Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Bluth Factor: The Land Before Time


After reviewing both Rock-A-Doodle and All Dogs Go To Heaven, I thought I kind of owed it to the Sullivan Bluth Studios to take a look at one of their more successful films. The Land Before Time, a tale of five young dinosaurs who set out in search of greener valleys, was one of Bluth’s biggest commercial successes. Despite mixed reaction from the critics, the movie performed well at the box office and furthered Bluth’s goal of providing meaningful competition for Disney. The Land Before Time was released the same weekend as Disney’s Oliver and Company and although the Disney film ultimately won the battle for gross domestic earnings, the Bluth movie had the more successful opening weekend and a higher worldwide gross. Over the years, the movie’s legacy has become somewhat muddied; it is the current reigning champion of direct to home market sequels with no less than twelve to its name, none of which had any involvement from the Sullivan Bluth crew. So twenty-one years after its original release, how does the original film hold up? Surprisingly well.

Littlefoot is a baby brontosaurus*. His family consists of two grandparents and his mother. With no father in sight and the elder dinos presumably past egg-laying age, Littlefoot is introduced by the narration as the tiny herd’s only hope for the future. (He is not the last of his kind, as Roger Ebert has mistakenly stated in both print and television reviews of the film, then pointing out the supposed inconsistency of the narration later claiming that many generations of descendants of all five dinos continued to thrive for years to come. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to make the distinction, but it’s bugged me for years that a famous film critic – for whom I otherwise have nothing but respect – somehow got this wrong when I understood it at age ten.) A food shortage has forced all of the dinosaur herds to travel in search of the legendary Great Valley, a place of abundant vegetation where no dino will ever go hungry again. Life soon becomes even more difficult for Littlefoot when an earthquake separates him from his grandparents and his mother is fatally injured (either by the earthquake or in protecting her son from the rampaging tyrannosaurus “Sharptooth;” the movie doesn’t make it clear which). The newly orphaned Littlefoot must lead his newfound friends – Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike - to the Great Valley or face starvation as food grows more and more scarce,

Littlefoot may not be the most compelling protagonist ever, but he works for the purposes of this story. His plight is sympathetic and his performance – both vocal and visual – is convincingly childlike and appealing. His biggest heroic quality is his concern for the other dinosaurs, which is what keeps him going after he loses his mother and spurs on his progression not only towards the Great Valley, but also towards adulthood, the transition from being taken care of to taking care of others. He is persistent, good at coming up with a plan, and the only one of the dinosaurs who knows the way to the Great Valley, the last fact being chiefly responsible for his status as the group’s leader. The narration outright says at one point that the main reason that the other dinosaurs continue to follow Littlefoot after he is proven very wrong in his belief that Sharptooth is dead is that he is the only one who knows how to get to the Great Valley. This is odd, since the directions for reaching the Great Valley are essentially “go in one direction past two landmarks.” So if the other dinos really thought that Littlefoot was an incompetent leader, they could probably have learned the path to the valley for themselves and ditched him. But Littlefoot is a good leader, even if those qualities don’t come out until later on.

The dinosaurs who follow Littlefoot to the Great Valley mostly fall into the category of “comic relief,” with one exception. Duck the parasaurolophus and Petrie the pteranadon are both intended to provide lighter moments in the story. They are kind of the same character, both very high energy and very small. Ducky is more enthusiastic, ending a lot of her sentences with a happy “Yup, yup, yup.” She is the one character who occasionally becomes more irritating than adorable. Petrie is the more neurotic of the two, due largely to the fact that he cannot fly. Rounding out the comic characters is Spike the stegosaurus. Spike is basically a big puppy dog, mainly concerned with eating and sleeping. He is loyal and capable of helping out when the group needs some muscle, but he doesn’t speak and mostly does what the others tell him to do. The depiction of one of the little dinosaurs as more of a pet than a child doesn’t bother me as much as the same situation with a very similar character did in Disney’s Dinosaur, mostly because Spike is a newborn baby. Ducky discovers him as an egg about to hatch with no other dinosaurs around. So Spike’s limitations could be due to his extremely young age rather than his whole species operating on a lower level than most other dinosaurs.


Little Cera the triceratops is the remaining character in Littlefoot’s tiny herd. She is the “Grumpy” of the film and it’s not just because of her bad attitude. She has the strongest personality of any character in the movie and it gets her into nothing but trouble. She is proud, self-centered, overconfident, and even downright mean to Littlefoot, going so far as to insult his dead mother. Because of this, Cera is the only character who undergoes real change over the course of the film. Littlefoot may have to learn to survive without his mother and Petrie may need to figure out how to fly, but Cera must undergo an alteration of her personality, which includes one or two blows to her sizeable ego. Cera also serves as a good counterexample to Littlefoot’s good leadership. When she convinces the other dinosaurs to follow her down an easier path that Littlefoot insists is the wrong way, she fails to even notice when first Petrie, then Ducky and Spike fall behind and soon all find themselves in dire peril. This allows Littlefoot to be the hero and come to their rescue and Cera’s as well, after she runs into some unfriendly dinosaurs.

