Friday, September 14, 2012

The Land Before Time

Think of Jurassic Park; now, what's the first thing that comes to mind? If your answer is anything other than the lawyer getting chomped on the toilet by the T-Rex, please never read this blog again. Why are dinosaurs so appealing? I doubt there's anyone who hasn't at least at one point in his or her life liked them. Their appearances are straight out of mythical fantasy, but unlike dragons and sea monsters, we know dinosaurs once walked the earth, but we as humans never interacted with them. That gap between the time of man and the time of dinosaur is so vast, it leaves plenty of room to stir the imagination.

Unfortunately, stirs the imagination is not a phrase I would use to describe The Land Before Time (1988), directed by Don Bluth (of The Secret of NIMH fame) and "presented" by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The first in a series of eventually 13 movies (mostly straight-to-video), The Land Before Time is cutesy, schmaltzy, mainstream children's entertainment all the way. The only wonder is how a movie not even 70 minutes long somehow managed to inspire so many sequels.

The Land Before Time is the story of five baby dinosaurs: a "long-neck" named Littlefoot, a "three-horn named" Cera, a "big mouth" named Duckie, a "flyer" named Petrie, and a "spiked tail" named Spike. While migrating to what may be the last fertile place on the planet, the five are separated from their families during an earthquake. Determined, they continue, working together to survive and evade the dreaded "sharp tooth." Much of this is explained by an unnecessary narrator who likes to spell out the movie's themes.

Disappointingly, this is not a movie with a very distinctive look or standout animation. While the character models work well enough (although they can't always seem to maintain a consistent size), the backgrounds lack any interesting details or vivid imagery. Much of the movie is set in a desolate, rocky desert, and it's just kind of blah. Consider the "Circle of Life" opening in The Lion King, the mansion of Beauty and the Beast, or the vividness of Toy Story (or any Pixar movie for that matter), and it's easy to see how flat The Land Before Time comes off in retrospect.

Worse, they're earen't really any fun or interesting characters, and the main group is drawn in the most basic traits. Littlefoot is our main character, and he misses his dead mother. Cera is obnoxious, a bluff always talking about how brave and important she is and how she doesn't need anyone's help but who shrieks at the first sign of trouble. Spike is the strong, silent type, only concerned about eating and sleeping (considering Duckie adopts him as her brother, they miss the logical joke of him trying to swim like her); Petrie is too terrified to fly but finds the courage at the right time; and Duckie is Ralph Wiggum. Unlike other animated features, they rarely interact with characters outside of the T-Rex (who has no anthropomorphic personality and only has to be scary). Imagine Snow White without the Seven Dwarves, and you'll see the problem.

Reportedly, Lucas and Spielberg clamped down on Bluth, forcing him to remove the more intense and scary scenes for fear of traumatizing children. Whether restoring that footage would salvage the movie, I don't know, but the anecdote serves to point out how much  "homogenized, sanitized, and pasteurized" (to steal a line from Jim Cornette) The Land Before Time is for our safety and consumption. Still, as far as children's entertainment goes, you could do much worse, and to be fair, I remember liking this a lot more when I was a little kid. It's short, the message about working together and accepting people who are different is positive, and best of all, no song-and-dance numbers.  

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