it. One thing Bluth used to be good at was capturing the somber and scary moments of being a kid. “An American Tail” and “Land” feature child characters who aren’t happy-go-lucky all the time and go through real traumas, as fantastical as they may be.

    Unfortunately Bluth was never much of a storyteller so his following movies grew increasingly incoherent and slapdash. It’s possible Lucas and Spielberg chopping 18 scenes out actually streamlined the story of the film.

    This link seems to have some details on the missing scenes: http://lostmediawiki.com/The_Land_Before_Time_cut_content_%28lost_scenes;_1980s%29

  10. I think I saw this, but I can’t remember a single thing about it. Maybe I just saw the trailers. From the review it sounds kinda like a dinosaur cartoon version of THE ROAD.

    I adored THE SECRET OF NIMH, though, especially the dark stuff like the sword fights and the (successful) assassination plot. I think one of the rats gets his throat slit, which very rarely happens in Disney movies. And the giant owl voiced by John Carridine was the fucking scariest thing I’d ever seen. Until I saw POLTERGEIST immediately afterwards. 1982 was a rough year for nightmares.

  11. The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven: Don Bluth was on a fucking roll in the eighties. I kind of wonder what happened to throw him off track. He rallied a bit towards the end of his career with Anastasia and Titan A.E., but I don’t think anyone is going to smother those last two films with superlatives. As a kid, my favorite animated movies were by Bluth as well as those 70s Disney movies that were supposed to be their worst. My favorite of the bunch was, in fact, The Land Before Time. I haven’t watched it in years, but I remember it really nailing the group dynamic that children form. I also liked that Cera could be incredibly mean, but we were still supposed to feel sorry for her. I don’t think I really understood why until I got a little older.

  12. Love that glowy shit!!! I know exactly what you guys are talking about, and hope it somehow makes a resurgence!!

    I had a rubber Cera from Pizza Hut.

  13. I just rewatched this around Christmas. It was the first time I saw since it played theatrically in a cinema that’s no longer standing (ironically because the popcorn machine caught fire during a screening of BACKDRAFT). The movie is well-animated, and I agree it has an old-school Disney charm, though it could maybe stand to be less cute in places, but maybe that’s just me. If you want to read something tragic, look up the fate of the girl who voiced Ducky. It really bummed me out when I was reading up on the film.

  14. Oh, shit. A number of years ago I read up about the child actor who played Ducky, but I had forgotten about it until just now. Thanks, Mark.

  15. That trademark surreall Don Bluth visual schtick is why so many of his joints including this one, NIHM and ROCK-A-DOODLE (this one contains it in spades) were some of my go to animated joints back in the day. I guess it’s a relief that I never saw any sequels to this because my view on it has not been tarnished in any way over the years.

  16. Whao I watched this movie ALL THE TIME as a kiddo. I haven’t thought about it in years. I remember it being bleak not that bleak lol.

    I had a “Ducky” hand puppet and I also remember that Don Bluth “glowy shit” American Tail 2 (the western one) had that also

  17. This was the first movie that enkindled in me the simultaneous attraction/repulsion feelings about nature that I still have today when I watch nature documentaries. When I saw LBT I was very young and so into dinosaurs that I developed a strong empathic response to them. Like, around the same time, I saw some version of KING KONG in which a stop motion Kong goes up to a stop motion T-Rex and pries his mouth open so wide he dies. And that made me cry. So I loved LBT but it was also pretty devastating for me emotionally.

  18. I went to see this with my dad when it first came out and, for some reason, we were the only people in the cinema. I was really into it but I’m assuming the people running that joint must’ve forgotten that they sold two tickets that afternoon, because they turned the fucking screen off shortly before the film was over. My dad went out to complain but they told him that it would be too much trouble to start it up again. I was distraught, man.

    I still have a pretty large Littlefoot plushy sitting somewhat morosely somewhere in the attic – his neck’s all attenuated because that’s the point where my steely fingers usually clasped him.

