There is something strange about watching 1988's The Land Before Time in 2023 after not having seen it for more than a decade. The creation of director Don Bluth, the mind behind everything from The Secret of NIMH to Anastasia and Titan A.E., it is a very short feature at just over an hour. Despite this tight runtime, as a young lad it felt like an epic on par with The Lord of the Rings. It contained terrifyingly massive dinosaurs, beautifully hand-drawn landscapes (that still have more than held up after all these years), and plenty of good-natured charm while also dealing with death in a way that other children's films did not. It feels like a time capsule of a different era of animation. Sure, it was a little silly with more than a bit of roughness around the edges, but it was a work that had a prominent place in many a cinematic education.
To then see it all again, it is fascinating to see how explicitly it was Bluth telling a biblical story.
Skeptical? I would be too, but it is rather clear once you observe the way it all ends up coming together.
As a young child, the film's story is simply about a young dinosaur named Littlefoot trying to find his way to the Great Valley after the death of his mother at the tiny arms of the villainous "sharptooth" (T-Rex). It had a genuine beating heart to it, but the multitude of religious underpinnings went completely over my head. There is no one interpretation, but it is hard not to see Littlefoot as a messianic figure whose birth itself feels almost spiritual. Following this, he then unites a group of followers and sets out to take them to a promised land of abundance. It requires them to believe and weather many a crisis of faith on the way.
Bluth himself has been quite open about the influence of religion on his work, outlining this in many interviews in his later years. That he is a graduate of Brigham Young University has led some to conclude that Littlefoot could be a specifically Mormon figure in the vein of Joseph Smith. These readings remain a defining aspect of the first The Land Before Time that is not present in the 13 (13!) direct-to-video movies, TV series and video games (which Bluth was not involved in creating). None of them are really worth checking out as an adult, as they are hollow musicals that can't hold a candle to the journey that the first takes us on.
While some may bristle at the potential of a film that is geared toward children being haphazardly slapped together as a recruiting tool for religion (looking at you, VeggieTales), the way Bluth filtered belief into his work was never preachy or calculated. Instead, there is just a sincere amount of care for the characters and the craft that is infectious. Though The Land Before Time isn't as scary or emotional as when seen through the eyes of a child, it is still something that you can get swept up in. Some of this may be because of the residual nostalgic memories for how the movie impacted us the first time around, but it still generally stands on its own.
Be it in the smaller sequences that explore beautiful corners of the world or the overarching expedition the dino characters go on, there is a real vibrancy on display — one that feels like it is missing in modern animation. There are certainly pioneers trying out new techniques to push the form forward, evidenced in 2022's array of stop-motion features ranging from joyous works like Wendell and Wild and Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio to the gritty, dark spectacle of Mad God. At the same time, there are many animated features that feel like they are just fundamentally overlooking the need to bring life to the story via the details of the animation itself. It is in this regard that The Land Before Time remains the pinnacle of what animation can and should aspire to. After all, there aren't many works out there that can manage to make us still believe that a wet leaf would be somehow delicious to eat. If that isn't a success of the form, nothing will ever be. ♦
The Land Before Time screens at all Regal Cinemas from March 3-9.