From their earliest origins, stories for children were intended not just as entertainment, but as a way of imparting lessons and preparing them for the complexities of adulthood. Fairytales are the obvious example of this, but children's literature today has continued this tradition, from the 'Harry Potter' novels to Philip Pullman’s 'His Dark Materials' series. Form, function and enjoyment have walked hand-in-hand, especially in the finer works, but this conceit has never seemed to take on in children's films. Of course there are examples (especially in the early days of Disney Animation), but for every ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘Inside Out’ or ‘A Monster Calls’, there are countless derivative and forgettable cinematic confectionaries, as digestible as they are forgettable, and this seems such a pity, as the truly great children’s films prove that you can impart great wisdom and insight to the very young, often on difficult subjects, through the gentleness of storytelling. Perhaps as we have stepped into this new century, we’ve become too protective of children and their experiences, wanting to hold back their innocence and shield them from the harshness of what awaits them through adolescence and adulthood.
So when Don Bluth’s 1988 animated film ‘The Land Before Time’ arrived on Netflix earlier this year, I wondered how many parents would see this film with its cute dinosaur characters, and unsuspectingly sit their young ones down and turn it on, expecting some lighthearted and "safe" entertainment. Animation has changed a lot in the past 30 years, and so you’d forgive them for seeing the animation style and assuming what kind of film it is. The truth is that ‘The Land Before Time’ is not that kind of film at all. For one thing, it’s a masterpiece - a flawed one, but a masterpiece nonetheless. For another, it may be one of the most poignant and honest expressions on grief and death in the history of cinema. It might look quaint and approachable, but its emotional scope is staggering, and after three decades, the punch it delivers has only gotten stronger.
I don’t remember a world without ‘The Land Before Time’. I was barely two years old when it came out, and along with the Disney classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it was one of the VHS tapes that dominated my childhood. The easy explanation for this is that in the years before ‘Jurassic Park’, the only dinosaur-themed films we had as kids were this and the Rite of Spring sequence from ‘Fantasia’. As a kid, I wasn’t aware of how dense the emotional content was, though it certainly affected me. As an adult revisiting the film after many years though, I was stunned. I found myself heaving with sobs, my heart aching. This film about a bunch of cute dinosaurs was subtly complex, emotionally rich and deeply moving in a way almost no other animated film had managed to be before or since. And it’s barely over an hour long.
‘The Land Before Time’ was the third animated feature from director Don Bluth, one of the unsung pioneers of animation in the last decades of the twentieth century. He had been an animation director at Walt Disney Animation in the late 70s, but with the quality of animation in decline and rumours of the studio’s closure, he led a team of animators in exodus from Disney and established their own company. Their first feature ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982), an adaptation of the beloved Robert C. O’Brien novel, was a significant statement of intent. The animation was stunning, a mixture of Disney-style character animation and astute naturalism, but the tone was much darker and richer, and while the film didn’t achieve box office success, it was a critical hit and attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg. Bluth’s second film ‘An American Tale’ (1986), a fable that looked at the European immigration to New York through the eyes of a family of mice and produced by Spielberg, was a much greater financial success, and this in turn led to Spielberg’s suggestion of doing a film reminiscent of ‘Bambi’, but with dinosaurs.
‘The Land Before Time’ tells the story of Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon), a Longneck who is migrating with his mother and grandparents, as well as other species of leaf-eating dinosaurs, across the wastelands of the earth to a mythical place called the Great Valley, a land of plenty. When his mother is killed by a Sharptooth and he is separated from his grandparents by a violent earthquake, he leads a group of other youngsters, a Three-Horn named Cera (Candace Hutson), a Bigmouth named Ducky (Judith Barsi), a Spiketail named Spike and a Flyer named Petrie (Will Ryan) in search of the Great Valley and their families.
Much of the beauty of ‘The Land Before Time’ is in its verisimilitude, and this also accounts for its emotional ferocity. Predating the same intent in ‘Jurassic Park’, the film strives to show dinosaurs as animals rather than monsters, and as much as they are anthropomorphised, they still feel like animals. The character animation and the landscapes they cross feel naturalistic and prehistoric, the environments especially an unpredictable canvas of beauty and unexpected danger. For the five leads, they are depicted very much as young children, with warped senses of humour and shifting emotional states, pompously brave and stubborn, but genuine and innocent. Their psychology is so recognisable that it often takes you by surprise, and your empathy for them is practically immediate. The opening sequence goes to great lengths to establish their young age and the important bond between a young child and their parent, something that becomes integral to the emotional impact of the film.
Central to the conceit of ‘The Land Before Time’ is prejudice against others. There’s a clear hierarchy between the species, one that is accepted by the adults and questioned by the children. The extreme circumstances under which the children are forced together puts those prejudices to the test, not just their ability to see each other as equals but to ignore pre-learned assumptions about personality and skill. Littlefoot and Cera in particular are often at odds, his certainty crashing against her stubbornness and determination to prove herself. These are conflicts also driven by fear, of being separated from their parents, of not having anyone to protect them, and by something none of them are able to articulate yet, especially Littlefoot - their first experiences with grief.
