The Land Before Time (1988) is like a dinosaur version of Disney’s Bambi. It also seems to have influenced The Lion King, even using the phrase ‘circle of life.’ I couldn’t resist re-watching the film when I saw it was on Netflix. I used to have it on video, although I don’t think I watched very often. All I remembered about the film is that there were dinosaurs in it. And indeed, on re-watching I can confirm that there are dinosaurs. Well I never…
The story follows a group of five young dinosaurs, all of different species, who band together when they become separated from their families. They overcome perils such as volcanoes, tar pits, earthquakes and a very persistent T. Rex in order to reach the Great Valley, a promised land of greenery. If they don’t get there, they’ll starve. The main character is Littlefoot, a ‘longneck’ whose mother is fatally wounded by the T. Rex, which she fights to save her child (who is also the last of the herd).
There are some lighter moments and a strong theme of friendship, but the film is rather gloomy for a children’s animation. The palette is dark, there are no songs except for one at the closing credits, grief and depression are dominant and there is the horrifically scary moment when the apparently dead T. Rex comes back to life. Most grim of all, ten-year-old Judith Barsi, the voice actor of one of the dinosaurs, Ducky, was murdered by her father four months before the film was released.
Produced and directed by Don Bluth and including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as executive producers, the film was always going to be a success, particularly as dinosaurs are so popular. I find it difficult to see how it could be anyone’s absolute favourite, however. The best part is obviously when the dinosaurs reach the promised land at the end and we are told that they all played together for many generations to come, but it does seem too unrealistic (as far as realism goes in an animation about talking dinosaurs), considering that the perils they faced are real and that they’re about to become extinct.
The film spawned a whole franchise of direct-to-video sequels, video games and the like. I won’t be checking these out but I hope that somebody is enjoying them, somewhere.
Low-resolution film poster from Wikipedia, copyright Universal Pictures.