Unlike the later sequels, the original THE LAND BEFORE TIME
(1988), now available on video, is "A Lucas/Spielberg Presentation."
Also unlike the sequels, it is directed by a well known director, Don
Bluth (THE PEBBLE AND THE PENGUIN, THUMBELINA, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN,
AN AMERICAN TAIL, and THE SECRET OF NIMH), and the people doing the
voices are mainly known actors and actresses. Like the sequels, but
better, it is full of the delightful merriment of childhood, albeit
dinosaur childhood not Homo sapiens. For a sweet and simple little
picture the whole family can gather round the tube and watch with
delight, this one delivers the goods.
As the story unfolds, the baby dinosaurs, who are to be the stars
of the film, are being born in touching and humorous pictures of them
hatching from their eggs. Each baby dino has a unique personality and
voice. The narrator (Pat Hingle) tells of the lead dinosaur's birth
that, "One herd had only one baby - their single hope for the future,
and they called him Littlefoot."
This is a tale with a purpose and a destination. The dinosaurs'
land is running out of food so they must try to find a lush and far
away place called The Great Valley. Getting there turns out to be a
THE LAND BEFORE TIME is peppered with lightly taught stories of
morals. Kids watching the show will learn lessons but not in the usual
heavy handed fashion of some kids' message films. THE LAND BEFORE TIME
teaches subtle lessons about intolerance and other issues. Cera's
Daddy (Burke Byrnes) tells Cera (Candice Houston), "Come Cera, three
horns never play with long necks." She learns prejudice at an early
age, but forms a friendship with one of those nefarious three horns
that lets her get beyond stereotyping. Littlefoot's mother (Helen
Shaver) advises Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon), "Let your heart guide you.
It whispers so listen carefully." Finally, my favorite character is
little Ducky (Judith Barsi) whose effusive philosophy on life is summed
up in his constant and charming yapping, "Yep, yep, yep."
The best movies aimed at younger audiences are careful in the way
they handle the fears of life. Some pictures cop out and lack tension
or interest since they are so sanitized that nothing exciting or scary
ever occurs. Other put in frightening scenes, but overdo it. Here the
writers, Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss, and Stu Krieger, have a deft touch
in putting together just enough tension, but not so much that little
ones, say 3 or 4, can not handle it. We have earthquakes, parental
separation, the dreaded Sharptooth (T-Rex), and the canonical death of
a parent, but it is all treated gingerly and with respect for young
sensibilities. I liked the way the screenwriters had the dino kids get
words mixed up as human kids so often do. Earthquake becomes
earthshake and tree leaf is transformed into tree star.
The drawing style is far removed from the painstaking constructed
and dramatic realism of a Disney animated feature. Different in this
case does not necessarily mean inferior, instead THE LAND BEFORE TIME
possesses a minimalist, but warm and natural beauty. The animators use
stark colors of oranges, blues, and greens and then underdraw the
images to craft a simple and almost surreal landscape. I found it
Perhaps my favorite part of the movie is the music. The dramatic
music by James Horner is played with great gusto by The London Symphony
orchestra. The main and uplifting song, "If we hold on together," is
sung by Diana Ross.
THE LAND BEFORE TIME runs a fast 1:08 thanks to the editing of
John Carr and Dan Molina. Not surprisingly, it is rated G, and there
is not a single bad word spoken. This film would be fine for children
of any age although there is always some risk that Sharptooth might
scare them a little bit. My son Jeffrey (almost 7) has liked THE LAND
BEFORE TIME for several years now and likes the sequels (see my
reviews of them) as well. I recommend this film to anyone young at
heart and give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes