The Land Before Time is a 1988 American animated film directed by Don Bluth (with production based around his Ireland-based studio), and executive produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The plot concerns a young Longneck (Apatosaurus) named Littlefoot, voiced by Gabriel Damon, who is orphaned (or so it is long believed, as his father is shown to still be alive in The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration) when his mother is killed by a Sharptooth (Tyrannosaurus). Littlefoot flees famine and upheaval to search for the Great Valley, an area which has been spared devastation. On his journey, he meets four young companions: Cera, a Three-Horn (Triceratops), Ducky, a Swimmer (Saurolophus), Petrie, a Flyer (Pterodactyl), and Spike, a Spike-Tail (Stegosaurus). The film explores issues of prejudice between the different species and the hardships they endure in their journey as they are guided by the spirit of Littlefoot's mother.
The film was a critical and financial success and spawned a multi-million dollar franchise with direct-to-video sequels (without association with Bluth, Spielberg, or Lucas), as well as merchandise (toys, video games, etc.) and a television series. Its success, along with An American Tail and the 1988 live-action/animated Disney film Who Framed Roger Rabbit led Spielberg to found his animation studio, Amblimation.
In a time overlapping the Jurassic Period and Cretaceous Period, a drought is occurring and several herds of dinosaurs seek an oasis known as the "Great Valley". Among these, a diminished "Longneck" herd gives birth to a single baby, named Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon).
Years later, Littlefoot plays with Cera (Candace Hutson), a "Three-horn", who was trying to smash a beetle until her father (Burke Byrnes) intervenes; whereupon Littlefoot's mother (Helen Shaver) names different kinds of dinosaurs: "Three-horns", "Spiketails", "Swimmers", and "Flyers" and states that each has historically remained apart. That night, as Littlefoot follows a "Hopper", he encounters Cera again, and they play together again briefly until a large dark green "Sharptooth" attacks.
He almost has them, before Littlefoot's mother comes to their rescue and faces off with Sharptooth. During their fight, she suffers severe injuries in her back and neck from Sharptooth's teeth and claws. At the same time, an "earthshake" opens a deep ravine that swallows up the Sharptooth and divides Littlefoot and Cera from their herds. Littlefoot finds his mother just as she's dying, and receives her advice in favor of his intuition. Depressed and confused, Littlefoot meets an old "Clubtail" named Rooter (Pat Hingle), who consoles him upon learning of his mother's death. Littlefoot later hears his mother's voice guiding him to follow the "bright circle" past the "great rock that looks like a longneck" and then past the "mountains that burn" to the Great Valley.
On his journey (now all by himself), Littlefoot meets Cera once again and tries to get her to join him, but she refuses. Later, Littlefoot is accompanied by a young "Bigmouth/Swimmer" named Ducky (Judith Barsi), whose company bears him out of his depression. Soon after, they meet an aerophobic "Flyer" named Petrie (Will Ryan). Cera, who is attempting to find her own kind, finds the unconscious Sharptooth inside the ravine. Thinking he is dead, Cera harasses him, during which she mistakenly wakes him up, and flees. She later bumps into Littlefoot, Ducky, and Petrie, and tells them that the Sharptooth is alive; although Littlefoot does not believe her. She then describes her encounter (exaggerating her bravery), during which she accidentally flings Ducky into the air and discovers a hatchling "Spiketail", whom she names Spike and brings him into the group.
Seeking the Great Valley, they discover a cluster of trees, which is abruptly depleted by a herd of Diplodocus. Searching for remaining growth, they discover a tree, and obtain food by stacking up atop each other and Petrie pulls off lots of treestars. Cera remains aloof; but at nightfall, everyone including herself gravitates to the Sharpttoth footprint that Littlefoot is sleeping in for warmth and companionship. The next morning, they are attacked by Sharptooth, but escape through a cave-tunnel too small for him to fit through.
Beyond this, they discover the Longneck-shaped monolith mentioned by Littlefoot's mother, and later a string of "mountains that burn". Cera grows impatient of the seemingly resultless trip and decides to go another way, but Littlefoot refuses, telling her the way she is going is wrong and when Cera refuses to retract an insult about Littlefoot's mother (whom he mentioned to back his claim), a fight between the two ensues causing a schism in the travelling party whereby Littlefoot continues in the direction he was told, while the others follow Cera.
