Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Land Before Time (1988)

Title: The Land Before Time
Year: 1988
Rated: G
Run Time: 1 hour, 9 minutes

Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot
Candace Hutson as Cera
Judith Barsi as Ducky
Will Ryan as Petrie
Helen Shaver as Littlefoot's Mother
Pat Hingle as The Narrator/Rooter

Plot: Five orphan dinosaurs travel the ruins of their world, while grieving the loss of their families and banding together to face the odds of survival.
Based on: Unofficially the "Rite of Spring" segment of Fantasia...and Bambi. (According to Jordyn). But officially, an original screenplay.
Setting: 65 million years ago...in a galaxy far, far away...

Tagline: A new adventure is born.

Andrew's First Viewing: Early 90's.
Jordyn's First Viewing: Technically: Early 90's at daycare. Then...Drunk: February 2010 on VHS. Sober: August 27, 2010 on DVD.

Andrew's Comments
And welcome back to Bluthanized! You may have noticed our extended leave of absence (or, judging by our number of followers, maybe you didn’t…) and are fervently demanding an explanation. All I can say to that is, “It’s a good story, but this isn’t that sort of blog.”

Anyways, what movie are we on now? Right, The Land Before Time. Jordyn and I actually attempted to do a write-up on this one several months ago, but we made the mistake of watching it right after our Heavy Metal drinking game (we took a shot whenever a new set of breasts showed up; we were pretty tanked), and we never made it through. But I digress.

Sure to souse you up!
So yeah, back to Land. This one was HEAVY on my rotation list as a kid; I think I still have the VHS somewhere at my parents’ house, complete with dog-eared cover and cheesy early-90’s commercial for Pizza Hut. Of all of Don Bluth’s movies, I feel that this is the one that has aged best for me. Yes, Ducky and Petrie can be a bit grating, and Cera is still a total douche, but as far as tone, story, and animation, this one still holds up pretty well for me.

Universal truth: boys like dinosaurs.
The Land Before Time takes place during the twilight years of the dinosaurs, right when the climate is starting to change, and edible plant-life is becoming increasingly more difficult to find. The plot concerns Little Foot (an apatosaurus), Cera (a triceratops), Ducky (a duck-billed dinosaur), Petrie (a pterodactyl; see what they’re doing with the names so far?), and Spike (a stegosaurus) making their way to The Great Valley, a mythical Zion-esque land stuffed to the gills with green food (“tree stars”), clean water, and absolutely no carnivores whatsoever (the streets are also filled with cheese, no doubt).

What makes this movie still work for me is its tonal balancing. Unlike NIMH and Tail, this movie manages to successfully walk the line between comedy and peril without straying too far into either territory; the thrilling parts never get too overbearing and the silly stuff never gets too Jeremy Crow-esque. The movie’s pacing also feels pretty good for the most part; apart from the section in between Littlefoot’s birth and the Sharptooth attack, the film goes along at a steady clip, moving from plot point to plot point and occasionally taking a break for character interaction.

A bit too much interaction sometimes...
One thing I can say about The Land Before Time that I hadn’t noticed before is how little actual movie there is. Remember that plot from two paragraphs ago? Doesn’t fully kick in until about halfway through. This movie is short; notwithstanding Dumbo (which is a scant five minutes longer than this one), this is one of the briefest full-length animated features I think I’ve seen. It takes the movie almost half of its 69-minute running time before everyone is finally together and traveling (even then, there’s still some padding).

Yet the movie does feel about as long as it needs to be, neither too long or too short (a bit off-balance, perhaps, but 69 minutes still is about right). Wikipedia tells me that 10 minutes of Sharptooth-kid-harassment footage were shaved off of the movie because Steven Spielberg and George Lucas deemed them too intense for small children, and while it would have been interesting to watch Bluth’s full creative vision of this story, I’m not sure if the movie would have played out better with the footage reinserted. There’s already a healthy dose of action here compared to the moments of levity (including two especially climactic scenes near the beginning and end of the movie), and the last thing this movie needs is the same problem that dragged down An American Tail.

