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The Land Before Time

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Land Before Time

Starring: Helen Shaver, Gabriel Damon
Director: Don Bluth
Rated: G
RunTime: 71 Minutes
Release Date: November 1988
Genres: Animation, Kids

*Also starring: Candice Houston, Burke Barnes, Judith Barsi

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

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 tortuous journey.

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 lovely.

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

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