Back in May I discovered that The Land Before Time was on Netflix. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, so I immediately watched it with my partner.
After finishing, I said, “Did you know there are fourteen of these movies?”
She couldn’t believe it. Neither of us had watched more than three or four of them.
“You know what would be really funny?” I said. “If I watched every single Land Before Time movie over the course of a weekend.”
The trick was, of course, finding all these movies. I didn’t want to rent them, because that would be a huge waste of money. I’ve always been paranoid about pirating sites, because I don’t want to lose the contents of my computer as the result of a Land Before Time marathon. YouTube doesn’t help either; they have some of the movies, but not all of them. And in any case, did I really want to spend a weekend watching shitty animated dinosaurs?
Over the Thanksgiving weekend I went to Costco and discovered a box set of all fourteen Land Before Time movies packaged together for the reasonable price of $28. The cover promised over seventeen hours of fun.
I knew it was time.
This is the first weekend since then that I’ve been able to block off both days for the marathon. I live with my partner in a bachelor apartment, so this is a sacrifice for us both.
Why the hell am I doing this? For the same reason that Edmund Hillary climbed Everest: nobody else had ever done it before.
Except you know that some Tibetan person had probably climbed Everest at some point, right? And some unsupervised child with poor judgment has probably binge watched all these movies.
But we don’t know the names of these brave souls, so we claim their pioneering achievements as our own. This is how the world works.
The Land Before Time
I grew up with this movie and saw it at least a dozen times as a kid. For people in my generation, it has a certain iconic quality.
Unfortunately, watching it now, I see it has some problems. Namely, its characterization, plotting, and animation are weak. These are serious issues.
The characters are one-dimensional, possessing perhaps one or two personality traits each. Littlefoot, the protagonist, is thoughtful. Cera is aggressive. Petrie is neurotic. Ducky is loud. Spike is brain damaged. All are insufferable except Spike, who is silent and plays a smaller part than the others.
The film’s plot relies heavily on coincidences (characters are always in the right place at the right time), and important events seem to be placed too closely together. I feel as though the film should’ve been at least fifteen minutes longer, to give the characters more time to develop, and to provide some breathing space. As it is, the film feels airless and rushed.
The animation is not up to the standards of other films from the same period. It is significantly weaker than its Disney-made contemporaries (The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, and The Little Mermaid). Characters’ facial expressions are often strange and unappealing, and the colours are flat. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare The Land Before Time to Disney, because Disney had more resources available. But the animation is also worse than director Don Bluth’s first film The Secret of NIMH, made six years prior.
So does The Land Before Time have any redeeming factors? Yes: the score, by James Horner, is perhaps the best score I’ve ever heard in an animated film. Whatever emotional resonance the film has- and there are moments when it almost made me cry- is because of Horner’s music. The main theme in particular is devastating and iconic, manipulative in just the right way, where you notice you’re being jerked around and don’t even care. In contrast, the rest of the film- with lots of badly animated shots of characters looking mopey- is manipulative in a crass and empty way, and I felt resentful for being asked to feel something. But then the music cued up, I lost my fucking mind, and I was five-years-old again.
In the end, Horner manages to single-handedly save the film and make it worth watching- but only just.
My Mental State:
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed. It’s only 10:30 in the morning, and I still feel fresh. I do feel apprehensive, because The Land Before Time is probably going to be the highlight, and it wasn’t all that good.
The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure
The biggest surprise here was the quality of the animation. It was a big step up from the original movie. The colours are bright, the character designs are more appealing, and everything seems to have more visual depth.
The plot is around what you’d expect from a typical Saturday morning cartoon. It’s simplistic and relatively painless, though I found it meandered too much. The Great Valley Adventure has the opposite problem from the original film: overlong and too flabby, and it takes too long to really get going. The film should’ve been about ten or fifteen minutes shorter, and the climax in particular was an interminable mash of clunky fight and chase scenes.
The rest was fine. The Great Valley Adventure has no ambition whatsoever; like the rest of the sequels, it was released as a direct-to-video cash grab. Judged by those low expectations, it can be considered a rousing success. Watching it reminded me of being a kid and sitting in front of the T.V. on a lazy summer morning. That’s not a bad experience.
Another thing that should be noted is that this film, unlike the original, is a musical. The songs sound like they were composed by someone accustomed to writing jingles for T.V. commercials, that they can’t believe they’ve been reduced to this, and have had a few belts of scotch to make the process endurable.
My Mental State:
I feel fine, though I wish I had a big bowl of Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs or some Corn Pops to complete the illusion of being a kid again.
The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving
The animation is a big step backwards here; it might actually be worse than the original. The characters’ movements are often jerky and their facial expressions frequently grotesque.
The storyline and themes are painfully simple, with all the nuance and complexity of a Berenstain Bears book, and there’s a great deal of preachiness about issues that everyone agrees on. Sharing is good. Child abuse is bad. Emergency preparedness is good. Bullying is bad.
