Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. As I watched The Land Before Time again for the first time in what is probably close to twenty years, I was surprised how vividly I remembered the tiny details of the film, right down to the sounds. Though one thing nostalgia can’t cover up is the fact that The Land Before Time – though better aged than most of director Don Bluth’s other features – is strictly aimed at kids.
The Land Before Time is a movie about dinosaurs, in which every species gets a cutesy name change: Brontosauruses become “Long-Necks,” Triceratops become “Three-Horns,” and all carnivores are collectively referred to as “Sharp-Tooths.” You get the idea.
Anyway, the story tells of a time when the world is changing, and the green of the world is diminishing in the changing climate. But rumors tell of a place known as the Great Valley, which remains green and rich with food for herbivores.
A family of brontosa…I mean, “Long-Necks,” are among the many herbivores trying to find their way to the great valley. This family consists of the young Littlefoot, his mother, and his grandparents. The films opening gets off to an emotional start, with Littlefoot’s mother being killed by a tyrannosaurus in a scene that scarred many a childhoods, and then he is separated by his grandparents when the land begins splitting apart in a massive earthquake.
I don’t mean to sound too dismissive, because the sentiment in these opening moments does resonate (again, bring up Littlefoot’s mother to anyone who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s and you’re sure to find a tear or two). The problem is that the early moments are the only moments where this emotion is felt. It’s as if Don Bluth and company felt like presenting all the emotion in a few quick scenes was enough, instead of carrying that weight throughout the narrative.
From there, it’s up to Litlefoot to remember his mother’s words to find his own way to the Great Valley, where his grandparents are waiting for him. Along the way, Littlefoot meets up with Cera, a prideful “Three-horn,” as well as Ducky (a “Big-Mouth”), Petrie (a “flyer”) and Spike (a “spike-tail”). These latter three characters are largely underdeveloped, but they might provide some charm and humor for younger audiences.
The characters are well-animated, and it’s fun seeing all these dinosaurs come to life, and just how lively they move. Though there are some inconsistencies with the quality of character designs and even the color and lighting of the film (perhaps it was for budget reasons, but there are a few too many scenes in which the lighting effects conveniently reduce the characters to singular colors). The music is often emotional, though it does have a few moments where the musical cues may be a bit pandering.
Another problem is that the film is just too short. It’s true that the American animated features in the 80s still catered to the idea that audiences couldn’t handle lengthier animation, but The Land Before Time barely exceeds the hour mark. This leaves Littlefoot’s grand adventure feeling rushed, with the final act just kind of happening upon itself.
Still, young children might still find some delight with The Land Before Time. 80s and 90s kids certainly did, if the thirteen (yes, thirteen) straight-to-video sequels were any indication. But animated storytelling has come a very long way since the days of Don Bluth, and there are countless of better alternatives, many of which will also appeal to adults. Still though, if you crave some nostalgia, by all means, revisit The Land Before Time and let the memories come flooding back. Just don’t blame me if it isn’t as magical as it once seemed.