  19. RBatty024- I would actually consider ANASTASIA Bluth’s best movie, or at least his most consistently entertaining. NIMH and DOGS are gorgeous, sometimes very entertaining movies that I don’t think quite work as a whole. AMERICAN TALE is pretty good, but I honestly prefer the (Bluthless) sequel, which is one of the few animated movies to come close to capturing the energy and appeal of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (Haven’t seen LAND BEFORE TIME in over two decades and maybe not even in full) It is fair to say that ANASTASIA was Bluth (or perhaps more accurately Fox) consciously chasing 90s Disney (and it makes the most reactionary Disney film look positively leftist!), but it really, really works and has aged a lot better than HERCULES, the actual Disney effort that year.

    It’s worth noting that in unadjusted dollars AMERICAN TALE was the most successful animated film of all time at the American Box Office on its release; it was soon dethroned by OLIVER & COMPANY before many others, but not before that film lost its opening weekend to LAND BEFORE TIME. As uneven as his films are Bluth’s legacy is a unique and thoroughly admirable chapter of American animated history all too often overlooked, and I’m really rooting for his DRAGON’S LAIR film.

  20. ANASTASIA is the one movie, that really turns me into an anti-CGI nerd, just because of its awful use. Someone opens a door in that movie, the door is badly computeranimated. Someone picks up a book, the book is computer animated. Someone picks his nose, the finger, nose and boogers are computer animated. (The last example might have been an exeggaration, that doesn’t happen at all in the movie.) Also for me as a musical hater (who for any reason considers GALAVANT as one of his current favourite TV shows, but that’s a different topic), it was hard to sit through, because of the sheer amount of songs! If I remember right, there were something like 4 songs in the first 15 minutes alone.

    Apart from that: Good movie, as far as shameless Disney rip-offs from people who should be better than that go.

  21. As a kid my favorite Don Bluth joints were THE SECRET OF NIMH, AN AMERICAN TAIL and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, though I saw most of them, including A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK and ROCK A DOODLE, the thing about his films was even when they were mediocre they were still beautiful to look at and a fine way to pass a little time, I was also very fond of the AMERICAN TAIL sequel even though that technically was not a Bluth joint.

    I too have to voice some love for that “glowy shit”

    Also, I remember seeing the teaser trailer for Disney’s DINOSAUR that I believe did not have any talking in it and I was pretty blown away, then when it was revealed the dinosaurs talk in TV spots and the like and I lost interest, it was just so goofy, I imagine that was most people’s reaction and that was why the film failed.

  22. Pacman – I haven’t seen Anastasia since the theaters. I remember thinking it was all right, but even then I knew it was probably too close to Disney’s formula for comfort. Also, didn’t they defend the Czar by suggesting that people revolted not because they were starving the leaders sucked, but because they were put under a spell by Rasputin? But, yeah, there is something about Bluth’s animation that seems wholly unique. It’s too bad traditional animation has died in the United States, because I would love for the studios to take another chance on him.

  23. RBatty024 – Bluth just did a (successful) kickstarter involving a DRAGON’S LAIR movie or something so there’s that.

    The problem with Bluth is that for a brief time when Disney didn’t know what they were doing with their animation department, Bluth and all those other Disney animators that walked out and formed that indie company tried to do back to basics with the Disney formula. In fact you can look up on YouTube where Siskel & Ebert liked SECRET OF NIMH and Ebert said with absolute certainty that Walt Disney would’ve dug it. Anyway all fine and dandy, except Disney had their cartoon Renaissance and well, that kinda fucked Bluth and he really couldn’t creatively compete.

    Or put it another, like when Pixar was putting out FINDING NEMO and INCREDIBLES and whatever, Disney was putting out shit like BROTHER BEAR and HOME ON THE RANGE.

  24. I have seen none of these movies. Sounds like new homework for Franchise Fred.

    True story, when I first moved to LA I saw an early unfinished test screening of Dinosaur. Even when it was finished it was supposed to be revolutionary. It amuses me that it was so completely forgotten only a few years later.

  25. I can imagine an alternate dimension version of DINOSAUR that didn’t have goofy talking dinosaurs that probably would have been a pretty big hit.

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