A few days ago, after carful deliberation, my wife and I chose to watch Don Bluth’s animated masterpiece, The Land Before Time. It is currently streaming on Netflix and we both wanted to relax and unwind a little before the start of another hectic week. I’m glad we did. The Land Before Time is a delicate fable of survival — exactly the kind of story I was in need of when we watched it. It has beautifully simple things to say about compassion, family, and endurance. It has aged well.
I was surprised by how overtly allegorical it is. The film starts with bubbles ascending in the depths of some primordial pool with a noble voiceover (performed by Commissioner Gordon, no less) explaining that what we are about to witness takes place long ago, but “on this same earth.” The film uses the prehistoric setting to remind us that there is indeed something mysterious and fantastical about the world we currently inhabit. Once upon a time, giants roamed the land.
We follow a curious herd of dinosaurs as they seek out their families in the aftermath of a devastating “earthshake.” One of the dinosaurs, Little Foot, lost his mother due to a mixture of the quake and a run-in with a T-Rex (lovingly referred to as Sharp Tooth). Before her passing, Little Foot’s mother asks her son to seek out his grandparents at the Great Valley. Thus begins his journey to find the Promised Land, encountering other lost young dinosaurs along the way.
The setup echoes many of Bluth’s other early films. Anthropomorphic animals on journeys both geographic and existential really was his forte. His four best films — The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven — present characters that learn and grow while at odds with their surroundings: Mrs. Frisby must vacate her home before the harvest; Fievel and his family flee a violent Russia to a bleak urban America; Little Foot and his friends navigate the harsh prehistoric elements to reunite with their families; Charlie struggles to survive in a crime-ridden New Orleans after fooling his way out of heaven. One might even go so far as to say Bluth’s early films portrayed the world as something merely to be survived.
The Land Before Time is the simplest of these films. Narratively it is the least dense. Visually it is the least threatening (the screen is constantly full of cute dinosaurs). But emotionally it is just as complex. That is why in many ways The Land Before Time is Bluth’s most effective film.
The journey toward the Great Valley, the narrator explains, is at its core “a journey toward life.” In the opening scenes we see the savage world of nature. Large animals snatch up smaller animals for food. This theme of survival continues throughout the movie, constantly taunting Little Foot as he strives for something else. He has a task to complete, but refuses to do it at the expense of others. He rises above mere survival instinct and instead chooses time and again to help the others, even as they drag his journey down and put him in danger. It really is a lovely message.
And that core message is underscored by some remarkable music. James Horner’s score is beautiful. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about music to describe what makes it so. But I can say that the music in this movie puts it in the company of other animated masterpiece soundtracks like Beauty and the Beast and Up.
It is also worth noting that The Land Before Time is a story about relying on faith to guide you through life’s trials. So my Mormon mind gobbled it up. There is one exchange in particular that explicitly spells out this theme. As Little Foot’s mother drifted toward death after the earthshake, she told her son to seek out the Great Valley — a Zion-like land of leafy greens and waterholes where he could once again live with his family (Celestial Kingdom?). Little Foot asked how she knew about it:
Little Foot: Have you ever seen the great valley?
LF’s Mom: No
Little Foot: Then how do you know it’s there?
LF’s Mom: Some things you see with your eyes. Others you feel with your heart.
Little Foot: I don’t understand Mother.
LF’s Mom: You will my son, you will.
As many people know, Don Bluth is also a Mormon, but the film’s spiritual themes are broad enough to exclude this from any list of subversively Mormon pop-culture (like Napoleon Dynamite and the original Battlestar Galactica). There is, I think, a particular yearning for family connections that maybe one could argue has a hint of Mormonness to it, but that is a pretty common theme in movies for children.
Despite the common themes, The Land Before Time acts as an important reminder that Don Bluth gave us some of the most emotionally satisfying animated films during his tenure as the go-to animation rogue. He truly was the anti-Disney, replacing the romantic tropes of fairy tales with sincere explorations of the human condition (by way of dinosaurs and mice). He adamantly believed that children could — and should — grapple with moral and emotional complexity. In that vein, The Land Before Time is a beautiful exploration of the harsh realities that cause us to grow and learn, and the vital role faith plays in keeping us going.
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