Don Bluth/20th Century Fox/Blue Sky review: The Land Before Time

My opinion right after watching the film

My opinion right after watching this film is that it might be my favourite Bluth film. There are still a lot of issues (the editing cuts are almost as bad as The Black Cauldron), but there is a lot of charm in the film. I liked the themes of holding onto your past to make a better future, and seeing the group of kids grow close together was very sincere, while not ignoring the stakes in the movie. There was a relatively nice mix of dark and light, but the film needed to be longer, since it barely being a bit over an hour is where most of the flaws came in my eyes.

Production

While An American Tail was in the works, Spielberg was in talks about making another film, and he wanted a film akin to Bambi,but for dinosaurs. There was going to initially be no dialogue in the film, but in order to appeal to children, they created dialogue, and added voice actors. Ultimately, this is the story of every animated dinosaur film. The release date for the film was going to be in fall of 1987, but it was delayed a year because Don Bluth Studios moved to Berlin.

Production went to various natural history museums all over The United States in order to get more research on the accuracy and history of dinosaurs, just so they can depict and translate it as well as they could in animation form. As the film was in production, Spielberg told Bluth that it was way too dark, so there were constant revisions and cuts (a lot of them in post-production), causing there to be 10 minutes of lost footage, and a film time of a bit over an hour.

Story

The  film starts with a longneck herd witnessing the birth of Littlefoot (Gabrel Damon), who is of course embraced by the herd as he grows up. The herd is marching over to The Great Valley, since it is a safe place for the dinosaurs to live. He meets a three-horned dinosaur named Cera (Candy Hutson), until their parents intervene, since three-horns and longnecks are not supposed to play with one another. His mother (Helen Shaver) teaches him all about the different types of dinosaurs, and how they keep to their own kind for precaution reasons.

The two baby dinosaurs end up reuniting accidentally, but they are soon attacked by a Sharptooth. His mother comes to his aid, but is soon injured to a slow death by the battle, and an earthquake causes the two to be separated from their herds. As she is dying, she tells him to remember the direction to The Great Valley. I am sorry, but I am getting some very strong Bambi vibes throughout this entire scene.

He makes his journey to The Great Valley, and starts meeting a bunch of people of course. He meets a bigmouth named Ducky (Judith Barsi), who also lost his family in the earthquake. After blowing Littlefoot off, Cera wands by herself and sees the dinosaur’s dead body that attacked them earlier. A flyer named Petrie (Will Ryan) soon joins the other two on their quest. All four of them reunite, and Cera tells them that the Sharptooth is still alive, but of course he does not believe her.

The four of them are getting tired and hungry, since they need food and water, which they get when they see a leaf tree. A bunch of the longnecks run down past them to eat the food. They all have to climb and stand on one another in order to get some food. After eating, they all cuddle up and sleep in a large dinosaur’s footprint, which was a very nice, endearing, and touching moment.

Of course this is all interrupted when the Sharktooth comes to attack them the next morning, which they barely make it out of. The Landmarks that Littlefoot’s mother mentioned is in front of them, but Cera starts an argument about the direction, causing them to go their separate directions. They end up being attacked once again, but manages to make it out. She walks away from the others to cry about leading them in the wrong direction.

Littlefoot somehow ends up with the others, and a plan is quickly devised in order to trap and get rid of the Sharktooth once and for all. Petrei is able to fly, after the Sharktooth gives him some help with the nostril blowing. Some boulder pushing form both sides causes the fate to be unknown, but Cera returns to help them out, and the finally manage to push the Sharktooth in the lake, with the boulder falling on top of him.

He asks for his mother’s advice about how to get to The Great Valley as he hits rock bottom, but is shocked when the could representing her leads them to The Great Valley. Everyone is reunited with their families, and the narration ends with the four of them growing close, and sharing with their families for generations about the tale of them arriving at The Great Valley.

It is really such a shame that Spielberg had the studio cut out over 10 minutes, since an hour and 8 minutes caused for some pacing issues. I did like how the children were allowed to be children, but had their own characters, and had to grow together. It was a brilliant coming of age film with some beautiful animation (though I did notice some white outlines), and I really understand why people really like it.

Characters

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about the characters. There isn’t many of them (which I do appreciate a lot), and there is a relatively nice dynamic with them, but none of them are really anything outside of one-dimensional, and I know I won’t remember many of them after this review. Because of this, I will only talk about two or three of them.

Littlefoot as a main character did not really stand out to me much, but his plotline did make me feel bad for him. The journey was more about the group than him specifically.
She was annoying for a lot of the film, but of course softened up a bit after the tragedy just gets worse, and failing everyone, which was redemption.

Animation

To be honest, I am more impressed with the backgrounds and the colour meshing with them than anything in the foregrounds, especially the character designs. It did pull off the simplistic aesthetic really well, and the common saying of “less is more” is executed really well. Like the other films, there were some issues with the cells that are noticeable.

Music

The score is pretty great. It handles the epic, dark side of the film perfectly, and better than any of the dialogue could have. Thankfully there are no songs (which the sequels are poisoned with for no reason). The film is a coming-of-age, dark adventure, and the score executes it well.

Reception at Release

When the film was released on November 18th, 1988, it beat Oliver & Company (which was released on the same day) on opening weekend, but was beat by said film domestically, making $48 million. The Land Before Time did end up beating Oliver & Company in the box office overall, grossing $84 million worldwide. This was the second film in a row that beat Walt Disney Animation Studios in the box office, which was still unprecedented at the time.

It received positive critical reception during it’s release, getting better than the WDAS film released during the time. A lot of the praise was about how beautiful and endearing the animation and the overall film was. Several people at the time were comparing it to the films in WDAS’ golden age (which is what the company was going for). There were some critiques about the dialogue, and how they should have focused a bit more on the adventure aspect instead of the tragedy and cuteness. It was nominated for a Saturn and a Youth in Film Award for Best Family Animation/Fantasy film.

Reception Today

I don’t really think the reception for this film changed though. I know that the incessant Direct-to-DVD sequels (which I still think is ongoing today) taints it in certain people’s eyes, and makes it a bit less iconic, but those films were worked on by different people and companies. Most people still hold it to very high regard though.

Score

Story: 7.5/10

Characters: 7/10

Animation: 7.5/10

Music: 8/10

30/40 = 75%

4 thoughts on “Don Bluth/20th Century Fox/Blue Sky review: The Land Before Time

  1. I remember liking the movie, but somehow I never had the drive to rewatch it the way I did rewatch the other three of Bluth’s first four. It’s a little bit too preachy for my taste to be honest. But it is certainly better than all the other movies about Dinosaurs having to move to a “better place”.

  2. This is my favorite Don Bluth movie as well. One of my childhood favorites. I’ll certainly take it over Disney’s Dinosaur any day of the week. Great animation, great characters, great story, and an awesome score by James Horner. R.I.P.

    I can’t be TOO hard on the sequels, as I owned the first eight of them (2-9) as a kid and grew up watching them a lot. And to be fair, they DO have their good moments, so it’s not like they’re the worst things out there. But none of them hold a candle to the first movie.

    Apparently, some of the cuts to this movie have surfaced after a long time. Not too much, but something. Check them out here:

    By the way, this year will be this movie’s 30th anniversary. I may re-watch it for such an occasion.

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