When Ducky and Spike become endangered by lava and Petrie gets stuck in a tar pit, Littlefoot rescues them; later to find Cera harassed by a pack of "Boneheads", and, having been coated in tar, scare them away. Ashamed of her fear and earlier insult to Littlefoot's mother and reluctant to admit her mistake, Cera leaves them in tears. Later, while crossing a pond, Petrie discovers the Sharptooth nearby. With this, Littlefoot plots to lure him into the water beneath a nearby boulder, intending to drown him.
As Ducky (being used as bait) lures Sharptooth to the water, Littlefoot and Spike are having trouble moving the boulder. During the proceeding struggle, a draft from Sharptooth's nostrils enables Petrie to fly. Sharptooth leaps onto the boulder and the plan nearly fails until Cera reunites with the group, allowing Littlefoot and his friends to push both Sharptooth, Petrie and the boulder into the water below, momentarily taking Petrie down with him; but he later emerges unharmed. Littlefoot, alone, follows a cloud resembling his mother to the Great Valley, there to be joined by the others. Upon arrival, Petrie impresses his family with his newfound flight, while Ducky introduces Spike to her family, who adopt him. Cera reunites with her father and Littlefoot rejoins his grandparents. Cera then calls for Littlefoot to play. They join their friends at the top of a hill and embrace each other in a group hug.
- Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot - A kind-hearted young Apatosaurus who is orphaned after his mother dies.
- Candace Hudson as Cera - a stubborn young Triceratops who accompanies Littlefoot on his journey.
- Judith Bars as Ducky - A cheerful Saurolophus and Spike's adoptive sister.
- Will Ryan as Petrie - A paranoid Pteranodon afraid of flying.
- Frank Welker as Sharptooth - An aggressive Tyrannosaurus who attacks the group constantly.
- Pat Wingle as Rooter - The wise Scolosaurus. Pat also narrated the film.
- Helen Shaver as Littlefoot's Mother
- Burke Byrnes as Daddy Topps - Cera's father.
- Bill Erwin as Littlefoot's Grandfather.
The animation production for The Land Before Time took place at Sullivan Bluth Studios in Dublin, Ireland. The film had originally been planned for release in fall of 1987, but the production and the release date were delayed by a year due to the studio's relocation to Dublin. Had the studio not been relocated, many of the cut scenes would have made it into the film.
Amblin Entertainment held the idea of producing a film involving dinosaurs, on the basis that dinosaurs were a popular topic with children. Steven Spielberg suggested making the film into a prehistoric version of Disney's Bambi, depicting a young dinosaur's struggles to survive and mature. Eventually, more young dinosaurs were added to the story, and a decision was made to give the film a "soft, gentle" plot about five young dinosaurs working together as a group. As the concept was developed more, the idea of segregation between dinosaurs of different species was added in, and the moral of the story became that the young dinosaurs, who had been taught to avoid each other, would have to look past their differences and function together. As production on The Land Before Time officially began in the summer of 1986, due to delays brought on by Amblin and Universal's concerns that their previous animated film, An American Tail might flop, the story featured the main characters on a mission to find a wise old dinosaur. After Sullivan Bluth Studios' move to Ireland delayed the movie's production again, full production on the movie began in the spring of 1987.
As individual parties in various locations were needed to review the script for the movie, sections of the script were reviewed at a time, similarly to the old script reviewing methods the Walt Disney studios had followed decades before.
An early working title for the film was “The Land Before Time Began”.
Developing the characters
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas originally wanted the film to have no dialogue, like The Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia, but the idea was abandoned in favor of using voice actors in order to appeal to children.
