It's crazy to imagine how Steven Spielberg would help change the animation industry. We all know that Spielberg is one of the most important filmmakers of all time and helped make some of the best films to ever come out on the big screen, but his animation presence cannot be denied with helping form DreamWorks and also working on a couple of animated films. He first got his start in the industry working as a producer on "An American Tail" with ex-Disney animator Don Bluth which ended up becoming a big financial success. After that, Spielberg and Bluth decided to make another animated film together with Spielberg bringing on his friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas to help out which ended up giving us "The Land Before Time" in 1988 and it once again is another winning animated film in Don Bluth's career after leaving Disney. Out of all his films, this one easily stands tall as it's a really charming little film to watch and one of the best of Bluth's career.
In the age of the dinosaurs, a young brontosaurus named Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon) is heading towards the fabled Great Valley with his mother (Helen Shaver) and grandparents for food and safety away from a T-rex whom they call a "Sharptooth". One day, the Sharptooth finds Littlefoot and ends up killing his mother while an earthquake separates Littlefoot from his grandparents. After mourning the loss of his mother, Littlefoot sets off towards the Great Valley encountering other young dinosaurs who also have been separated from their families including a triceratops named Cera (Candace Hutson), a parasaurolophus named Ducky (Judith Barsi), a pterosaur named Petrie (Will Ryan), and a stegosaurus whom they name Spike. Together, the four young dinosaurs set off on a perilous journey to find their parents and get to the Great Valley while avoiding the deadly Sharptooth.
This is an animated film I think doesn't get the recognition it deserves. The common consensus with this film is that it seems very cute and sappy and would only appeal to very young children. I think it's because of the many direct to DVD sequels that Universal gave this film (there are thirteen of them now as I write this review) and the way they typically market it nowadays. I highly disagree with that consensus and dislike how Universal treats this film as I feel this film is a very dark and mature animated film that both children and adults to enjoy with a fantastic message about friendship and the dangers of life that are out there. The story is easily one of the main driving forces of the picture and what makes it so special. The film that this reminds me the most of is "Bambi" which is what Don Bluth and Spielberg were modeling off of. Both films are about young animals coming to grips with the world around them, the friendships they make, and the challenges along the way. Where the film diverges is that this film puts the character on a journey to reunite with their families and save their lives and I really love the approach. The friendship of the five young dinosaurs is the heart of the film and the journey they endure is perfectly told. There are times where the film isn't afraid to get dark as well with the death of Littlefoot's mother and the looming presence of the Sharptooth driving the picture. With that said, I think some of the pacing in this film was rushed which could be due to Spielberg and Lucas requesting Bluth take out some scenes in the film for being a little too intense. It's especially notable with scenes with the Sharptooth as they feel a little too short and over with rather quickly. I also feel that Littlefoot's mother was written out of the film a little too quickly as well. I do think her death scene is beautifully helmed and very emotionally effective, but I wanted more of her character and see her relationship with Littlefoot blossom a little bit more before the tragic scene. Credit where credit is due though, the scenes with her are very well done and as stated previously, her death scene is very emotionally effective. I also think the animation in this film is top-notch. I could really see Bluth grow as an animation director particularly in this film as there are a lot of dynamic and impactful scenes. The colors in this film also stand out as there are a lot of warm colors like reds and oranges showcasing the dry landscape which gave the film a very unique identity. I also love how the animation has its moments to give the world some atmosphere with a lot of tiny scenes that would've been cut by a lesser director. For example, there's a cute scene where some baby pterosaurs fight over a berry and it made me smile. I love small moments like that because it allows the film to really give itself some identity and make a huge impression. However, what really makes the film work in the end are the fantastic characters. Bluth has been known for picking fantastic child actors on his previous two animated films and he picked the perfect ones to play these characters as they feel and act like young children while having unique personalities that make them stand out. Littlefoot is a similar character to Bambi as he has to mature and grow through the encounters he has though what makes him stand out from Bambi is he does get frustrated with his friends and isn't afraid to stand up for himself, particularly in a scene where Cera insults his late mother. I also love the other dinosaur friends with Cera trying to be brave though still having a sense of fear, Ducky being the cute one and morally supportive, Petrie being a little cowardly but still being cheerful, and Spike despite being somewhat lazy and not talking being helpful and having a cute relationship with Ducky. These are great characters and I love how they act like real children which is what I feel really helps them stand out from other animated children characters.
In all, "The Land Before Time" is an exceptional film with a fantastic story about friendship that isn't afraid to get dark, animation that is very warm and colorful, and sweet and loveable characters that feel like actual children. I really loved watching this film and really recommend it if you haven't seen it. I think the reputation it gets thanks to its many inferior sequels is unjustified and unfair. This really is a mature and sweet animated film that will continue to inspire future audiences as time goes on.