And this is where ‘The Land Before Time’ becomes something singular and extraordinary - it is a film about children trying to comprehend the concept of mortality, under circumstances that are unforgiving and cripplingly unfair. Bambi loses his mother off-screen, but in this film, not only does Littlefoot witness his mother’s death, is with her in her final moments. The moment is incredibly understated, a gentle zoom out of mother and child in a moment of intimacy as rain falls around them, but it’s a moment that hits your heart right where it hurts and sends shockwaves though the film. The journey to the Great Valley becomes Littlefoot’s journey through grief, but there are moments where we find him alone and still, staring into space, unable to move or speak or comprehend the loneliness inside him. And because the film has so carefully framed these dinosaurs as young children, you aren’t looking at an animated dinosaur dealing with grief; you’re looking at a child, with no adult to explain it to them or to help them. You’re watching a child suffer through the stages of grief, and it is absolutely fucking devastating. But it’s a grief that fuels him and guides him, ultimately, back to his grandparents and to the Great Valley, and by underpinning the epic narrative journey with such a rich, enormous emotional one, the impact of ‘The Land Before Time’ is immense, much more so that you ever expect it to be, especially when combined with the late composer James Horner’s incredible score, perhaps the most beautiful work he ever composed. I still can't listen to it without it bringing me to tears.
It may be one of the most poignant and honest expressions on grief and death in the history of cinema.
The most heartbreaking moment in the making of ‘The Land Before Time’ came in the months before its release, when an unexpected tragedy struck the production. Four months before the release, Judith Barsi, the ten year old girl who has voiced Ducky, the most joyful of the characters, was murdered by her father. It’s an impossible thing to comprehend, but all the more so for the film in which she is immortalised, one that explores mortality with such sensitivity. Along with her name, on her headstone was also written, ‘Yep! Yep! Yep!’, Ducky’s most iconic phrase from the film.
What Don Bluth had created was another ambitious attempt to explore deep questions about the human condition through the art of animation in a way that would be accessible to children, and ‘The Land Before Time’ would be an even greater financial success. It was however a compromised vision - before release, Spielberg and co-producer George Lucas were concerned that many of the sequences involving the Sharptooth would be too scary, and around 10 minutes of footage was ultimately cut from the film and many scenes reordered (in some cases so late that, on the soundtrack album, Horner’s score reflects Bluth’s original cut). That isn’t to say that the film we have now isn’t remarkable, but a description of the excised moments demonstrate the extent to which Bluth’s vision was altered. The legacy of Bluth and his films isn’t as strong as many other major animation houses, and Universal have barely made an effort to remaster ‘The Land Before Time’, let alone locate the missing footage. As sad as it is, we have to assume that this version of ‘The Land Before Time’ is all that we’ll ever have, and while that film is something incredibly special, it would be quite something to see what Bluth’s original version would have been like.
Outside of the generation that grew up with it, ‘The Land Before Time’ isn’t overly well-remembered, but its legacy can be found in the most unusual places. Years later, a similar exploration of death would underpin another animated film, Disney’s blockbuster ‘The Lion King’, but as with so much about that film, its exploration of death would simply be a lazy and digestible derivative of better films. I’d even go as far to say that there’s as much of ‘The Land Before Time’ in ‘The Lion King’ as there is ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Kimba the White Lion’. Not only is Mufasa’s death scene a lazy reinterpretation of the death of Littlefoot’s mother, it even features a speech about the Circle of Life, albeit a far more eloquent and complex one. Also, Universal released a direct-to-video sequel, ‘The Great Valley Adventure’ in 1994, but the rich pastoral tones of Bluth’s original were jettisoned for a frivolous musical, and in the years since, there have been thirteen sequels, as well as a TV series, all of which are painfully forgettable. In one sense, it shows the disappointing lack of reverence the studio has for the original film. In another, it still makes it a uniquely singular work of art.
‘The Land Before Time’ is one of the most powerful of all children's' films. It has tremendous heart, extraordinary artistry and great integrity, built on the belief that cinema for children can be more than disposable entertainment. It is also a film whose potency hasn’t waned, and still manages to move in a deep, primal way. A few years ago, I recommended it to an adult friend, who was initially skeptical that it would be any good. Afterwards, he messaged to tell me that he was a sobbing mess and completely blown away at its gentle intensity. It may be a film about cute animated dinosaurs, but it’s even more so about the fragile beauty of childhood, the terrifying moment when the world turns its eyes on them and batters them with its hardships and conundrums, and how their very innocence and willingness to dream can bring them out of the darkness and into the light. That alone makes it one of the most important animated films ever made, and for every child sat down to watch it by an unsuspecting parent, a formative and exhilarating experience.