Littlefoot was originally going to be called "Thunderfoot", until it was found out that there was a Triceratops in a children's book who already had that name. It was George Lucas's idea to make Cera a female Triceratops, when she was in mid-animation as a male named Bambo. Steven Spielburg's son, Max, suggested the voice of Digit, from An American Tail, for the character Petrie, which resulted in Will Ryan, who had voiced Digit, performing the voice of Petrie. In fact, Petrie was originally to have a whistle voice until it was later decided that he would instead have a talkative voice with broken lines. The character of Spike was inspired by director Don Bluth's pet chowhound, Cubby.
Editing of the film
Like Disney's The Black Cauldron and The Jungle Book, which were made years earlier, and Warner Bros./Zoetrope's The Outsiders, which was made five years earlier, The Land Before Time went under a severe cutting and editing of footage. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas thought that some scenes in the movie would appear too frightening or could even cause psychological damage to young children.
Around 10 minutes of footage, a total of 19 fully animated scenes, were cut from the final film to attain a G rating instead of a PG rating. The film with all the scenes, many of which were completed, were approved until April or May of 1988, when many scenes were cut. The original film with the cut scenes was confirmed by Gary Goldman to have a runtime of 80-82 minutes.
Only some of the cut footage consisted of the Tyrannosaurus rex attack sequence. There were also sequences of the five young dinosaurs in severe situations of peril and negative stress. The scene of Sharptooth landing on the back of Littlefoot's mother was altered so that it was only shown in shadow.
Some early VHS of the film have been said to have the original version of the scene, though this seems to have been proven false. A pre-release McDonalds VHS of the film was thought to have cut scenes, but this was also proven false. Don Bluth was unhappy with the cuts, and fought for all the footage, but in the end he had to settle on a final running time of 69 minutes, one of Don Bluth’s shortest; in fact one of the shortest feature films ever produced (depending on how "feature film" is defined).
As of today, the original cut of the film with the removed scenes has not been released on video or DVD and it is not known if the motion footage still exists. Some stills do exist, however, including deleted Sharptooth scenes, stills from the original ending, Ducky making faces, and Spike being enticed with berries by Ducky, from a scene that was to have included Cera arguing against Spike coming with the group. A couple of these scenes did make it into the movie novelization, however, and others were in the picture books released with the original film. Many fans of The Land Before Time are trying to recover these scenes and add them into the movie again. Supposedly, one tape that included the deleted scenes was sent to a Finnish company by mistake, and was aired on their TV station. However, this has not been confirmed, and could possibly be a rumor.
Another part of the movie that was going to be eliminated was the death of Littlefoot’s mother. However, it was thought that if the scene were removed it would simply produce problems in explaining why Littlefoot had to journey to the Great Valley alone. In the end, psychologists were shown the scene and gave feedback to the production team. The character of Rooter was brought in to the story to soften the emotional blow, and teach Littlefoot and the audience that although loved ones may die, they are always with us in the lessons we have learned from them. Shortly after the information was released, a rumor was spread that all five of the young dinosaurs died, with the Great Valley as an interpretation of heaven, as one of the deleted scenes. However, this has been denied by Don Bluth.
The film's ending was also altered. The original version had Littlefoot finding the Great Valley on his own, after Cera and the rest of the group go their own way. He then goes to play in a waterfall under him, and then climb back up it to find his friends. He would then have gone back to find the others and help them defeat Sharptooth, before they all entered the valley. Evidence of this ending remains in the scene of Littlefoot talking to his mother's spirit after the death of Sharptooth. The rock pushed onto Sharptooth's head is still there in the background, on its ledge, because this scene was meant to appear before the death scene. There are also a few production stills showing Littlefoot running down the path to the valley with Petrie on his head, and the narration after he rejoins the others (stating that Cera was too proud to admit she went the wrong way) makes more sense with the original ending. The ending was altered after the soundtrack was made, so the original ending's music in its proper order can still be heard, including the cut parts. This ending also appears in three children's books released along with the original film, "Friends in Need", "The Search for the Great Valley", and "The Land Before Time: The Illustrated Story".
The original ending was also to end with Littlefoot saying "Now we'll always be together.", but that bit was cut from the final version (ending only with Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike hugging each other), although it can be seen in the US Pizza Hut commercial promoting the film's theatrical release and the Australian Pizza Hut commercial promoting the film's home video release. It is unknown as to why this line was cut. It was possibly done to take away evidence for the rumor of the Great Valley being heaven.
