Five young dinosaurs are separated from their tribes during an earthquake in this animated adventure from Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH, Anastasia). The unlikely band must square off against a ferocious ‘sharp tooth’ (Tyrannosaurus rex) while searching for a lush new feeding ground where they hope to be reunited with their families — overcoming prejudice and learning the value of cooperation along the way.
The Land Before Time, commissioned by producers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, is slight on plot but high in emotional impact thanks to Bluth’s distinct style of highly emotive animation and a powerful symphonic score from James Horner. The young voice actors do a great job making the dinos relatable, with Judith Barsi (All Dogs Go to Heaven) stealing the show as the bubbly, irreverent Ducky. Pat Hingle’s gravely voice brings a warm, grandfatherly quality to the narration. The animation isn’t quite as polished as Disney’s best work, but Bluth makes up the difference with a striking color palette and beautiful expressionist background paintings. The storytelling works best during the first half, as we get to know our prehistoric adventurers and experience the tragedy of the earthquake, during which the main character, a ‘long neck’ named Littlefoot, loses his mother in a deadly fight with the sharp tooth. (Brace yourself for Bambi flashbacks.)
My favorite parts of the film are dialog-less, almost tone poem sequences that exist more for pure emotion than to progress the plot. The most impactful features a flock of baby pterodactyls fighting over a cherry. Just as the cherry is stolen by a predator, their mother arrives with a handful of cherries for all of them. They gleefully leave the scene with cherries in their beaks, but one of them catches a glimpse of the forlorn Littlefoot. The baby gives his prized cherry to the recently orphaned dinosaur, but Littlefoot is too sad to even notice the gift.
The climax is rushed and the end song performed by Diana Ross isn’t especially memorable, but The Land Before Time has a lot of heart to make up for its shortcomings.