Monday, December 10, 2012

The Land Before Time (1988) - Return of the Animation Feature

Land Before Time DVD cover
"The Land Before Time" (1988).

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were among the Executive Producers on this fairly low-key animation feature. Animation, of course, goes way, way back in film history and was not invented by those two guys, but, as it turned out, they created a turning point in the field. Director Don Bluth took over this S (story by about cute baby dinosaurs, "The Land Before Time" (1988) created quite possibly the cutest bunch of mammal-eating carnivores in film history.

Littlefoot and her mother in The Land Before Time
Littlefoot and mama

It is the time of the dinosaurs, and there is a fierce drought. The dinosaur herd has one baby, named Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon). Littlefoot grows up and becomes friends with Cera (Candace Hutson). Unfortunately, Cera is a different kind of dinosaur, and Littlefoot's mother (Helen Shaver) tells her that she shouldn't hang out with her. Littlefoot's mother dies saving her baby and Cera, and an earthquake separates them from the herd. They then must learn to work together and get to the "Great Valley" that has water if they are to survive.

three cute dinosaurs in The Land Before Time
Looking into the future not a good idea for dinosaurs....

It is a simple tale, and the animation is not all that impressive by current standards (but it was considered fine then, and is good enough). This was Amblin Entertainment's big gamble on creating a franchise in a medium that had not seen consistent success in decades, and it worked. At last count, there were a dozen sequels (though all the others were direct-to-home products). There also was a television series.

dinosaurs group hug in The Land Before Time
Isn't that cute?

The story is very direct, and you can see "the lesson to be learned" a mile away. It does not have the look or depth of color of a modern animated film like "Shrek" or "Cars," but the drawing is superb. The great saving grace of this series is that, if you get hooked on it, there are so many different follow-up adventures to watch that you will be entertained for a long, long time. One note of caution about that: Bluth, Spielberg and Lucas were not involved in the numerous sequels or the series in any way. They are quite different (they are aimed at very young children, with sing-along numbers and so forth), so this film really, in a sense, does stand on its own, at least for adults.

dinosaurs fighting in The Land Before Time
This could have been a very scary film!

The voice acting is all done very professionally, and it is nice to see a top animated film that is not populated by tv stars who are looking for trade on their fame for some extra cash. Judith Barsi (Ducky) deserves special mention. She was a child star who had a bright future, and she does a great job in this film. Her life ended tragically before this film's release. That is another reason why this film stands apart from the rest of the series.

baby dinosaur in The Land Before Time 1988
Kids will love the cute dinosaurs in "The Land Before Time."

As a comparison of what a different era it was when this film was made, it has no major stars at all. Just as an example, and not to pick on anyone, "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) was loaded with big names like Dustin Hoffman. "The Land Before Time" made do with the likes of Helen Saver and Pat Hingle. The quality of the material sold this film, not some celebrity voice actor, and that is the highest recommendation any animation film can receive.

three dinosaurs in The Land Before Time
You mean... we die out?

The movie is intense in spots, but Lucas and Spielberg know their craft. They went to great pains to remove the most frightening scenes and make everything warm and cuddly for the kids. The animators were very precise with their facts about dinosaurs, consulting several major museums. All of this was new at the time, they were setting precedents for the future, many of which stuck. The creators of 2002's Ice Age did similar research for their characters (though, ironically, that also turned into a dinosaur tale at one point). This as a pioneer for all the different animal tales that came later. Of course, if they made this now, all those preconceptions about animation being just for little kids would be thrown out the window, and there would be a more adult perspective.

dinosaur looking back over its shoulder in The Land Before Time
Don't look back, they might be gaining on you....

The film was a huge success, and perhaps its greatest achievement was beating the Disney film of the time, "Oliver & Company." Disney took notice and changed its focus, shifting to characters and situations which people could relate to better. That led to "The Little Mermaid,""Beauty and the Beast," and the whole Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. Who says an old dog can't learn new tricks?

exploding volcano and dinosaurs crossing a bridge in The Land Before Time
I think I drove across that bridge once....

If you don't mind your animation films being geared for the youngest viewers, this is a great choice.


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