I think it’s a minor tragedy that I was never familiar with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s work until I was almost in my thirties. Like everyone else who grew up in the 1980’s, I had played the “Dragon’s Lair” and “Space Ace” video games, but had no idea the two men had been involved and only associated the duo with the G-rated fare they’re commonly known for. The first thing that clued me into how good their work could be was “Titan A.E.”; a film that I feel is a great sci-fi epic despite the fact that it was a bit of a flop. The spaceship battle at the end is literally like nothing ever filmed before. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen its equal in any film of any kind, and I’m including the Mutara Nebula battle in “Wrath of Khan” when I say that.
“The Land Before Time” was released when I turned fifteen, an age when my cinematic interests lay more in deformed slashers than talking dinosaurs. Even back in those days I didn’t think it was a bad film. It’s just that it felt wrong for me. Fifteen is when you throw away your childhood toys for the last time, then turn your back and walk away from that life, not without a heavy heart. For better or worse, another part of this change is to avoid watching kid’s films just in case the temptation to delay adulthood is too great.
My wife, on the other hand, was exactly the right age to appreciate the film when it came out, so she’s always been recommending Bluth and Goldman’s work for as long as I’ve known her. I eventually caved in and watched “Land” just to be accommodating, expecting an hour and a half of bland and painless kiddie fare, but soon found myself completely sucked into the world.
If you were a kid when it came out, or have kids now, you probably already know the plot but I’ll quickly recap it anyway. A long time ago, before the first upright ancestor of the first human ever took his first breath, a Brontosaurus named “Littlefoot” and five friends have to try and make their way back to their herds after getting separated during an exodus from their home.
It’s a simple story that functions as a beautiful and evocative poem about keeping hope despite the darkness. I’d even go so far as to say that this film is not that far removed thematically from something like “The Road”. It’s easy to forget how sad and dark this entry is, especially with the seventeen cereal commercial sequels and the video games and the TV series merrily ruining the original’s reputation, but this isn’t what you’d expect. Sure, it’s got chipper little creatures and they have big exciting adventures, but you can say the same thing about “Fritz The Cat”. Besides, what makes “Land” work so well isn’t what the film does, but what it doesn’t do. There’s never a moment where you roll your eyes at how sappy it is, or feel that the filmmakers are talking down to kids. The sequels may have gone the route of becoming mindless brain candy, but this first film isn’t. It’s a proper film, proper cinema, and worthy of respect.
What finally convinced me of the film’s many merits was my own reaction. It made my heart ache to remember my childhood, a time when I was much more innocent than I am now, when the world and its pains hadn’t corrupted me into maturity. “Land Before Time” doesn’t just take you back to the time of dinosaurs, it takes you back to the time when the boy becomes the man, as all good children’s films do.
This is a masterpiece. To call it anything less would not do. I finally saw a beautiful and crisp copy of it in a proper theatre at the Fantasia Film Festival when Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were both honoured with a well deserved lifetime achievement award. The room was filled with kids who sat in rapt attention during the showing, as did I.