The Land Before Time is a 1988 American animated adventure film directed & co-produced by Don Bluth (through his Sullivan Bluth Studios) and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy & Frank Marshall.
The film was a critical and financial success & spawned a multi-million dollar franchise with twelve direct-to-video sequels (without association with Bluth, Spielberg, or Lucas) as well as merchandise (such as toys, video games, etc.) and a television series.
| Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
Set near the end of the Cretaceous period, there are a series of catatrophic events & several herds of dinosaurs look to find one of the last livable places: a paradise that is known as "the Great Valley." Among one of the herds of dinosaurs, a "Longneck" herd gives birth to a baby named Littlefoot.
Years later, Littlefoot is shown playing with a "Three-Horn" dinosaur named Cera, who was trying to smash a beetle until her father steps in. Littlefoot's mother names the different types of animals: "Three-Horns", "Spiketails," "Swimmers" and "Flyers" & explains how each of them have historically remained separated.
Later at night, when Littlefoot follows a "hopper", he sees Cera and they start playing with each other until a "Sharptooth" comes and attacks them. Littlefoot's mother comes to their rescue and is able to fight off the Sharptooth, but she ends up getting fatally wounded by it.
During that same time, an "earthshake" opens up from a deep ravine, swallowing up the Sharptooth, kills the dinosaurs & separates Littlefoot & Cera from their herds. Littlefoot finds his mother (who is near death) and gives him her final words of advice in favor of his intuition.
Littlefoot later meets an old "Clubtail" named Rooter who comforts him after learning that Littlefoot's mother died. Littlefoot later hears his mother's voice that guides him to follow the "bright circle" past the great rock that looks like a longneck & past the "mountains that burn" to get to the Great Valley.
Littlefoot tries to get Cera to join him on his search, but she refuses and walks off into the darkness after she falls down a ravine. Littlefoot is later joined by a "Bigmouth" named Ducky and a "Flyer" named Petrie (whose inability to fly makes him quite nervous).
Meanwhile, Cera finds the seemingly unconscious Sharptooth in the ravine and after unintentionally waking him up, she runs away in terror. When she runs into Littlefoot, Ducky & Petrie, Cera tells them that the Sharptooth is alive, but Littlefoot doesn't believe her. While explaining what happened, Cera accidentally flings Ducky in the air and when she lands, Ducky finds a mute hatchling "Spiketail" (that she calls Spike) & Spike joins the group.
On the search for the Great Valley, the group finds a cluster of trees (which are abruptly depleted by a herd of whip-tailed Longnecks). While looking for food, they find one tree still with leaves and get it by stacking up atop each other & pulling the leaves down.
The next morning, the group is attacked by the Sharptooth, but they are able to escape through a cave tunnel that is too small for him to fit through. Then, they discover the Longneck-shaped monolith (that was mentioned by Littlefoot's mother) and later find a string of mountains that burn (also mentioned by Littlefoot's mother).
Getting impatient on the journey, Cera mistakes a barren valley for the Great Valley and decides to go in another direction. Littlefoot attempts to stop her, but they end up in a fight. Littlefoot decides to go in the direction he was told to go to while the others follow Cera.
Cera's way ends putting everyone in danger as Ducky & Spike get caught in lava & Petrie gets stuck in a tar pit after he falls off of Cera. Littlefoot is able to rescue his friends and they find Cera being harassed by a gang of angry "Dome-Heads". Having been coated in tar while trying to rescue Petrie, they are able scare them away.
While crossing a pond, Petrie finds the Sharptooth nearby. In order to avenge his mother's death, Littlefoot sets up a plot to lure the Sharptooth into the water (while using Ducky as bait) beneath a boulder. They are able to lure Sharptooth, but Littlefoot & Spike struggle to move the boulder which puts Ducky in danger.
During the struggle, a draft from the Sharptooth's nostrils helps Petrie fly (which cures his fear of flying) and gives him the courage to stall Sharptooth.
Sharptooth leaps onto the boulder and their plan nearly fails until Cera rejoins the group & allows Littlefoot and the others to push Sharptooth and the boulder into the water. Sharptooth tries to take Petrie with him to his death, but Ducky is able to find him alive, but soaked.
Littlefoot follows a cloud that resembles his mother to the Great Valley where he is joined by his friends. Petrie is able to show his family that he can fly while Ducky introduces Spike to her family and they end up adopting him.
Cera reunites with her father while Littlefoot reunites with his grandparents. Cera then calls Littlefoot to play and they join their friends at the top of a hill & are shown embracing each other while looking up at the sky.
- Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot
- Candy Hutson as Cera
- Judith Barsi as Ducky
- Will Ryan as Petrie
- Pat Hingle as Rooter/Narrator
- Helen Shaver as Littlefoot's mother
- Burke Byrnes as Cera's father
- Bill Erwin as Littlefoot's grandfather
The film's early working title was called "The Land Before Time Began." Originally, Spielberg and George Lucas wanted the film to have no dialogue (just like the "Rite of Spring" sequence in Fantasia), but the idea was abandoned in favor of using voice actors in order to make it appealing to children.
