Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, July 17, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1988)

3. The Land Before Time

“An American Tail” was a success, enough that Steven Spielberg was eager to collaborate with Don Bluth and his studio again. A few years before Spielberg would make his most famous dinosaur movie, he showed an already established interest in the great thunder lizards. As originally conceived by Bluth, Spielberg, and fellow producer George Lucas, “The Land Before Time” would feature no dialogue and minimal anthropomorphizing. By the time “The Land Before Time” reached theaters, it had talking dinosaurs which formed friendships and went on adventures, in hopes of appealing to children. This worked. “The Land Before Time” would become an even bigger hit then “An American Tail” and continues to stand as Don Bluth’s defining film.

At some point during the late Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago, the world of the dinosaurs is being torn apart. Famine has killed the trees and grass. Herds of herbivores go on a mass migration, towards the perpetually green Great Valley. Littlefoot, a new born Apatosaurus, lives with his grandparents, after a Tyrannosaurus Rex kills his mother. A massive earthquake separates Littlefoot and a handful of other dinosaur hatchlings from their tribes and parents. The dinos bond together during these trying times, continuing on an uncertain journey towards the Great Valley and surviving in a world full of predators and danger.

There’s a reason so many movies about dinosaurs have been made. The long extinct creatures have fascinated the young and young-at-heart since their discoveries. Dinosaurs are awesome and its hard to expound on their appeal beyond that. “The Land Before Time” takes a loose approach to the world of dinosaurs. Aside from talking to each other, the dinosaurs seem to have been selected more for their iconic statuses and cool appearance over any paleontological factors. The film takes an interesting approach to the creature’s world. The dinosaurs have specialized words for each other and the things around them. Apatosauruses are “longnecks.” Triceratops are “three-horns.” Pterosaurs are “flyers.” Leaves are “tree stars.” The T-Rex is “Sharptooth.” Earthquakes are “earth shakes.” It’s a clever approach and solidifies the film’s world as something between fantasy, history, and cartoon logic.

With continued support from Spielberg’s Amblin production company, Don Bluth and his team could continue to create gorgeous animation. Visually, “The Land Before Time” is immediately striking. The animation is as rich as Bluth’s previous films, maintaining the beautiful painted backgrounds. The lush forests and running waterfalls certainly provide lots of pretty environments. However, “Land” is darker visually then either “An American Tail” or even “The Secret of NIMH.” The film begins in the depths of a lake, following a tiny lizards as he swims, before being scooped up by another creature. There’s less color, due to the starving land and grey ash-spewing volcanoes. Bluth and his team don’t use this as an excuse to make a bland film. Instead, they explore the possible variations of deep blacks and earthy browns, creating a film as visually captivating as anything else he’s made.

Centering the film is its strong cast of saurian characters. Bluth and his team made the decision to mostly cast the young characters with equally young actors. Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot sounds like a little kid but has a certain quality to his voice that makes him a believable survivor. As Littlefoot’s main foil is Candy Huston as Cera the Triceratops. Cera is thick-headed and obstinate, sticking to her preconceived notions and attitudes. Huston is memorable in the part, bringing the bratty little dinosaur to life, with all her snottiness, without making her annoying or unlikable.

While Littlefoot and Cera are definitely the defining personalities of the film, a colorful trio of characters fills out the supporting cast. The enthusiastic Ducky, a Saurolophus or some sort of similar duck-billed dinosaur, is a ball of positive energy. Ducky is always happy and cheering up everyone around her. The character could have come off as annoying if child actress Judith Barsi wasn’t genuinely adorable. My favorite as a kid was Petrie, the neurotic pterodactyl, who hasn’t quite mastered this flying thing yet. Will Ryan, last heard in “An American Tail,” has a slightly irritating tendency to repeat his words. Also lovable is Spike, a baby Stegosaurus who mostly acts like a chubby, hungry, sleepy dog.

At first glance, “The Land Before Time” may look like a cute movie about baby dinosaurs. And it is that, sometimes, when the critters are bonding and joking around. Befitting an early Don Bluth flick, the film is willing to go to some surprisingly dark territory. Following a pattern laid down in earlier Disney cartoons, Littlefoot’s mother dies. A big difference is that it happens right in front of him. Her back is gored by the T-Rex, tearing a big chunk out. Littlefoot spends a large portion of the film’s middle chapter morning his mother’s death. He’s despondent, depressed, and very little can cheer him up. One heart-breaking moment occurs when he thinks he sees his mother’s shadow before discovering it’s only his own. This is surprisingly heavy stuff for a kid’s cartoon and the film is to be admired for not glossing over such subject matter.

