For those who grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Land Before Time will likely stand out as a seminal childhood film. After all, with its heady mix of adventure, tragedy and anthropomorphic dinosaurs, what more could any discerning young viewer wish for? I can still remember the first time I saw the film, in the assembly hall of my primary school when I was five years old. Instantly it became a firm favourite, and kicked started a fascination for all things prehistoric. Yet it also proved to be a deeply moving experience; I still defy anyone to say they didn’t cry at that scene. Having not watched it in over a decade, then, I relished the opportunity to revisit this animated classic and find out just how well it’s aged.
Released in 1988, The Land Before Time was directed by veteran animator Don Bluth and executive produced by box-office titans Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, all three of whom had struck gold two years previously with An American Tail. As far as plots go, the film is hardly the most complex: set during a period of drought between the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, vast herds of dinosaurs are seeking the lush pastures of the Great Valley. However, after the death of his mother in a terrifying fight with a t-rex, young brontosaurus Littlefoot is forced to make the perilous journey all by himself. Yet he’s not alone for long and quickly develops an eclectic array of new friends to join him in his quest: the naive saurolophus Ducky; anxious pteranodon Petrie; mute stegosaurus Spike; and stubborn triceratops Cera.
As is to be expected with a children’s film, The Land Before Time is keen to teach its young viewers important lessons about growing up. Mortality is obviously one of the more prominent and staid issues it raises, with the death of Littlefoot’s mother certain to leave a lasting impression on those who first encounter the film in their youth. In fact, even as an adult, I was surprised by just how heart wrenching the young dinosaur’s desperate cries for his dying mother actually are. Not that this is a bad thing; I think it’s important for children to be exposed to death through fiction and the subject is tackled surprisingly well. Indeed, unlike Bambi, who always seemed rather unconcerned by his mother’s sudden demise, Littlefoot actually mourns his loss. While it might not go into the “circle of life,” at least the death isn’t simply glossed over.
The film also deals with the familiar theme of working with others, teaching kids that it’s sometimes necessary to put aside our differences in order to achieve a common goal. During the setup, for instance, we repeatedly hear adult characters assert that different dinosaur herds don’t mix, which initially puts Littlefoot and Cera at odds with each other. By the climax, however, they finally realise that only by coming together can they safely reach the Great Valley. This is obviously a very simple message, one which is handled in a very conspicuous manner, but don’t forget that this is a film aimed squarely at 4–8 year olds. Of course, judging by the violence and bigotry in news today, perhaps some grown-ups could also do with a compulsory screening of The Land Before Time.
Nevertheless, despite trying really hard to enjoy the film, my more mature sensibilities couldn’t help but notice on some major flaws – most notably its poorly constructed script. Certainly, following a quite superb first act, we are treated to a spectacularly dull development. The pacing is especially bad throughout, with many moments receiving more attention than they warrant while others going by far too quickly. For example, after building up to a climactic showdown with the vicious t-rex that killed Littlefoot’s mother, we are treated to just two minutes of rather prosaic action. Perhaps I’ve been so spoilt by the storytelling genius of Pixar and DreamWorks that my expectations have grown too high. Still, with the likes of Spielberg and Lucas involved, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.
However, perhaps my biggest gripe with The Land Before Time is its incessant baby talk. Set during prehistoric times and featuring a range of different dinosaur characters, you’d expect this to be an excellent opportunity to give kids a subliminal lesson in natural history. But clearly the filmmakers felt differently, and so we’re repeatedly subjected to banal terms like “long-necks,” “three-horns” and “tree stars.” Many of the voice performances don’t help matters either; the likes of Ducky and Petrie being portrayed as dim-witted toddlers. In the end, not only will this annoy reluctant adult viewers, it also insults the intelligence of its target audience. Having started his career at Disney, I would have expected Bluth to realise that children are perfectly capable of understanding cleverly written and delivered dialogue.
To conclude, revisiting The Land Before Time after all these years wasn’t quite what I’d expected. In all honestly, I actually kind of regret it. Before, I used to think back and remember what I thought was one of the best animated films all time. Now I’m just reminded by how awful my taste in movies really was. I’m truly amazed to think that this one 90 minute film has managed to spawn a multi-million dollar franchise and twelve direct-to-video sequels. Like Pokémon cards or yo-yos, then, The Land Before Time is best left firmly in your childhood.