There was a scene planned to be included but cut before it was animated, where the gang happens on an oasis inhabited by a group of fat "crown-heads" (Pachycephalosaurus/domeheads) who tell the group that only their own kind can eat, and thin "gray-noses" (Saurolophus/bigmouths) who say only their own kind can drink. The two species refuse to share food/water, even though both will eventually die at the end. This is when Cera realizes that judging others by their species is not the best thing to do. Ducky is told by the gray-noses that she can drink because she is like them, but the others cannot, so the group moves on to find their own food. This scene appears in the book "Friends in Need" and "The Land Before Time: The Illustrated Story". In "Friends in Need" the illustration is of the movie scene where the stand of trees are eaten by the longnecks, but in the Illustrated Story it shows a painted picture of the scene (although not footage from the actual movie). This scene was presumably removed to tone down the racism aspect of the film. A scene from the theatrical trailer includes a short scene where Sharptooth steps in front of Littlefoot and Cera, making swampy water fly everywhere when he steps. This is not in the final film; it can only be seen in the trailer. It might be part of the 19 seconds of the fight between Sharptooth and Mama Longneck that was cut. The fight may have moved to the swamp at some point. A scene of Ducky taunting Sharptooth by making faces in the water and him jumping next to her, and part of the scene after the gang gets green-food from the tree were also cut, although they can also be seen the film's theatrical trailer.
Some scenes with the characters in the movie screaming were revoiced with them having milder exclamations.
The Land Before Time received a 72% "Fresh" rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, while the movie's fans gave it a higher score of 78% "Certified Fresh".
The Land Before Time grossed $48 million at the US 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 US release, slightly more than Don Bluth's previous film, An American Tail. While Oliver & Company had grossed over its US earnings, The Land Before Time grossed nearly $84 million worldwide, which the Disney film did not surpass. However, Oliver & Company beat out The Land Before Time at the US box office by about $5 million. Attached to the film, Universal and Amblin issued Brad Bird's Family Dog short from their television anthology Amazing Stories.
- This is the only film in The Land Before Time series which is not a musical.
- Though Spike doesn't talk in the English version of the film, he utters a single line while climbing up the rocky mountain side in the Finnish version; "ruokaa", which translates into English as "food".
- Bill Erwin is credited as voicing Grandpa Longneck, despite the character not speaking in the film. He only chuckles at one point.
- It has a trailer that comes with the anniversary edition from the VHS and DVD versions, The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration.
- It is unknown who voiced Grandma Longneck, though like her husband isn't heard speaking in the film. Both of them are only heard chuckling when their daughter gives Littlefoot his first treestar.
- This film is the first in which Littlefoot, Ducky and Cera crying.
- The character who alarmedly shouts "Sharptooth!" in his introductory scene differs across the various international dubs of the film.
- Cera screamed, "Sharptooth!" in English, Hungarian, Japanese, German, and Chinese.
- Littlefoot screamed, "Sharptooth!" in Canadian French, European French, Russian, Czech, Dutch, Greek, and Swedish.
- As of July 1, 2020, The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, this film, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Rock-a-Doodle, and The Pebble and the Penguin are the only feature-length Don Bluth films not owned by The Walt Disney Company, although Disney still owns international rights for The Pebble and the Penguin under 20th Century Studios.
- With the running time of 69 minutes, this is Don Bluth's shortest feature-length film in history and also Universal's shortest animated feature-length film.
Sequels & Spin-offs
The Land Before Time generated direct-to-video sequels, of which Don Bluth and his studio, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have no affiliation. The sequels depart from the style of the original significantly by adding "sing-a-long" musical numbers akin to Disney's animated films, using softer, more brightly-colored animation, and toning down the intensity seen in the original film, such as making the sharpteeth much more weak in comparison to the original Sharptooth, with one exception, and stopping most Leaf Eater deaths from happening.
A television series was originally released in North America in early 2007, which follows the style of the sequels in terms of the morality and the musical numbers (with some of the songs being shortened, reworked versions of songs from the sequels).