Beyond its cute character designs, “The Land Before Time” is primarily a story of survival. The film focuses on the lack of food in the barren landscape. The dinosaurs are frequently hungry. One striking sequence has them coming upon a oasis of trees. A horde of longnecks emerge from the dead forest and strip the tree bare in a few seconds, leaving nothing for the youngster to eat. A volcanic eruption and an earthquake threaten the critters’ lives, the gang suddenly being stranded atop rocks, slipping into hot lava. The movie makes it clear that real things are at stake here. If the characters can’t make it to the Great Valley, they’ll die. And they’re racked with doubts throughout most of the journey, uncertain if they can make it.

Established early on in “The Land Before Time” is that the different types of dinosaurs don’t mingle. Longnecks stay with their own. Three-Horns don’t stray outside their own clans. The young dinosaurs don’t play together. The dire situation obviously throws the different breeds of saurians together. Cera maintains her beliefs at first, belittling Littlefoot and the others. However, the situation becomes more dangerous, they learn to rely on each other more. By the end of the film, when they reach the Valley, the five dinosaurs are freely, happily playing together. The film has a moral of different social types working and interacting together. Notably, the movie doesn’t force it, instead letting the kid-friendly message evolve naturally out of the material.

A similar message that the film’s ludicrously long series of sequels would hammer into the ground is about the power of friendship. The first movie is more delicate about this. The four dinosaurs have to rely on each other. Quite literally, their survival depends on it. Yet there is plenty of time for friendly bonding. An early moment has Littlefoot and Cera putting aside their differences and frolicking together. When the gang is temporarily separated, they reach out for one another, searching their friends out. At night, they attempt to sleep apart. However, soon they bundle together for warmth and company. There are no songs or big statements about this. The friendships among the characters are important but not overstated.

As in Bluth’s last two features, the movie also isn’t afraid to get a little intense. The villain of the film is the Sharptooth, a T-Rex. As with the cats in “The Secret of NIMH” or “An American Tail,” the dinosaur is portrayed as basically a monster. He pursues the juvenile dinosaurs tirelessly. It’s the cliché of the overly persistent predator but makes sense, considering there’s so little food to be had. After seemingly dying, tumbling into a pit, the Sharptooth revives, his yellow eyes glaring in rage. The predatory dinosaur is all gnashing teeth and thrashing tails. When he attacks Littlefoot’s mother, the dinosaurs’ tails swing into the air, seemingly over the audience’s head. More then once, the main characters come close to being munched on by the creature. The T-Rex is probably one of the scariest villains to ever be featured in a kid’s cartoon.

“The Land Before Time” is Don Bluth’s shortest movie, running at only sixty-eight minutes long, barely classifying as a feature. (Perhaps to make up for the shrimpy run time, the film was paired with Brad Bird’s “Family Dog” during its theatrical release.) This wasn’t planned. Apparently, the movie was originally longer and dealt with the death of Littlefoot’s mother and his mourning in more detail. These moments were cut, for fear that they would traumatize younger viewers. The missing scenes have never surfaced. Further deafening the film’s impact is the insertion of voice-over. Provided by Rooter, a friendly dinosaur Littlefoot encounters after his mother’s death, the narrator frequently tells the audience things they already known. Rooter’s insertion into the film feels hasty and forced-in. It’s a testament to how well-made the film is that it’s still powerful even with these elements crippling the movie.

Assuming it isn’t entirely lost, maybe the missing footage will appear on a Blu-Ray release. The current DVD is dark, scratchy, and the footage even pixelates a few times. Considering the film launched thirteen utterly tedious and overly juvenile sequels, a fourteenth upcoming film, a short-lived television series, and lots of toys, you’d think the people who own the original film would take better care of it. I’m sure they’ve made plenty of money of the film. As it is, “The Land Before Time” is something like a classic of eighties animation. The film is touching and powerful with beautiful animation and music. No wonder the movie spent so much time in my childhood VCR. [Grade: B+]

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