Some who champion Bluth will make the distinction between his 1980s output and the inexplicably inane, sugar-addled nightmares that became his trademark in the 1990s, at least pre-Anastasia (although I swear that there's been some serious revisionism in lumping All Dogs Go To Heaven with Bluth's better brainchildren - there was a time when opinion seemed unanimous that THAT film was when it all really started to go to shit for Bluth, and not Rock a Doodle, which was merely the second hard bump on the way down). Others argue that Bluth had an early stroke of brilliance with The Secret of NIMH and then got whacked pretty hard by the law of diminishing returns right after. I'll concede that I probably would have liked NIMH a lot more if I hadn't come to it already such a diehard fan of the novel it was based on - I'd read it three times as a kid before I ever had the chance to see the film, and I was absolutely devastated by what I saw as an atrociously misguided reworking of Robert C. O'Brien's original story and themes. I will credit Bluth for helping to keep the animated feature afloat at a time when Disney's commitment to the form seemed in question, and for providing Disney with more of an incentive to up their game, although for the most part I wouldn't say that time has been especially kind to those early works - today, it's obvious to me that Disney's The Great Mouse Detective holds up as a stronger film than its one-time rival An American Tail. Having Vincent Price in your ranks will certainly take you a long way.
And yet, there is one field in which Bluth has somehow endured as the undefeated leader of the pack, albeit with a fairly unremarkable contender - the cartoon dinosaur movie. Against all odds, Bluth's The Land Before Time, made during his partnership with Amblin Entertainment, still stands head and shoulders above subsequent challengers, including Disney's own Dinosaur and Pixar's recent disasterpiece The Good Dinosaur (I'm not even going to go into that Walking With Dinosaurs entry). People still refer to it as the benchmark of animated dino flicks, which I suspect says more about how thoroughly those aforementioned films dropped the ball than it does the robustness of Bluth's picture. I don't know what it is about cartoon dinosaurs and why it's seemingly so hard to produce a semi-decent flick about them. Oh wait, there's also the "Rite of Spring" segment from Fantasia. Okay, so let's narrow that down to films specifically about talking cartoon dinosaurs. It doesn't help that The Land Before Time, Dinosaur and The Good Dinosaur all feel like vague variations on what is essentially the exact same plot - namely, young dinosaur gets separated from family and must brave the tumultuous wilderness in search of The Promised Land (or, in the case of The Good Dinosaur, the homely farm, to be reunited with his rather unpleasant family and their galline livestock, which, being self-sufficient herbivores, said family can't possibly have any use for).
What The Land Before Time and The Good Dinosaur also have in common is that they both endured torturous productions, although in the former's case this mostly seemed to happen at the post-production stage, where Bluth was reportedly forced to remove over ten minutes' worth of fully-animated footage at the insistence of executive producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who feared that the film was in danger of getting a PG rating. Nowadays, animated films with PG ratings are commonplace (see Moana, Zootopia, etc), but back in the late 1980s the industry took a very different view, particularly in light of the recent box office failure of Disney's The Black Cauldron, whose misfortunes were widely attributed to its PG rating scaring a lot of the family crowd away. As a result of all the heavy editing it underwent, the final cut of The Land Before Time wound up clocking in at a paltry 69 minutes, so wily tricks had to be implemented during its theatrical run to ensure that patrons didn't feel they were being sold short - namely, they stuck our old friend Family Dog at the front to pad things out. Bluth wasn't wild about all this tampering, but then The Land Before Time was very much Spielberg's baby, not his, and he had little control over the final product. Bluth fans may cite this all as proof that the man was a misunderstood genius whose dark and ambitious visions were compromised by a pair of Hollywood hacks, but given that Bluth's next move, upon casting off the shackles of Amblin Entertainment and securing his own independent funding, was to make All Dogs Go To Heaven, I frankly feel that he needed the guidance of a higher authority to reign him in. The Land Before Time may be an imperfect film, but it never quite slips into the all-out narrative messiness of Dogs.
