Film discussion

The Land Before Time (1989) – Throwback 30

As a child, I, like many kids, loved dinosaurs. I had multiple dinosaur toys and books, and loved the dinosaur exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum (and still do). Any media revolving around dinosaurs was also consumed, including the BBC docu-drama series Walking with Dinosaurs, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Don Bluth’s animated film The Land Before Time. The latter was a film that was especially loved, due to its charming animation and adorable characters.

The Land Before Time centres around a young orphaned Brontosaurus named Littlefoot, who sets off on an adventure to find the legendary Great Valley, and meets four other young dinosaurs on the way. This is a film that I have not seen since I was very young, but seeing as this year marks its 20th anniversary I was curious to see whether I would like it as an adult, and whether it would hold up 20 years later.

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Interestingly, these two questions have different answers. The hand drawn animation is fantastic. 2D animation is a style that is much loved and missed; it is an art form that will now only be seen in a handful of films, thanks to the convenience of 3D animation. The art style gives the film a charming and rough look that no amount of 3D animation would be able to replicate (although the more recent films in this franchise are probably trying their best to do so). It’s an aspect that this film needs, considering the ever-changing environment and timeline this is set in. The herbivores look striking but vulnerable and soft, while the T-Rex (Sharp-Tooth) is terrifying and menacing, thanks to the animation and vibrant colours that they’re given. The landscapes also look incredible and unique; each set piece looks different from the previous one, and whilst they’re simple, they are visually striking and add to the film’s charm.

The lead character Littlefoot is immediately likeable, and acts as a figure of questioning: he wants to know about the world he lives in, and is a curious creature. He also looks out for others, as well as himself. By contrast, there is Cera the Triceratops. As a child, Cera was extremely annoying, and this opinion hasn’t changed even now. However, perspectives can change when viewing a childhood film as an adult, and character traits and personalities are much clearer: Cera is also stubborn, and only looks out for herself. The highlights are Spike the Stegosaurus, Petrie the Pterodactyl and Ducky the Saurolophus. The latter two bring a child-like charm and innocence to the film, and they are immediately likeable. Spike is the only mute character in the film, but that doesn’t limit him at all, as dialogue is exchanged for facial expressions and body language.

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The Land Before Time does have issues: the music by James Horner sounds epic but is ultimately forgettable, and serves to just blend in with the scenes, which it does well enough. The narrative voice-over, by Pat Hingle (from the 1990s’ Batman franchise) is also a little too quiet, making it difficult to hear what he is saying over the music.

While The Land Before Time has overall stood the test of time, it is just average. The animation is gorgeous to look at, and a couple of the lead characters are charming. However, it feels too long, despite only being an hour; it might have been better as a 30 minute short film revolving around Littlefoot and Ducky. Films like Disney’s The Lion King or Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away are better emotional journeys, and are much more entertaining adventures. This journey should really have stayed as a childhood memory, as it just isn’t as entertaining as an adult.

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