When it comes to animation, there are few American names that can even attempt to stand up to Walt Disney in comparison to quality and recognizably. The animation game, especially as of late, has always been a battle between cheaply crafted cartoons and quality pieces of art. On one hand there are those willing to painstakingly portray masterful stories not just with well written scripts, but with beautiful animated images, sweeping scores to carry the watcher into the heart of the emotion being portrayed by expert voice actors. On the other hand is the opportunity to make a quick buck by producing something cheaply for the purpose of making a film that children will be eager to see. Don Bluth, maintained a level of animation excellence that remains unparalleled. His stories, unlike the majority of films produced by Disney at the time (whom he was once employed by) dealt seriously with issues of death and emotional trauma. In The Land Before Time we’re introduced to a world filled, not only with vivid color and cute characters, but with danger, death and heartache.
The Land Before Time was co-produced by Don Bluth, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Ultimately, Bluth had the reigns as the director of the film. The story follows Littlefoot, a small “long neck” dinosaur who lives during a time when the earth is changing and becoming less hospitable to his kind. The herbivore dinosaurs speak of a legend called “The Great Valley”. In essence it is a utopia where food and water is plentiful. Littlefoot’s mother teaches him to memorize the way to the great valley. As he soon finds himself quite alone, finding this legend becomes the premise of the whole movie. While Littlefoot’s mother is loving, she did manage to instill some serious prejudices in him. The majority of the young dinosaurs have been taught to stick to their own kind. When Littlefoot finds that he is alone, he realizes his best chance for survival is to team up with a group of other young dinosaurs that have also been separated from their family. Not only are they in search of The Great Valley, but they must fend off a number of dangers, including the dreaded “Sharptooth”. Pride, anger and devastating loss fuel the heavy themes laden throughout this animated feature.
The Land Before Time name has unfortunately become synonymous with the cheap animated film. With at least 12 sequels, the franchise quickly became a cash cow. Needless to say, Bluth was not involved with the lesser sequels. What has become a common rabble of animation initially started as a rare gem. Bluth took the time to craft a deeply moving film for children about real issues that any number of the audience could have been dealing with, and he did it in an engaging way that upheld his artistic integrity to both story and the visual medium. The fact that Bluth managed to give Disney a run for their money is testament enough to his skill as an animator and a story teller, but he continued with his creations, constantly coming out with weighty cartoons that had dark character in dark worlds searching for that glimmer of hope, much like what life actually is. Given the resources and the manpower, one can’t help but wonder what other works Bluth would have created in his career. The Land Before Time has, in my house, stood the test of time, it’s sitting on my shelf on VHS, one of the few reasons that I keep my VCR.