The Land Before Time was released to US cinemas on 18th November 1988, and Bluth's rivalry with his former colleagues at Disney once again reared its head as it found itself in direct competition with Oliver and Company, an updated reworking of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, which ironically featured Bluth's usual sidekick Dom DeLuise in the role of Fagin. Tensions were high to see if the recent box office triumph of An American Tail over The Great Mouse Detective had been a fluke, or if there was indeed a new king of animated features in town. The Land Before Time/Oliver rivalry didn't produce any clear answers, with Oliver beating Land at the US box office by only a narrow margin, an outcome that must have encouraged Disney while not causing Bluth to lose too much sweat. The following year, when Bluth released All Dogs Go To Heaven, Disney's contender was The Little Mermaid, and that was it. Bluth's career was far from over, but his days of being a conceivable threat to Disney were done.
Credit for inspiring this entry goes to The Spoilist, who recently commented that The Land Before Time doesn't hold up to adult scrutiny, in part because it's all-too obvious there are pieces missing. I felt compelled to dig out my old VHS tape and give my run-down on the film's various strengths and weaknesses, with an eye toward assessing the blatancy of the numerous edits and how they impact on the film as a whole. If you're a Bluth devotee and fear that I'm going to be terribly hard on The Land Before Time, I'd like to point out that this is actually the one Bluth film which genuinely brings out strong feelings of nostalgia in me. I didn't see the film during its original theatrical run, but I vividly recall those hand puppets they were giving away at Pizza Hut at the time - my cousins had a spare Littlefoot and Cera which they gave to me (as a small kid, I had a terror of pizza and certainly wouldn't have eaten there myself), and I remember being oddly fascinated by the bizarre odors exuding from the innards of those puppets. Later on, we got the VHS too, but it's the puppets I mainly went for. However much mincemeat I'm inclined to make of the feature itself, my memories of those puppets, and the strange sensations you got when you pressed your face into their hollowed-out back-ends, will forever conjure up feelings of instant childhood warmth for me.
The Land Before Time was released on VHS in the UK by Cinema International Corporation Video. Here's their logo:
The Land Before Time follows the adventures of Littlefoot, a young brontosaurus/apatosaurus/whatever-the-hell-is-the-correct-term-now, who's voiced by Gabriel Damon (at first I couldn't figure out why that name sounded so oddly familiar to me, but then I realised that he also voiced our good pal Felix The Boy in The Jackie Bison Show). Littlefoot has the misfortune of being born at a time when severe drought has destroyed much of the land's vegetation and his heavily depleted herd are having to undergo a perilous journey to reach a rumoured land of plenty known as The Great Valley. After his mother (Helen Shaver) dies fending off a fearsome T-Rex named Sharptooth, Littlefoot is separated from the rest of his family in an earthquake and forced to continue the journey sans adult protection or guidance; along the way, he becomes leader to his own ragtag herd of lost and orphaned youngsters of assorted species, who realise that their best chance of survival is to come together and overstep the strict law of segregation that has dominated dinosaur culture for so long. The Land Before Time appears to be making a vague point about racism and overcoming social boundaries, with Littlefoot's initial sincerity in wanting to befriend Cera (Candy Hutson), a rambunctious young triceratops whose family are traveling close by, contrasting with the hard-nosed hostility he comes up against from the adults, implying that such rules are enforced more by social conditioning than any inborn desire on the part of the individual dinosaurs. When Littlefoot presses his mother for an answer as to why the various dinosaur species are forbidden to mingle, she doesn't have one, beyond the entirely perfunctory "that's just the way things are", which doesn't satisfy the inquisitive young apatosaurus. Interestingly, Littlefoot's own self-identity as a "long neck" isn't cemented until he's been singled out as different by an adult "three horn" - before he's made to taste the extent of the dinosaur segregation, he has no use whatsoever for labels based on superficial physical differences.
(That being said, if the different dinosaurs species are supposed to purposely shun one another then I am confused by the sequence where Littlefoot hatches and there are a whole bunch of pint-sized dinosaurs gathered around and eager for a nosey at him. If these dinosaurs aren't friendly with Littlefoot's herd then why do they show such interest in him and why on earth does Littlefoot's mother tolerate these total strangers getting so close to her last surviving baby? I presume it's all a means of illustrating how tiny and timid the newborn dinosaur is without placing him in any actual danger, but it makes no sense within the context of the story.)
