Saturday, July 12, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Land Before Time (1988)

As part of the Myopia: Defend Your Childhood podcast produced by the Dudeletter, I watched the Don Bluth animated classic The Land Before Timethe other night. Set during the Cretaceous period, in a time of geological upheaval and climate change, the diminishing herds of herbivores gather to seek out the possibly mythical "Great Valley" where it's still green. After being separated from the rest by an earthquake, the young sauropod Littlefoot and his friends must seek out the Great Valley on their own, all while being stalked by a homicidal Tyrannosaurus Rex that killed his mother. I saw the movie in theaters when I was four years old and hadn't seen it in probably two decades, so let's see how it held up. Podcast here.

The Good

*The battle between the Sharptooth and Littlefoot's mother is well-done. She's clearly significantly bigger and stronger, but he's a better adapted fighter. They depict the Sharptooth wounding her in such a way that it's obvious what happened (we see the shadows of flying flesh after he bites her), but it isn't explicitly bloody and can thus still be rated G. It's not 100% clear how Littlefoot's mother actually dies though--I remember reading online it was infection (similar to the now-debunked theory that someone bitten by a Komodo dragon would die from the nasty bacteria in the rotting meat between the critter's teeth), but blood loss and shock might also do it. If they're all hungry due to limited foot on their journey through the desolation, she'd be physically weakened as well.

*I liked how decisive Littlefoot got when they were attacked again by the Sharptooth. He straight-up plots to lure it into deep water and drop a boulder on it to drown it. None of the usual "the hero refuses to kill so the villain does something evil and causes their own death" nonsense that I've complained about before. It's the equivalent of a bunch of elementary schoolers taking on the non-superpowered Freddy Krueger and it is awesome.

*It makes some surprisingly thoughtful statements about religion. Littlefoot wonders how it is that his mother knows about the Great Valley even though she has never been there and she says it's something she's seen, not with her eyes, but with her heart. Later on Littlefoot has a flashback to something his mother possibly told him offscreen about how the Great Valley is beyond a distinctive rock formation and a ridge of volcanoes, so her faith is based on more than her own desires and imagination. Later on, Cera rejects Littlefoot's vision to go her own way and the other young dinosaurs follow her because it's "easier." Instead Cera leads them into a volcanic desolation (aka Hell) and it's up to Littlefoot, the one individual who had the right idea, to rescue them.

*Although the film's subtlety is lacking, it does make good statements against prejudice. Littlefoot and Cera play together at first, only for Cera's prejudiced parents to stop them and fill her head with nonsense about how three-horns only socialize with other three-horns. Even Littlefoot's kinder mother, who saves Cera as well as Littlefoot from falling into the abyss with the Sharptooth early on, tells Littlefoot that their species are different and there will be plenty of children of his own kind to play with. However, when the young dinosaurs are separated from their parents by the earthquake, they have to stick together in order to survive and it's Cera's arrogance, not Littlefoot's cosmopolitanism, that causes problems. And when the time for the confrontation with the Sharptooth comes, it takes all of them together to pull it off.

*Petri, the neurotic pterodactyl whose fear of heights keeps him from actually flying, has a character arc. We see a scene from his point of view (when they're all standing on top of each other trying to get leaves from the trees) in which heights are terrifying, but he eventually overcomes this fear. The proud and racist Cera learns humility too.

The Bad

*One of my fellow reviewers commented the film felt disjointed and said that material had been cut from the movie against Bluth's wishes. I reviewed the Wikipedia article, which references some scenes of violence being cut out to attain a G rating. It cites this article, which references the T-Rex scene as being trimmed. The area that felt the most disjointed was when Cera leads them into the dangerous volcanic area--the group is separated and we cut from Littlefoot rescuing some of the others to Cera being attacked by a group of territorial pachycephalosaurs without much explanation. I remember seeing a picture of some of them fighting each other in a storybook version I read as a kid and I'm wondering if there was a missing scene where Cera stumbled onto them fighting each other.

*Speaking of Cera, she was the most thoroughly obnoxious character in the film. I can understand the film trying to teach lessons against prejudice, but she was so unsubtle it got old really fast. I guess if you're trying to make a point to children you can't be subtle, but it was so incredibly aggravating.

*There's a completely unnecessary recap of various uplifting events from earlier in the film (Littlefoot hatching, the little dinosaurs cuddling against the cold, etc) at the end.

The Verdict

It's a good movie for children and a good film to see once if you're nostalgic. Seven out of 10. Here's the actual podcast.

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