I do appreciate the gentleness at the heart of this movie. It is fundamentally humanist, and ultimately even the characters who seemed villainous to begin with are shown to have reasons for their behaviour.
More than the other two- more than just about any film I’ve seen- this reminds me of a picture book, which is why I previously mentioned the Berenstain Bears.
It is ingratiatingly sweet, and features a harshly obvious Moral of the Story. But in a world in which so much entertainment- even children’s entertainment- is dark and brutal, there’s something to be said for something as innocent as The Time of the Great Giving. Though its execution is so clumsy that it’s sometimes painful to watch.
I’d also like to note that the songs here are a great deal better than The Great Valley Adventure. One of them- an early, doo-wop-style song about bullying- is genuinely enjoyable.
My Mental State:
I was feeling a bit logey and dyspeptic about halfway through, but then I had some lunch and I’m feeling better. I’m cautiously optimistic about this endeavour, though I’m keeping an eye on the time. It’s 3 PM now, and we have a guest coming at 6. Will I be able to watch seven films today?
The Land Before Time IV: Journey through the Mists
Well, this one was kind of all over the place. The animation has thankfully bottomed out- for now. It’s about as rough as it was in the third film, though the backgrounds here tend to be better animated than The Time of the Great Giving, and the character animations tend to be worse.
There are fewer plot problems here than in any of the other films. The plot is reasonably straightforward and propulsive, without any weird, unnecessary diversions- with the exception of a lengthy fight scene in a cave near the middle of the film, and a flashback sequence near the end. Neither of these scenes cause any lasting damage to the movie though, and it recovers quickly.
The villains in this film are more obnoxious than the villains in the other films, but also- with the exception of the Sharptooth in the first movie- more dangerous. Instead of stealing eggs or just generally being assholes, they actually want to eat the main characters. So the stakes have never been higher, etc. etc.
Like the third film, Journey through the Mists also takes some time- not too much, thank God- to preach about the values of friendship and tolerance. The film could almost have spent more time on this, because the racially motivated tension between two characters is abruptly and irreversibly resolved halfway through the plot, and never revisited.
My Mental State:
Just like the film, I’m kind of all over the place. I was feeling pissed off at the movie and the world for the first forty minutes or so, and then I had to take an hour-long break while my partner had a video conference. This allowed me a fresh perspective on the film, though it also led me to wonder just why the hell I’m doing this to myself. Such ruminations are not wise.
The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island
I was not expecting this. It is a huge step forward from the previous sequels, and possibly even better than the original. The animation is surprisingly good; easily the best out of any of the movies so far, smoother and prettier. The plot is neither too convoluted nor too stunted, and the conflict it sets up- the main characters stranded on a strange island- is actually interesting. Best of all, there are no real villains here. Just one predator who’s more a force of nature than anything else. Most kids’ movies aren’t sophisticated or nuanced enough to portray a world where everyone has inner lives and reasonable motivations. This one in particular manages to further the previous films’ theme of anti-racism in a way that is entertaining and rarely preachy.
The songs were a big improvement too- all three of them were enjoyable.
My Mental State:
After finishing the film I suggested to my partner that I create a film series called The Land Before Tim about a guy named Tim and all the stuff that happens before he’s born.
The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock
What the fuck is this shit? There’s some old bastard dinosaur who looks like Clint Eastwood, a tornado, the two most obnoxious dinosaur children in the world, and the threadbare plot revolves around the question of whether bad luck exists.
The main characters hear some stupid fucking bedtime story about The Lone Dinosaur and some rock that symbolizes something and if anything happens to the rock bad things will happen and then something bad happens to the rock, and did I mention those obnoxious fucking dinosaur children? They’re apparently the nieces (or possibly sisters?) of Cera, and are absolutely the worst fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been watching these fucking movies all day. I’m not emotionally equipped to handle this shit. I dozed off at one point for a couple of minutes, and the only reason I didn’t fall asleep again was because I was more pissed off than tired. While watching the climax of the movie, in which Littlefoot’s grandfather once again gets the shit beaten out of him because Littlefoot did something stupid, and in which Littlefoot’s grandfather teams up with Flint Eastwood and beats the shit out of two predator dinosaurs, I realized something important: the screenwriters of this film were high on cocaine. Just absolutely coked out of their gourds. This is unfair. I had to watch this movie completely sober.
My Mental State:
Oh, I’m doing just fine, thanks.
The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire
I just don’t know anymore. I’m starting to seriously worry about my mental state. This might be Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but I thought this was a dazzling piece of work, complex and nuanced. The animation in The Stone of Cold Fire is another series best- every movie in the series, with the exception of the sixth, seems to improve in this regard. And, for the first time in the series, The Stone of Cold Fire asks interesting moral questions with difficult answers: What makes someone a villain? Are there any behaviours that are truly unforgivable? What qualities make a person a leader?