The rest of the cast is made up of very secondary characters. Littlefoot’s mother is exactly what you would expect her to be: loving, protective, and self-sacrificing. His grandparents barely have any lines and serve almost no purpose in the story beyond ensuring that Littlefoot will have someone waiting for him when he reaches the Great Valley. The menacing tyrannosaurus Sharptooth is less of a character than a monster. He never talks or shows any interest in anything besides attacking and devouring other dinosaurs.

Part of what keeps The Land Before Time on the right track is its simple, straightforward plot. Littlefoot’s goal is always to get to the Great Valley. He may have to accomplish additional tasks along the way: get his friends out of trouble, escape from Sharptooth, figure out how to go on without his mother, and so on. But from the minute that the food shortage is first mentioned, it’s completely clear that Littlefoot’s main job is to get from point A to point B. He and his friends may have a number of reasons for wanting to get to the Great Valley, reuniting with their families being a big one. But the main motivation for their journey remains as clear as their destination: if they do not make it to the Great Valley, they will die of starvation.


This may sound pretty grim, but the film actually does a good job of keeping its tone from becoming either too bleak or too light. The life or death nature of the dinosaurs’ plight is mostly confined to the narration. The characters talk about being hungry from time to time, but we never see them grow thin or weak from lack of food. On the flip side, the comedy of the movie is kept secondary to the main drama and the more comedic characters all have some part in the story beyond just providing laughs. The emotional touchstone of the film is, of course, the death of Littlefoot’s mother and aside from one cheeseball line of dialogue that threatens to break the mood (“Let your heart guide you. It whispers, so listen closely.”), it’s pretty effecting. Much of this is due to a very understated and sincere performance by then child actor Gabriel Damon. Littlefoot’s lines are appropriately childlike and his grief never becomes over the top. He insists to his mother that she can get up, but his tears and breaking voice suggest that deep down, he knows that she can’t and never will again.

I can remember print ads from when this movie was in theaters quoting a critic who dubbed the film “a prehistoric Bambi.” This wasn’t surprising; most animated films that feature a young animal whose mother dies are going to get compared to Bambi. What did surprise me seeing the film for the first time in years is just how much of the film is an homage to Bambi. While it doesn’t follow the exact same plot as the other film and there are also nods to other classic Disney movies – most obviously the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Fantasia, Bambi was clearly a big inspiration for the artists working on The Land Before Time. There are obvious echoes of big moments, like the death of Littlefoot’s mother and the shot moments before where Littlefoot is searching for her and calls out with dialogue very similar to Bambi’s in the analogous scene from that movie. There are smaller bits that feel very familiar, like the prehistoric creatures that crowd around to observe Littlefoot’s birth the way the woodland animals gathered to meet the newborn prince of the forest, the one visiting beast that looks into Littlefoot’s mouth as he yawns just like Thumper stole a glimpse at baby Bambi’s tonsils, and even the tiny pteradactyls fighting over a berry, which is reminiscent of two baby birds doing the same thing in Bambi. From time to time, a caught a subtle staging device that also seemed to be pulled from Bambi. When Littlefoot and Cera fight while the other dinosaurs watch, the shadows of the two combatants pass over the onlookers, much as the shadows of Bambi and rival buck Ronno fall over Faline while she watched them compete for her. Keep in mind that many of the artists working at Sullivan Bluth Studios at the time were people with a huge amount of respect for the older Disney films and in some cases, people who had left the Disney studio because they felt Disney was no longer making movies of that kind. In this case, the imitation of Bambi is definitely a very sincere form of flattery.


Since all of its protagonists are juvenile dinosaurs, the movie features a high level of cute. Littlefoot and his friends all have eyelashes and cute little round ears, which I kind of doubt are accurate to paleontologist’s view of what infant dinosaurs looked like. Cute is usually a matter of personal taste and in this case, I think the character designs generally stay on the right side of the line between “awww” inspiring and nausea inducing. What bugs me more than the characters’ eyelashes, rosy cheeks, and baby faces is their size. I’ve seen enough artist’s renderings, pseudo-documentaries, and actual fossils to know that baby dinosaurs were tiny in comparison to their gigantic parents. But Petrie is small enough to walk around atop Littlefoot’s head, Ducky is barely half his size, and Littlefoot himself is usually no bigger than his mother’s head. I say usually because there is some inconsistency in the film regarding the characters’ size relative to each other, other dinosaurs, and certain objects. I can understand the desire to make the main characters small to emphasize their vulnerability in the big savage world they must journey through. But all of them are so miniscule that I started to wonder whether the real reason the dinosaurs died out was because they kept accidentally stepping on their own young. Regardless, the artists at Sullivan Bluth Studios did some of their best work on this film, from the appealing scampering of the baby dinos to the huge and majestic adult dinosaurs to the world they all inhabit, at turns harsh and beautiful.