"The Land Before Time" originally planned for release in fall of 1987, but production and the release date were delayed by a year due to the relocation of Sullivan Bluth Studios to Dublin, Ireland.
The production was preceded by extensive research where researchers visited natural history museums in New York and Los Angeles & the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The artists had to create a credible landscape and animals. Animators made more than 600 background images for the film.
The character Littlefoot was originally going to be called "Thunderfoot" until it was discovered that a Triceratops in a children's book already had that name. It was Lucas's idea to make Cera a female Triceratops, when she was in mid-animation as a male named Bambo.
After voicing Digit in "An American Tail," Will Ryan did the voice of the character, Petrie. The idea was brought up by Spielberg's son, Max.
The character of Spike was inspired by Don Bluth's pet named Chow Chow Cubby.
During production, the film's footage underwent severe cutting & editing because Lucas & Spielberg thought that the scenes were too dark & intense for children. About 10 minutes of footage (which comprised of 19 fully animated scenes) were cut from the final film in order to get a "G" rating instead of a "PG" rating.
Much of the cut footage consisted of the Tyrannosaurus attack sequence and the sequences of the five young dinosaurs in grave danger & distress. Some of the screams were re-voiced using milder exclamations.
"The Land Before Time" was a box office success worldwide, grossing $48 million at the domestic box office, as well as beating the Disney film Oliver & Company (which was released on the same day) for the #1 spot during its opening weekend. It brought in a box office total of nearly $50 million during its domestic release, slightly more than Don Bluth's previous film "An American Tail".
"The Land Before Time" became a worldwide hit and while "Oliver & Company" grossed over its domestic earnings, the film had grossed nearly $84 million worldwide (which the Disney film did not surpass).
The Land Before Time holds a 70% "fresh" approval rating from review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes from 30 critics with the consensus "Beautifully animated and genuinely endearing, The Land Before Time is sure to please dino-obsessed tykes, even if it's a little too cutesy for older viewers."
Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film "two thumbs up" on a 1988 episode of their television program "At the Movies."
Siskel found it to be "sweet more than it was scary" and "quite beautiful", also praising its straightforward story and remarked that he would recommend it to children over Disney's "Oliver and Company" (which was released the same day).
In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing "I guess I sort of liked the film, although I wonder why it couldn't have spent more time on natural history and the sense of discovery, and less time on tragedy."
Peter Travers of People magazine felt that the movie had an unclear audience, stating "The animation is fine. But the Stu Krieger screenplay contains violence that might be hard on the younger ones, [...] and a never-let-up cuteness that can turn minds of all ages to mush."
Los Angeles Times writer Sheila Benson also stated that the movie's enjoyment was limited to younger viewers, remarking "do dinosaurs really lend themselves to ootsie-cutesiness?"
Many reviewers compared "The Land Before Time" to films from Disney's Golden Age.
Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer said that the movie "looks and sounds as if it came out of the Disney Studios of the '40s or '50s. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing," calling it "meticulously crafted" but was also "mildly disappoint[ed]" that the dialog wasn't as sophisticated.
In her review for the Sun-Sentinel, Candice Russel wrote: "The Land Before Time works by evoking the simple virtues of this art aimed at children, as it was in the beginning when Disney animated Mickey Mouse."
A review from the Motion Picture Guide 1989 Annual notes that the film "has been called a sort of prehistoric Bambi".
David Kehr from the Chicago Tribune similarly felt that the film's title "also refers to the Disney past, but it goes for all the marbles. Its model is nothing less than the life-cycle saga of Bambi, and that Bluth gets even half the way there is proof of a major talent."
Kehr gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling it "as handsome and honest an animated feature as any produced since Walt Disney's death; it may even be the best."
The film was nominated for "Best Family Animation or Fantasy Motion Picture" at the 10th annual Youth in Film Awards and also received a nomination for "Best Fantasy Film" at the 16th Saturn Awards ceremony in 1990.
"The Land Before Time" has generated many direct-to-video sequels (which differ from the original) by adding "sing-a-long" musical numbers. Don Bluth and his animation studio have no affiliation with any of the film's sequels.
The film's sequels have generally been met with mixed reception with several fans of the original disregarding them while others have embraced them into the canon of the story.
In 2007, a television series was released in North America. It follows the style of the sequels in terms of the morality and the musical numbers (with some of the songs being shortened & reworked).
Film series: The Land Before Time (1988) • The Great Valley Adventure (1994) • The Time of the Great Giving (1995) •
Journey Through the Mists (1996) • The Mysterious Island (1997) • The Secret of Saurus Rock (1998) • The Stone of Cold Fire (2000) • The Big Freeze (2001) • Journey to Big Water (2002) • The Great Longneck Migration (2003) • Invasion of the Tinysauruses (2005) • The Great Day of the Flyers (2006) • The Wisdom of Friends (2007) Journey of the Brave (2016)
Characters: Littlefoot • Cera • Ducky • Petrie • Spike • Chomper • Ruby (The Land Before Time)