This movie also furthers the series’ gentle, humanist approach, arguing that- at the end of the day- there are no villains or heroes, and that everyone is complicated.
This is the sort of thing that happens when you have talented, intelligent people working behind the scenes of a film series that nobody is paying attention to. After a certain point they realize they can do pretty much anything they want, and start creating genuinely interesting things.
Also, there are motherfucking dinosaur aliens in this film. It was so ruthlessly awesome I almost cried. If The Secret of Saurus Rock was cocaine, then The Stone of Cold Fire is psilocybin mushrooms. And, let me tell you, it’s a much better experience.
My Mental State:
I don’t know if I should be enjoying these movies so much. I may have lost my mind.
The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze
So for the first half an hour the characters basically just hang out and don’t do anything. And my mind is fucking glazed at this point- it’s like a goddamn Krispy Kreme donut- and I like these characters, so I don’t fucking care what they do. I just like watching them, because at this point it feels like I’ve been watching them my whole life. I have never not been watching The Land Before Time.
So Littlefoot has some conflict with a teacher, and Ducky gets mad at Spike, and other spiketails come to the valley and try to adopt him, and there’s a big snowfall, and none of this really amounts to anything except characters talking to each other. Fine, whatever.
Then Spike leaves the valley and it gets even colder out and Ducky goes after Spike and the other characters go after Ducky. Which is pretty standard; just about all these movies involves the main characters leaving the Valley for some stupid fucking reason that endangers all their lives.
Except this time they decide to take their elderly teacher with them, and that just kills the momentum dead because he is a boring, useless character who talks slowly and moves slowly and doesn’t do much.
And of course the film has Lessons To Impart, which are that Everyone Matters and You Shouldn’t Lie and that Everyone Deserves Dignity. Okay, these are valuable lessons, and I admire the gentle, big-heartedness of this series. Once again it serves up a valuable lesson and the execution is fucking dreadful; the moral is delivered in a saccharne, bossily-obvious way.
I’d like to once again note that the animation continues to improve for some reason. The quality of the character animation has been pretty stagnant for the last few films, but the background animation is fucking gorgeous. The snow in this film is especially beautiful, and I can imagine watching this film as a kid during winter break while the snow outside falls and falls and I’m cozy and warm and happy.
Also, the film cast Robert Guillaume as the elderly teacher, and may God strike them dead for wasting him in this manner. He’s a national treasure. And I recognize that national treasures have to eat, but Christ. Just send him a cheque in the mail if you have nothing valuable for him to do.
My Mental State:
A little crotchety, if you haven’t guessed. It’s almost 2:30 and I have six more of this fucking movies to watch, so I’m a little concerned about the time. I’m also feeling a little loopy. I suggested to my partner that I create a film series called The Band Before Time, about a bunch of punk rockers who get stranded in the dinosaur age and have to figure out how to survive by utilizing their skills as musicians. She said it was a terrible idea, though not as bad as The Land Before Tim.
The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water
There’s next to nothing here to talk about or analyze. The main characters decide to help a camp dolphin find his way home, so they walk along a riverbank for an hour and change while the dolphin swims alongside them making irritating fucking noises and obnoxious jokes. Every now and then they encounter an obstacle which they easily overcome within a minute or two. Nothing seems to have any weight. The visuals are pretty. The songs are mediocre. I want to die.
My Mental State:
The narrator concluded the film by promising there were “many more adventures to come”. I burst into joyless, hysterical laughter.
The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration
An interesting case here. It starts off with the most blatant “what the hell” plot point I’ve seen in the series so far, with Littlefoot and his grandparents leaving the Great Valley for no reason at all. They had a couple of weird dreams, they’re feeling restless, so off they go.
This bothered me at first, but then I realized the movie was doing something strange and creepy- unintentionally so perhaps- but it had a definite impact just the same. It turns out that all the longnecks are participating in some kind of religious pilgrimage to a longneck holy site.
Yeah, sure, we’re ten movies into the series, let’s make a film about longneck religion.
So there’s that.
And then Littlefoot’s dad shows up. I have been waiting several movies for this inevitable plot development. While staggering through idiotic storylines like The Lone Dinosaur and The Importance of Water Conservation, I dreamt about this moment.
And so yeah, his dad shows up, and they get along great, and then go their separate ways at the end of the film. Oh, well.
But the emphasis on longneck religion is fascinating, and there are some interesting (albeit one-dimensional) new characters and character dynamics. So the movie ends up being an enjoyable romp.