The Land Before Time does not boast a particularly strong or well-constructed story. Watching it now, I'm struck by just how clunky so much of the dialogue is - for example, there's a scene where Littlefoot's mother casually remarks that there's still a long way to go before they reach The Great Valley, then proceeds to list off a string of weirdly specific directions for seemingly no other reason than to give Littlefoot a point of reference for later on in the film when he's forced to travel by himself. Even more problematic is Pat Hingle's narration, which proves useful enough during the establishing scenes but becomes downright intrusive as things go on, and the film grows increasingly reliant on him as crutch for imparting huge chunks of information we'd be better off actually seeing play out in the context of the story. "Show, don't tell" is not a principle that The Land Before Time especially adheres to, but then I'm going to hazard a guess that Hingle's role was significantly upped to cover for the fact that so much of the original story was left on the cutting room floor. What does bolster the film considerably is James Horner's score, which has a magnificent, stirring quality that far transcends the gracelessness of the script. Wherever the film succeeds in whipping up any genuine kind of emotional resonance, it's usually Horner's doing.
One plot point from The Land Before Time that I suspect would have seemed fairly edgy back in 1988 was the death of Littlefoot's mother. It hardly took the film in any directions which Disney hadn't already trodden before - they, after all, were responsible for the most notorious cinematic death of all time with Bambi's mother - but for the specific ilk of film that Disney was making at the time, the death of a sympathetic character of that magnitude was practically unheard of. It wasn't too ago that Disney had backed out of killing Chief in The Fox and The Hound (1981), at the expense of story development that very much hinged on the old dog not surviving (yes, Tod's mother is still killed offscreen in the same movie, but she's barely a character). It took until The Lion King (1994) for Disney to rediscover their nerve and bump off a character they had encouraged their audience to feel emotionally invested in, so I can understand why, in the meantime, viewers would have been inclined to credit Bluth with trying to revive a lost art. And, make no mistake, it is a powerful plot point. What sets the death of Littlefoot's mother apart from Disney's two most infamous parental deaths is that, immediately after it occurs, the story is essentially put on hold to focus extensively on Littlefoot's grief. There's a drawn-out sequence of scenes where Littlefoot is shown first having to deal with his pain and confusion over his mother before he's able to move on with his journey. This absolutely wouldn't have worked for Bambi (a lot of what makes that death is so haunting is the understated simplicity with which it's played), but it's nevertheless fascinating to see an animated film so heavily concerned with a character's raw, unabashed sadness. On refection, I decided to slap the "Children's Lessons In Mortality" tag on this review, as I realised that Littlefoot does indeed exhibit all five stages of grieving throughout this sequence - we see Denial when he initially struggles to comprehend what has happened, Anger when he's talking to Rooter, Depression when he loses all interest in eating, Searching when he momentarily sees his mother in his own shadow and finally Acceptance when he resigns himself to continuing the journey alone. The sequence is striking in its immersive approach to bereavement, showing it as a complicated and painful process that can be worked through only very gradually, but does it necessarily benefit the film as a whole? Yes and no - it's not without its emotional pay-off, but it slows down what's already a very episodic and uneven story, and some of the individual moments work a lot better than others. The "searching" episode is undeniably poignant, but the "anger" episode, in which Littlefoot encounters a gruff old scolosaurus named Rooter (Hingle again) who offers him a bit of worldly wisdom, feels belaboured and heavy-handed, with Rooter massively overstating the very same lessons that Simba would learn a lot more succinctly following the death of Mufasa. The most interesting thing Rooter has to say is that Littlefoot's loss was "nobody's fault" and simply a part of the "Great Circle of Life" - remember that, because the film itself seems to forget it later on, when it dishes out an exceedingly brutal punishment for Sharptooth for doing nothing more than following his own natural instincts. The "depression" episode is largely taken up by an extended sequence in which a family of baby pteranodans resembling chibi versions of Heckle and Jeckle squabble over berries, perhaps to alleviate the gravitas somewhat - total fluff, but it does lead to a rather sweet moment where one of the babies becomes aware of Littlefoot's sadness and attempts to console him with a berry (a remarkable act of compassion and generosity for a world where "stick to your own kind" is the prevailing convention).
