Recent years have been unkind to the dinosaurs, and unkind to this movie. I think the Cretaceous extinction event is still shooting a few final hoops against them as the clock runs down in 2015. We now know that dinosaurs had feathers. And we know that an apatosaurus, a tricerotops, and a pterodactyl in the same scene makes as much sense as a historical movie in which Cleopatra consults George Washington on the construction of the Great Wall of China. But this movie is still powerful.
And big. That’s mostly what I remembered – creatures inhabiting a landscape that makes everything seem small. That’s what separates it from Disney’s the Lion King – in this movie, nobody’s the king, and even mighty apex predators often end up behind the eightball. The dinosaurs aren’t masters of their domain, they’re struggling to survive in a changing world. The questing youngsters find a kind of sanctuary at the end, but after their travails it seems a bit mocking – like giving a child a lollipop after open heart surgery. That’s the other thing I remember, the gloom.
Otherwise The Land Before Time can be compared to The Lion King quite a bit – some parts line up shot for shot. Tiny creatures scurrying around gigantic paws. A warped, twisted landscape with a palette to match, full of ochre reds and cinerous grays. The death of a parent as a plot device, and divine intervention from that parent’s spirit to close an open plot parenthesis.
The Land Before Time bears the scars of the moviemaking process – certain scenes seem curiously truncated and brief, as if vital footage was slashed out of the movie with an axe. The whole enterprise seems strangely short – barely longer than an hour. Movies about dinosaurs usually slow down and bask in the experience. This one just has young and vulnerable dinosaurs running from danger to danger, which might stress younger viewers.
It’s probably the second best Don Bluth film, behind Secret of NIMH (whose laurels partly belong to another, as it was adapted from a book). Bluth’s animation studio never succeeded taking much market share from Disney, but they probably opened up animation to a few new people. Disney’s movies from this period are hard to watch as an adult – Bluth’s are not. There’s a nice depth to them: not depth in that they’re saying something profound (every Don Bluth movie can be essentially reduced to a “follow your heart” or “believe in yourself” message), but in that there’s a lot of cinematic space explored: subtle interplays of textures and sounds, and occasional unconventional artistic choices.
On the downside, all the dinosaurs have cutesy names for themselves (long-necks, sharp-teeth, etc), sparing us the indignity of antediluvian creatures uttering Latin phylogenetic classifications at the expense of causing my sister to think that those were the actual names for the dinosaurs.