Another thing I noticed during my rewatching is how over-eager the movie is to spell itself out. I certainly don’t mind the intro and closing narration segments (especially since the narrator himself is so pleasant to listen to), but the guy just chips in periodically in places that, even for kids, should be pretty self-explanatory. There’s a scene later in the film when Cera leaves the party because she had deliberately taken off down the wrong path and had to be rescued. She’s walking away, looking dejected and hurt, with a tear in her eye, and the narrator pipes up to inform us that she “was too proud to admit that she’d gone the wrong way.” What?! When did this movie all of a sudden turn into "Caillou"?! Moments like this happen throughout the entire picture.

The voicework in The Land Before Time is pretty solid. The all-child portion of the cast manages to avoid the cutsieness trap of Bluth’s previous films, ie, they’re not pants-on-head annoying (here that, Mrs. Brisby’s kids?!); even the characters that play up the cuteness still seem at least partially sincere about it, which helps soften the blow (though Petrie is still this movie’s Jar Jar). The rest of the cast does a good job helping support the action, with Helen Shaver giving a soothing, placid performance as Littlefoot’s mother, and Frank Welker (aka, every animal noise you’ve ever heard in any animated feature EVER) gnashing his teeth and roaring Godzilla-style as the Sharptooth.

The music is… well it’s… you know, after 17+ years of watching and rewatching this movie, I don’t think I could even tell you what it sounds like. I’m seriously drawing a blank on any melodies or themes; whenever I try, I keep coming back with the “Rite of Spring” parts from Fantasia. What is appealing on this movie’s soundtrack, though, is the Diana Ross song that plays over the credits, “If We Hold On Together.” It sounds exactly like a late-80’s adult contemporary ballad, but it’s rather pleasant, and lacking the awful keyboard from the ballad versions of “A Whole New World” and “Beauty And The Beast.”

By now, I’ve done my share of ranting about my distaste for some of Don Bluth’s stylistic flairs in his animation (if I haven’t yet, wait till we get to Rock-A-Doodle…), and I’m pleased to say that this movie is very conservative with them. There is pleasantly little flouncing that goes on in this movie (Bluth often tends to animate characters as though they’re in some sort of floaty, low-gravity environment), and lots of the effects animations that generally drives me nuts from his movies (sparks, smoke clouds, and foamy, sloppy-looking waves) are absent from this one.

The Bluth legacy issue that DOES appear in this movie, however, is arbitrary color-change. I think I understand how this works in principle; if you’re going to have your characters in different light, color them similar to how the background is lit. That said, there are several time throughout the picture where Ducky or Spike would, without warning or context, switch from green to tan to basically every color in the Gears Of War spectrum. Perhaps I’m spoiled by my CAPS-assisted lighting and shadows of the 90’s, but seriously, drink every time a character randomly changes color in the same scene and tell me how drunk you are by the end of this movie.

Um, why the @#%* is Ducky yellow?
On the whole, though, I think I enjoy The Land Before Time the most out of the Bluth canon (though we still have seven movies to go, four of which I haven’t seen yet). It looks good, the story is reasonably entertaining, and it’s lacking many of the cringe-worthy moments that turn me away from the last two movies we’ve done. We’ll see how this whole thing goes now that my alleged favorite is done.

Jordyn's Comments
Let me preface with this sexist statement: I am a girl who likes princesses and doesn't like dinosaurs. I didn't have older brothers to force me to watch The Land Before Time. In my house, I watched whatever child-friendly tripe I damn well pleased. My only exposure to Don Bluth's dinosaur flick was at my daycare where I had little to no control over what we watched, so that's where I first saw it. I was pretty vocal about what movies I liked and if I had really, really liked TLBT, I would have asked my mom to rent it for me. But, like I said, I like princesses, not dinosaurs, so this was not a childhood staple of mine.

One movie I did watch a lot was Fantasia, which I didn't particularly care for (still don't) and part of that has to do with the twenty minute "Rite of Spring" segment which shows the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. It was boring. Excuse me, is boring. The opening scenes of TLBT are far too reminiscent of "Rite of Spring". Deliberately so, because according to Andrew, producer Steven Spielberg wanted to make a Serious Movie about dinosaurs that made their journey sans dialogue, sans humor, and sans conscious viewers, apparently. But somewhere along the way, the characters were named and given voices and "personalities".