Shortly after resuming the journey, Littlefoot is reunited with Cera, who was also separated from her family in the earthquake, and suggests that they join forces - initially, she refuses, thinking that to have any kind of symbiotic relationship with a long neck would be a disservice to her species, but it isn't long before she has a change of heart. In the meantime, Littlefoot encounters excitable saurolophus Ducky (Judith Barsi) and Petrie (Will Ryan), a neurotic pteranodan who got ditched by his family because he was never able to master the basic techniques of flying, and allows the two to accompany him on his journey to The Great Valley. Ducky very much embodies what I referred to earlier as that "twee, cloying" element that runs deep through Bluth's work and does not mesh well with his efforts to be dark and dramatic. She's nowhere near as insufferably cutesy as Fieval from An American Tail, if only by virtue of the fact that she's not the central character, but her repetitive, infantile speech mannerisms (she has a habit of saying everything thrice) are milked for all their saccharine, oh-so-very "precious" worth and threaten to make the film unendurable for anyone over the age of six. As I slag Ducky off to the moon and back, I remain deeply sensitive to the fact that Barsi, who also voiced Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go To Heaven, died a tragic and appalling death at the hands of her alcoholic father on 25th July 1988, and that both of the Bluth films she starred in were released posthumously. It's an immensely harrowing story, and I wish to emphasise that I mean no disrespect or callousness toward Barsi herself, but for the life of me I just can't stomach her character here. Maybe it had more potency back in November 1988 when people were still reeling from the shock of Barsi's demise, but Ducky is just so ghastly and unappealing on her own terms (and not simply because of how she talks; she's also got these enormous dewy eyes which make her look like some kind of grotesque Disney caricature). Petrie's another pint-sized comic relief character whose shtick is rooted in clownish antics and peculiar grammar, although he's used a lot less imposingly than Ducky. Ryan was apparently chosen as his voice actor at the insistence of Spielberg's son, who wanted him to sound like Digit, the cockroach from An American Tail - a serviceable choice, although Ryan does stick out like a sore thumb in a cast of otherwise youthful voice actors, causing me confusion as a kid as to how old he was supposed to be (before seeing his mother and siblings at the end of the film, I honestly assumed that Petrie was an undersized adult). Rounding off the motley herd is Spike, a mute stegosaurus who hatches from an egg found by Ducky - friendly, simple-minded and gluttonous, Spike is supposedly meant to be evocative of a dog (he was modeled after Bluth's own Chow Chow, Cubby), although mostly he comes across as being mentally-challenged. Conveniently, the lost and orphaned young dinosaurs are all plant eaters (actually, I believe that pteranodan ate fish, but I guess that Petrie's family all upped and left before he had a chance to garner this knowledge), which saves them the messy dilemma of what to do if a frightened young carnivore had wanted tag along with them to The Great Valley.*
Their journey is...not exactly uneventful, but there's surprisingly little cumulative effect in how each point in the narrative flows into the next - essentially, the characters just wander onward until the film makes it past the 60 minute mark and we can finally get to The Great Valley and wrap things up. The fivesome have a couple more run-ins with Sharptooth and get up to a bit of squabbling among themselves but, perhaps in part due to how much editing was undergone in post-production, these fail to gel into a strong or tightly structured story. Ducky and Spike have no real arcs to speak of, while Petrie's ongoing struggle to get the hang of flight proves routine and dispensable. The most compelling and meaningful arc comes from the rivalry that develops between Littlefoot and Cera, with the other three dinosaurs toing and froing on whether to put their trust in Littlefoot's quiet, steadfast faith in his mother's wisdom or in Cera's aggressive displays of bravado. Due to the disjointed nature of the narrative, their shifting allegiances aren't always clearly motivated, however. There's an especially awkward portion of the story where Cera insists on splintering from the rest of the group and Ducky, Petrie and Spike inexplicably choose to follow her instead of Littlefoot (they argue that "Cera's away is easier" but it's not clear what evidence they're basing that on, exactly). As it turns out, its sole purpose is to set up for a dramatic sequence where the four infidels find themselves in deep dino-dung due to Cera's crappy leadership, and Littlefoot must come in and single-handedly save them all.