There’s an odd subplot to the film about the rather racist attitude the dinosaurs have towards each other. They tend to keep to their own kind, so much so that shortly after Littlefoot meets Cera for the first time, her father steps in and sternly informs the both of them that “three-horns don’t play with longnecks.” (The films has the dinos use cutesy descriptive terms to identify the various species.) It’s a message that Cera takes very much to heart. The weird thing is that Littlefoot’s own mother is equally in favor of this separation of the species, for no reason other than that it has always been that way. I’m not suggesting that the film implies that this is a good thing; far from it. Part of the point of the film is that Littlefoot bands together with four different dinos, all of different species, in order to find the Great Valley. But I feel like there’s a scene missing towards the end where the adult dinosaurs realize the error of their ways. I’m not asking for a big speech about the importance of dino diversity. I just think Cera’s father in particular should have a moment where he looks at his daughter happily playing with her new friends and realizes that she never could have made it back to her family if she hadn’t joined up with these four other dinosaurs with their various abilities that helped all of them to survive. Ducky’s parents do seem cool with the idea of adopting the evidently orphaned Spike, but since Daddy Topps was the big proponent of this faulty notion, I think he should have been made to see that he was wrong in the end. This part of the story was evidently more prominent in earlier drafts, to the point where the kid dinos initially didn’t get along and had to learn to do so. But in the final film, Cera is the only one who has this problem. The rest of the young dinosaurs are fast friends almost from the moment they meet.

The Land Before Time is not a musical. It’s a surprising choice given the success of Bluth’s previous feature An American Tail and its hit song “Somewhere Out There.” It may have been a decision by Bluth, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas – the last two being two of the film’s executive producers – or some combination of the three that singing dinosaurs would tax the audience’s suspension of disbelief a little too much. Or maybe Bluth, his co-producers Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, or some other member of Bluth’s team wanted to break out of the musical mold. Whatever the reasoning, the film features just one song. “If We Hold On Together” plays in instrumental form throughout the film, but is only heard with lyrics over the end credits, sung by none other than Diana Ross. It is a very pretty song, though it never achieved quite the success that “Somewhere Out There” did. The film’s score is by prolific composer James Horner, whose other screen credits include everything from Titanic to two of the Star Trek movies to Balto, and creates the right balance of emotion and whimsy.


If there’s one main problem that The Land Before Time suffers from, it’s the oddly disjointed feeling of the narrative. Some parts of the film feel more like isolated incidents that don’t quite connect up with the whole. The biggest comes towards the end when Littlefoot, just after leading his friends to a major victory, despairs of ever finding the Great Valley. There’s no transition between these two scenes to suggest why Littlefoot would feel this way after one of his biggest successes and as a result, the events seem strangely unconnected. This could possibly be the result of some of the scenes that were cut from the film. Bluth and Spielberg reportedly had some very different ideas about what this movie should be, some of which resulted in late changes to the film. About ten minutes of footage – mostly featuring the young heroes in danger and Sharptooth being scary – were cut to make the film less frightening for young viewers, leaving the film’s final running time at just over an hour. Including these missing scenes might have made for a smoother storyline, but since those scenes have never been shown to the public, I can only say that the end product has parts that never quite connect up.

The Land Before Time never reinvents the wheel, but perhaps that’s part of the reason why it was successful. The simplicity of the story actually becomes one of its strengths, helping the film to avoid the convoluted plots that caused trouble for many of Bluth’s later movie. By combining the talents of the studio’s artists with inspiration from classic animated films and tying it all to the kid-friendly hook of dinosaurs, Bluth succeeded in making a crowd-pleasing movie that, while not perfect, remains entertaining to watch.

*Yes, I know that technically he's an apatosaurus, but "brontosaurus" is still considered a legitimate generic term for any sauropod dinosaurs. And I just plain like it better. "Brontosarus" means "thunder lizard," which conjures up images of creatures so massive that their footfalls sounded like thunder. That is cool. Aside from lacking many of the hard consonants that make "brontosaurus" just plain sound cool, "Apatosaurus" means "deceptive lizard," a name derived from the fact that it's bones were easy to confuse with those of other dinosaurs. That is lame. So even if it's not technically correct, the ten year old in me is sticking with "brontosaurus."

All images in this article are copyright Universal Pictures.

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