Welcome to Childhood Fact Check, where we revisit (and maybe ruin) our childhood faves. Today we take a look at the 1988 animated feature The Land Before Time, directed by Don Bluth and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Spielberg’s early, innocuous fray with dinosaurs was a childhood staple for me, along with the the many sequels it spawned. It was a classic, straightforward adventure tale, about a ragtag group of lil’ dinosaur friends in search of the Great Valley. We all know that Littlefoot’s mother dies, in the most traumatic animated mom death since Bambi. Littlefoot was the main protagonist, but as I recall, he was a bit of a square. Petrie was undoubtedly the best character. I don’t remember why, but I know it in my heart.
The opening credits sequence does its best to portray evolution, which is cool. I had no idea that Spielberg and Lucas were involved in this until I saw their names scroll across the screen. Later on, there are a couple of frames in the Sharptooth (T-rex) scenes that look almost identical to Jurassic Park.
Littlefoot is given a “tree star,” a.k.a. one of the few remaining green leaves and the darn fool just prances around.
“Three-horns never play with longnecks!” Oh snap! Littlefoot meets Cera and she is being raised by some very close-minded parents. All that learned prejudice going to set her back in life — mark my words.
Enter the conflict. There’s an epic chase scene as Sharptooth pursues Littlefoot and Cera, then does battle with Littlefoot’s mother. It’s beautifully executed, with a balance of cartoon-y teeth snapping at tails and dramatically composed frames like this one:
And, of course, the scene where the mother dies is heartbreaking. This was the death that traumatized children before Mufasa’s demise (incidentally, there’s some “circle of life” talk in this film, too). Important to the plot: During the battle, there was also a dramatic earthquake, splitting dinosaur families apart left and right.
Update on the tree star: It comes back to him symbolically with the voice of his mother on the wind. All is well; I’m sorry I hated. Actually, he immediately mistakes his shadow for his mother. Judging you again, Lil’ F.
He has another run-in with snooty Cera, but soon meets baby-talking ‘Bigmouth’ Ducky and spastic, anxiety-ridden Petrie, the ‘Flyer’ who is terrified of heights. Cera rejoins them after encountering Sharptooth, but she’s still playing tough.
They find the last member of the entourage, a Spiketail: “Never had there been such a herd.”
“Flathead” is a slur for “Longnecks” — holy crap this movie went harder than I realized.
Cera continues to be a stubborn jerk. “You look ridiculous,” she laughs while the other four work as a team. Get it together, Cera. Meanwhile, I begin to worry what it says about me that I related so hard to Petrie. Spike is fulfilling a bit of the “fat kid” trope and doesn’t speak at all, which is a tad troubling.
Sharptooth reappears and the first thing Cera can do is snark about it. Soon she and Littlefoot come to blows and split up. The others much choose sides: Take the easy road, or the hard road? Littlefoot ends up alone and the others land in hot water. Oh shit, it’s actually tar! Petrie, no!
They escape (teamwork again!) but soon spot Sharptooth and concoct a plan to drown him. It’s a little fucked up actually, he’s just trying to survive like the rest of them. (Although I’m pretty sure they befriend a baby Sharptooth in one of the sequels.) Petrie finds his courage!
They did it, they reached the Great Valley and are reunited with their families! Even Littlefoot’s grandparents are there! It’s a quintessential happy ending, which is nice once in a while.
This is still a technically great movie. The animation and backgrounds are beautiful, with very expressive character design and great composition. It has such a classic plot structure and clocks in at barely over an hour, reminding us that simple can be wonderful. It’s full of kid-appropriate characters and moral lessons on friendship, teamwork, and overcoming prejudice. There’s no layer of adult jokes, so I didn’t gain much from the rewatch other than an appreciation of how well the film does it’s job.
Best line “The great circle of life has begun. But not all of us arrive together at the end.” Ol’ Rooter dropping the wisdom. I’m not crying.
Should an adult rewatch this? Nah, not unless you’re feeling super nostalgic. It’s a kids movie through and through.
What if that adult is drunk? Just don’t.
Should your future kids watch this? Hell yeah, this is a wonderfully made kids movie, perfectly designed to play those little kid heartstrings like a fiddle. Even better, it’s still enjoyable and not overly grating for adults.