The Land Before Time (1988)

There’s no escaping the fact that I grew up with this film–one of the lobby cardboard stand up displays adorned my family’s living room (thanks to pre-existing theatrical connections, I do believe–I was a little too young to be aware, even if I’d cared about such reasons for things at that age) for many years, and the Pizza Hut promotional puppets wandered throughout our home for years. Dinosaurs were a fascination of mine (as they were of many young boys) for a very long time, and this was at least the highest profile animated children’s film about them to date, if not the first overall (though I can’t be bothered to research this, so I won’t claim it one way or the other). Likely it was helped by the production team of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas attaching their names to it, both still well thought of in public circles (though a nonsensical anti-populist Spielberg-hating sentiment has risen in years of late, and George Lucas has spiralled into the depths of the worst kind of egotistical self-aggrandizement and soulless merchandising).

Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon) is the only child born to a small herd of “long-necks” in a near-apocalyptic landscape in the time of the dinosaurs (suffering a pretty drastic drought), with neighboring children of various other species born at the same time, including the “three-horn” daughter Cera (voiced by Candace Hutson), with whom Littlefoot attempts to play, only to have the children divided by their parents, who insist their kinds don’t mix (whew, does this smack of racist allegory, perhaps unintentionally, to anyone else? Especially when Littlefoot repeatedly asks why they’re separate, only to be told that’s simply the way it is?). As children are wont to do though, they begin playing again further along the travels of the various herds to sources of food and water. In the process, a “sharp-tooth” attempts to attack them, with Littlefoot’s mother (voiced by Helen Shaver, perhaps the only name I recognize here–more on that later) comes to their defense, but is mortally injured in the process. So Littlefoot and Cera, who is separated from her family by an earthquake, set off toward the legendary “Great Valley,” where there is endless water and leafy food. In the process, their strange herd grows with the addition of “big-mouth” daughter Ducky (voiced by Judith Barsi), “flyer” son Petrie (voiced by Will Ryan) and “spike-tail” son Spike (who isn’t voiced by anyone, apparently) as they continue to run from “sharp-tooth” and attempt to find food.

Despite animating for them earlier, Don Bluth continued his theme of darker animated children’s films than Disney’s with this one. This time, though, he had Spielberg and Lucas to contend with–leaving ten minutes of footage on the cutting room floor and now likely lost forever, deemed unsuitable for younger audiences for its graphic nature. Still, the darkness of the film is a little greater than many Disney pictures (the kind that have led to the colloquial term of “Disneyfication,” such as the change of little mermaid Ariel’s exchange from a ripped-out tongue to a magically stolen voice, and don’t even get me started on what they did to Classical mythology with the abysmal Hercules) with death an accepted fact, and the mourning of Littlefoot shown quite clearly, as well as a later reminder of his mother’s death. The threat is a carnivorous, likely starving, predator, who stops at very little, often appearing in intimidating environments like a thicket of thorns or a volcano when dealing with your youthful protagonists. It’s not quite All Dogs Go to Heaven or The Rats of NIMH (to reference two of Bluth’s other most popular films, and more specifically, ones I’m familiar with), but it’s still not all happy. The advantage Bluth has is that he is not a recognized entity that over-protective parents so happily throw a blanket attack at for being dark–a perusal of many Amazon reviews of Dumbo will show how shocked parents can be at what they think is a trusted source of children’s films “betraying” them. Many of the people I know my age felt this film and All Dogs were rather heartbreaking (many a post on IMDb makes reference to “crying” when speaking of this film), but I don’t recall ever being that bothered. Seeing a real threat in “Sharptooth”–sure, but not truly frightened.

And, in making that last reference, we come to the love/hate part of my relationship with this movie, which has existed nearly as long as my experience of it. Even as a small child it drove me absolutely nuts to see the spread of oversimplified generalized terms for dinosaurs disseminated in my classmates (and occasionally adults). Speaking as someone whose favourite dinosaur is Euoplocephalus (and has been for some years, with a similar affection for Chasmosaurus, Carnotaurus, Ceratodon, Baryonyx, Dilophosaurus, Amargasaurus and various other strangely adorned dinosaurs and dinosaurids–at one point a favourite in each well-known grouping) and has been since, oh, probably eight or nine years of age, I do probably speak for an obsessive minority. Still, it would be akin to looking out on a car trip and going “Look a furry grass-eater!”–Is it a cow? A horse? A sheep? A goat? What are you talking about? and thus encourages a rather uncurious approach to seeing any such animals–any large predatory dinosaur was instantly a “sharptooth,” regardless of major physiological differences between them. Of course, I was also big on emphasizing the official change of Brontosaurus’ name to Apatosaurus at the same age, so I probably am a little pedantic compared to most. The film also predates the re-alignment of Tyrannosaurus Rex‘ spine (as seen in 1993’s Jurassic Park) and the full-fledged popularization of the endothermic dinosaur, as most emphatically publicly endorsed by Robert T. Bakker (though his book, The Dinosaur Heresies had been out two years by that time), student of earlier theorist John Ostrom, who first publicized the idea.

In spite of that, though, it was a charming story with loveable characters (especially the big, dumb cuteness of Spike, and the hyperactive bluster of Petrie) so I forgave it that and simply left my annoyance to its incurious audience. Part of the reason here is that, as I alluded earlier, most of these names, even narrator Pat Hingle’s, are not names that jump out at most people. This was still the period of time where the voices behind kids’ cartoon heroes were not people we already knew as actors (unless we were obsessive about that instead). Something is lost when we’re drawn in two directions by a vocal performance, one telling us the image we should see is that of the person we normally associate that voice with, and a dichotomy develops between the movie we’re seeing and our mental perception of the voices in it,* separating us from complete suspension of disbelief and the ability to entangle ourselves in the story. I also like the work voice actors do, and appreciate the nuance of someone who does more voice-work, and their ability to create multiple distinct characters, in a way easily seen in this one.

It’s not a film to run out and buy as an adult with no nostalgia for it–it’s not incredibly deep or complex (at a run time of 69 minutes, it doesn’t have much chance to be), but it is solid entertainment for young dinosaur loveables and easily watchable for those who are watching over them. However, I simply have to note that even my undiscerning eyes noticed the transfer on this disc (and this is even the “Anniversary Edition”–the most recent release) is atrocious. Grain, edge enhancement, fuzziness and poorly balanced dark scenes are glaringly obvious to any eye but a child’s. The best compliment I can give is it at least looks like an unwatched first generation VHS–which is faint praise, and becomes even fainter with special features that do not relate to the film so much as the endless DTV sequels, all oriented toward children with no attention span to speak of–and of course referencing the DTV sequels at all is not a good sign (which began to rely on the lame, clichéd device of characters bursting into song–ironically, in effect, “Disneyfying” the work of a man who intentionally left Disney, and even done to a film that beat out Disney’s Oliver and Company in the box office that year). A serious thumbs down and a pretty violent slap on the wrist to the producers of this DVD, and to Universal for releasing it like this.

*Good lord, how did I get into this from a review of The Land Before Time?!

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