Dinosaurs fascinate people for a lot of reasons, but for me they pose the wildest “what if.” According to our best deductions, they were wiped out by an accident of nature, and we abide among their diminished ancestors today. If some massive rock hadn’t fallen onto the Yucatan Peninsula, what world of gargantuan lizards would Earth be today?
As a certain other dinosaur franchise celebrates a major milestone and a major release, it’s easy to forget that 2018 also marks the 30th anniversary of another saurian classic. The Land Before Time poses something of another “what if” I’ve always wondered about: What if Don Bluth Productions (or any of the half dozen permutations of it) had really taken off and given us a viable competitor to Disney? Another major studio experimenting with and refining traditional animation?
Instead, we live in a world where that did not happen. Looking back on The Land Before Time is to see why it once might have.
It’s hard to overstate what a major development it was for Don Bluth to leave Disney in 1979 to form his own studio. Working during the actual reign of Walt Disney, starting as an in-betweener—the crucial artist whose job it is to fill in the frames of animation that add detail to the movement between poses—in 1955, he chafed under the cutbacks that hit the company in the ’70s just as he was about to direct films of his own. Ultimately he, Gary Goldman and 14 other animators jumped ship to start Don Bluth Productions.
One of the least scary parts of The Secret of N.I.M.H.
Right out of the gate, it was easy to see both the incredible workmanship of the new studio and also its tendency to stumble at the box office. The studio’s maiden voyage, 1982’s The Secret of N.I.M.H., is utterly unlike anything Disney ever had released, or ever could. Dark, twisted, legitimately harrowing at times, it has a triumphant ending, as well as a strangeness that lingers with the viewer long after the credits roll. It racked up a ton of effusive reviews but lost the studio a bunch of money at the box office, all after Bluth and his co-producers mortgaged their homes for an extra $700,000 to finish everything. Nonetheless, it’s enjoyed immortality on VHS and DVD, maybe due to a cover design whose overall tone is a flat-out lie.
Bluth kept his company afloat in the meantime by turning out commercials and video games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. It was a partnership with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that finally netted the company the ability to plunk down on their next film, An American Tail. During this time (partly to evade union requirements that were driving up their production costs, naturally), the newly dubbed Sullivan Bluth Films moved to Dublin to take advantage of Ireland’s renowned corporate incentives.
Again, An American Tail (1986), the heartbreakingly true and important story of an immigrant family coming to America, was an incredible success from the standpoint of animation and storytelling. The company marketed the hell out of it and, for an animated film, it pulled decent numbers. It set the stage for The Land Before Time two years later in 1988, but already, the studio was struggling: Tail may have reached eyeballs and won acclaim, but it didn’t turn the studio a profit.
Setting any story in the age of the dinosaurs is asking for tragedy, but you can still tell some tales of that era without focusing on the unavoidable fact that all their hopes and dreams and everything that they ever were is destined to be washed clean by nature.
So what did Bluth and his team decide to do? Set the story during the end of days, of course.
In the foreground, parenting. In the background, the withering foliage of a world at the dying of the light.
Beginning with a wonder-filled tour of the prehistoric landscape through which we’ll be roaming, The Land Before Time introduces our hero, a baby dino named Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon), paired with narration that tells us his herd is dying and the plants are shriveling. (I’m unsure if Littlefoot is a brontosaurus or an apatosaurus, but the dialogue in the movie endearingly dubs them “long-necks.”) There is no asteroid in this story, but that may be because the theory of an asteroid impact kicking off the dinosaur’s mass extinction was relatively new at that point. Don’t be fooled by its absence: This is a story about the end of the world, and it was something even kids understood, because kids love dinos and know all about why they aren’t here anymore.
Bluth’s creative team and their financiers fought over the tone of the movie, and it’s easy to see why the money men were alarmed. Who wants a light-hearted kid’s movie to grapple with childhood orphaning and abandonment, all set while the inevitable end of the world plays out?
It results in a movie that may lack some depth in the characters, but one that, from its visuals and voice performances to soundtrack and score, lingers in the mind long after it’s done tugging at the heartstrings. Littlefoot is orphaned in the first few minutes of the film when a T-Rex violently kills his mother, then is joined on his journey by other orphaned or abandoned dino babies with their own neuroses. Littlefoot struggles at the head of his little band to keep the faith and continue plodding onward toward the legendary Great Valley when every circumstance along the way taunts them with doubt.
The Land Before Time clearly wanted to be a movie that was about coping with loss, being changed by it, but it ended up an adventure movie with a happy ending that leaves most of that solemnity as weighty subtext. If that sounds too heavy for a kid’s movie, The Land Before Time debuted at number one, raking in almost as much as Disney’s own Oliver and Company domestically. Accounting for its take overseas, it actually came out well ahead.
It’s debatably one of Bluth’s best movies, and I’d even argue one of the best animated movies of the ’80s. It was also one of the last bright spots of Don Bluth’s film catalogue. All Dogs Go To Heaven, which released just the next year, wasn’t as well received, and it began a string of costly disasters for the studio that happened to coincide with the Disney Renaissance and the rise of Pixar. The Land Before Time is an unforgettable movie, but nobody is going to be writing up 30-year retrospectives of The Pebble and the Penguin or Rock-A-Doodle.
Unfortunately, it was so memorable that Universal discovered it could keep making money on it.
There has to be some other reason beyond “making money” that Universal has released 13 direct-to-video sequels to The Land Before Time, the first in 1994 and the latest in 2016. If there is some kind of reason, if there was some Faustian bargain Bluth and Goldman swore upon the Blarney Stone while in Ireland, nobody has examined it enough to write a word about it. Bluth, who is in his 80s and inactive now, must benefit from it somehow, even as he has had nothing to do with the series since the first movie.
This is all exacerbated, of course, by the fact that the end of the world was already happening in The Land Before Time. Littlefoot remains as tiny as he was in the original movie in the follow-ups, so we’re forced to somehow reconcile that all of these adventures and musical numbers—because, unlike the original, these new ones are musicals—are all happening in a short enough time frame that he doesn’t grow to full long-neck size. So did the short-lived 2007 animated series, I suppose.
Are these new movies good? Do they say anything about the human (dinosaur?) condition? What kind of character arc has Littlefoot undergone between the end of the Reagan and the end of the Obama administrations?
I don’t know. I venture to say that very few do. The 2016 film is perhaps one of the last examples of traditional animation you can even find anymore, since even Disney has seemingly abandoned the art form it had mastered by the time Bluth was no more than an unknown cog in the machine of the House of Mouse. Prior to that 2016 film there hadn’t even been a Land Before Time sequel since 2007. Disney’s last traditionally animated story was 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, which didn’t set the world on fire. It feels as if traditional animation itself is looking out upon the climate covering the world and preparing to curl up for a very long sleep.
Bluth broke out of Disney to strike out on his own and find greener pastures at a time that must have felt as if the entire world was changing around him. It really seems like he tried, and that The Land Before Time was an earnest attempt at doing so. We don’t live in the world where he succeeded.
Kenneth Lowe weighs an estimated 15 tons and measures about 72 feet from tail to skull, though paleontologists have yet to find one of him intact. You can follow him on Twitter or read more of his writing at his blog.