So since ripping off Fantasia didn't work out, the writers moved on to Bambi. Our main protagonist, a "long-neck" (gotta get that terminology right!) named Littlefoot is born to his single mother. He frolics around and is admired by bystanders. His mother teaches him about the food shortage and explains that everyone is migrating to the Great Valley, where the streets are paved with chee-eese, no doubt. But before they set out, Littlefoot's mom is killed by the "sharp-tooth" and is orphaned.

Do you think it was deliberate?
The scene is WAY TOO SIMILAR to Bambi. The dialogue is practically identical. Seriously. If you have the luxury of owning both these films, I urge you to play them back to back and see for yourself. I was half expecting to see someone jump out and say "Your mother can't be with you anymore." That doesn't quite happen, but Rooter (also the narrator) pops in and offers some sage advice on the circle of life. (TLBT was made before The Lion King, so this one is Disney's bad).

Also separated from her family is the "three-horn" bitch, Cera. Seriously, what the hell is her problem? She's like an over compensating doucher who insults everyone around him in order to prove how small his dick isn't. But she's a chick! And a child! Was this a deliberate decision to throw a spoke in the gender stereotype wheel? To have a female character embody such overtly masculine traits? Or did the producers go "Oh shit! We want girls to like our movie! Make the triceratops--" (Get it? TriCERAtops?) "--a girl!"

Whether it was deliberate or not, female asshole protagonists are pretty rare. Especially in children's programming. (Helga from "Hey Arnold!" is the only other one that comes to mind). But unlike Helga, Cera lacks an excuse for her behavior. She has a pretty good relationship with her parents, it seems, so why the need to swing her metaphorical dick around?

Granted, some people are just assholes and maybe Cera is one of them. Assholes need friends, too. And if you really think about it, you are probably friends with an asshole in spite of their assholism. But, it's an oddity when said asshole is female in a group of fictional co-ed companions.

There's one in every group.
Speaking of companions, along with Littlefoot and Cera, there is Ducky a "big-mouth". She is pretty much androgynous. Kind of like Blanky from The Brave Little Toaster. In fact, the only inclination of Ducky's femininity is that her voice actor is a little girl. Then there's nerdy Petrie, the "flyer" too afraid to fly. And to round out the group, there's Spike, the silent, gluttonous "spike-tail". Each is picked up along the way on the journey to the Great Valley.

I'll take this time to mention that this film in 69 minutes long. That's it. An hour and nine minutes. And it's approximately 30 minutes before the five main characters are introduced. The movie is literally half over. This brings me to my main issue with The Land Before Time: it's too short and nothing happens. With a road movie, the possibilities of events and one shot characters are endless, but this movie completely ignores that. It's even counter intuitive since the film is padded with superflous scenes of baby dinosaurs fighting over a cherry and a minute long flashback at the end (a.k.a. reused footage).

It's perfectly acceptable for a movie to be more character driven than plot driven, but TLBT is pretty much lacking in character development. Cera is the most interesting character by default because of her nastiness and prejudice against all the other species of dinosaurs, as per the teachings of her father. ("Three-horns do not play with long-necks!") And, through her little adventure, she discovers teamwork is important and she overcomes her bigotry.

A child psychologist's dream.
The Land Before Time teaches a lesson about working together with those who are different from you to complete a shared goal and that prejudice and segregation are based in ignorance and are perpetuated by our parents. An important and useful lesson, indeed. But isn't there a more interesting way of showing that?

With this movie, I've discovered the most bothersome aspect of Don Bluth's animation style is the changing of character scale. The characters' sizes in comparison to each other change like Alice with her magic mushrooms. I've never noticed this problem in other animated movies, only Bluth's.

As you can tell, I don't really like The Land Before Time. It was boring and there was nothing about it to particularly entertain me. The viewing experience reminded me of when I first watched The Secret of NIMH, with me being bored through most of it. Again, that could hearken back to my utter boredom with dinosaurs. This is definitely the manliest of the Bluth flicks. Of course, girls are perfectly capable of liking dinosaurs (Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, for example) otherwise, The Land Before Time franchise wouldn't have twelve sequels and a TV series to its name. I'm just saying, if I had a dick, then I probably would have liked this movie. Alas, I do not on both counts.

"If We Hold On Together" - Diana Ross

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