As to our recurring antagonist Sharptooth, I hinted earlier that I wasn't a fan of how his arc concludes, with Littlefoot proposing that the dinosaurs work together to bump Sharptooth off, prompting a grand climactic lesson in teamwork that's built around an act of premeditated murder. There's something about the heroes purposely conspiring to eliminate their enemy through cold and calculated means that honestly doesn't sit well with me, particularly in light of Rooter's earlier comments about the harsher intricacies of the Great Circle of Life being "nobody's fault." Sharptooth is the kind of villain I could see being genuinely frightening to small children, so I'm sure that the film's target audience would just take comfort in him being gone, perhaps drawing reassurance from the implication that we can overcome the darkness in this world, no matter how gargantuan, if we're willing to work together. I'm pretty sure I felt the exact same way when I was part of the target audience. As an adult, though, I would assert that there's nothing inherently wicked about Sharptooth and that he has an equally valid place in this Great Circle of Life. All Sharptooth wants to do is eat and survive, like every other dinosaur in the movie, and the script sees fit to punish him for it by having a bolder dropped on his head. It's during Sharptooth's murder that Petrie's arc about learning to fly finally achieves resolution, leading into the film's single most embarrassing moment - Petrie is dragged down with Sharptooth, and we're goaded to believe that the he might have perished alongside the T-Rex, only for him to pop up miraculously with nary a scratch (after a fair few tears have been milked from his friends, of course). It's the kind of cheap manipulation that had become all too prevalent in Disney's output by that point (once they'd realised that they could have their cake and eat it, and give the viewers a good heartstring-tugging without having them confront any genuine consequences). Falling and getting caught between the impact of a T-Rex and a bolder hitting water, it's frankly inconceivable that Petrie could have survived, and beyond ludicrous that he manages to cheat death so facilely and without explanation. You can use the, "well, it's a movie for children, and they don't care" defence, but that doesn't give credence to the suggestion that Bluth made dark and challenging films that bucked all of Disney's worst trends.
Given that we know that at least ten minutes' worth of footage was cut from the final film, I kept a look out for any obvious edits and inconsistencies which might clue us in as to what was taken out. I'd like to emphasise that I'm only familiar with the CIC VHS release of this film and have no idea if those deleted scenes ever found their way onto any kind of disc release as a special feature. My main interest here is in seeing what's evident just from the film itself. Here's what I can discern:
- The editing during the earthquake sequence feels somewhat scrambled - Littlefoot's mother is seen running right behind Littlefoot and Cera, only to become separated from them abruptly. Sharptooth takes a nasty tumble at one point, only to be upright and running again in the blink of an eye. I'll also wager that at least part of the battle between Littlefoot's mother and Sharptooth was cut; something about it doesn't quite flow.
- There's the ultra-confusing sequence where Cera, ever the false prophet, finds a small group of trees and mistakes this for The Great Valley, and then attracts a stampede of strange long necks with her rampant gloating. As the long necks crash through a rocky tunnel the young dinosaurs are traversing, Ducky and Spike get trapped in the falling rubble, yet they're absolutely fine a second later.
- I'll hazard a guess that something of Cera's alternative route was originally glimpsed BEFORE she decides to split from Littlefoot. As noted above, the other dinosaurs indicate that they already know what she's talking about, whereas the viewer has no such means of knowing.
- Ducky and Spike in peril again! As Cera leads the foolish defectors across the pits, Spike stops for a quick graze and gets himself and Ducky left behind. Initially, their being separated is all that Ducky seems distressed about. Then when Littlefoot shows up rescue them we see that things have majorly hit the fan for Ducky and Spike; the ledge on which they were standing has disintegrated on both sides, leaving them trapped and in danger of being swallowed up by lava. What's missing, clearly, are the scenes in which their peril intensifies.
- While we're at it, it's also not clear what Littlefoot was even doing at the tar pits - did he choose to follow his friends out of concern/loyalty, or was he alerted by their screaming? As it is, he just seems to show up at the most convenient possible moment.
- Immediately after defeating Sharptooth, Littlefoot seeks out his mother's form in the clouds and announces his intention to give up in the search for The Great Valley, on the basis that reaching it is proving too hard. Okay, so what prompted this exactly? Shouldn't the group's victory over Sharptooth have bolstered his confidence? Initially, I wondered if Littlefoot was perhaps disheartened by the apparent demise of Petrie, but clearly not, as he calls out his name at the end along with the others. This adds further fuel to my view that there seems to be very little strong or logical progression from one stage of the heroes' journey to the next, and that the film basically stops once it's gone on for long enough. As it is, Littlefoot has his crisis of faith here not because it actually makes sense for him to do so in the context of the story, but because it's required to set up for the ending.
*I'm aware that this was the plot of the first direct-to-video sequel, of which I've yet to make it through an excess of eight minutes.