The animation takes a turn for the worse here, though not in the direction I was expecting. For the last few movies they’ve used C.G.I. flourishes within the 2-D animation, and these have been mostly attractive and effective, allowing the movies to use more elaborate backgrounds, textures, and “camera movements”. But in this film, they attempt a more full-scale grafting of 2-D characters with 3-D objects and surfaces, and the result is odd and distracting. A clear step backwards, but still nowhere near the straight-to-video cheapness you’d expect for a children’s animated film series in its 10th installment.
One more thing: Kiefer Sutherland and Bernadette Peters are both in this. I was shocked to discover that, and I have no idea why they participated. I can only assume they killed someone with a car, and that there is incriminating video footage.
My Mental State:
The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses
Not much happens here, but the few things that do happen aren’t handled particularly well. A bunch of tiny dinosaurs steal the valley’s dessert supply, and Cera’s dad decides to perpetrate genocide against them. This strikes me as a disproportionate response. Littlefoot lies about his peripheral involvement in the dessert stealing and befriends the tiny dinosaurs, and the movie’s moral position seems to be that lying is a far graver offense than attempted genocide. Which is an interesting position to take.
Anyway, there are some fun new characters, and an enjoyable doo wop song, and even though the movie minimizes the severity of genocide, it’s pretty good. “Pretty good” being an extremely relative term at this point; it didn’t make me want to hang myself. Also, the magnificently talented Michael Clarke Duncan voiced one of the characters in this film. He died at the age of fifty-four, and spent some of his limited time on earth participating in one of the lesser Land Before Time movies. This saddens me.
My Mental State:
I no longer know why I thought this was a good idea and it feels like I’ve been watching these movies for my entire life. That being said, I’m closer to the end than the beginning, and feeling pretty good about that at least.
The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers
Well, they pretty much gave up at this point. They might as well have replaced the DVD with a plain white piece of paper that said:
- Be yourself.
- Family is important.
Because that’s all that’s going on here. Cera’s threatened by the fact her dad and stepmom are having a baby. Petrie doesn’t feel like he fits in with his family, and discovers a Woody Allen bird dinosaur who doesn’t fit in with anyone.
So Cera and Petrie deal with their problems- Cera resolves hers halfway through the movie, and it’s barely mentioned again- and the Woody Allen dinosaur is unexpectedly not annoying.
At one point the screenwriter realized that nothing much had happened yet, and wrote a twenty minute sequence in which the main characters prevented the Woody Allen dinosaur from accidentally harming himself while sleepwalking. So that is also a thing that happened.
The animation is fine- the C.G.I. elements are still a little distracting- and I honestly have already forgotten everything about the songs.
My Mental State:
Halfway through watching this film, my partner came across a meme on her Facebook feed. It was a picture of Littlefoot as a baby, and the caption said, “Who remembers Littlefoot?” She showed it to me and I laughed manically. After finishing the movie I remembered the meme and laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. Halfway through writing my review of the film my partner surveyed the weekend’s worth of detritus cluttering our kitchen table and said, “What have we done with our lives?” I burst out laughing hysterically and- after a minute- managed to say, “That’s the wrong question to ask me while I’m writing about the twelfth Land Before Time movie.”
The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends
Fuck this shit. Fuck it up, down and sideways. Fuck it straight to Hell.
Here’s the story: Littlefoot decides he’s Jesus fucking Christ or something and that it’s his moral obligation to impart a series of didactic Wisdoms to every goddamn person within earshot, most of which have to do with obeying authority. Littlefoot and his friends encounter three new dinosaurs who are too stupid to live, and Littlefoot decides to go all Jesus and rescue them with these Wisdoms he’s suddenly devoted his life to following. Then they discover even more dinosaurs who are too stupid to live and what could charitably be called hijinks ensue. But it turns out, in a wildly improbable twist, that these dinosaurs have Wisdoms of their own, most of which involve doing whatever the fuck you want and trusting that things will just work out. Littlefoot eventually concludes that a combination of doing a bunch of random shit as well as unquestioningly obeying authority is the correct way to live, which strikes me as a deeply flawed conclusion in a number of ways.
The new breed of dinosaur is fucking obnoxious, the plot is thin, the message is preachy, and the songs are forgettable. Academy Award Winner Cuba Gooding Jr. plays one of the brain dead dinosaurs, because I guess somebody has photos of him fucking a horse.
My Mental State:
I just want to get this shit over with.
The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
I feel we need some context here. Between 1994 and 2007, a Land Before Time sequel was released just about every year. That led to a lot of continuity behind the screen; watching the sequels, I saw a lot of names pop up again and again, most notably director/producer Charles Grosvenor and screenwriter John Foy. After 2007, there was a short-lived T.V. series about which I know nothing, and then that was that. Until this year when, for some reason, the series was revived.
Some of the vocal talents had died in the interim, and I wasn’t sure whether Grosvenor, Foy, or songwriters (for films five through thirteen) Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom would return. Additionally, animation has advanced in the last decade thanks to computers and shit, but direct-to-video animated films are somewhat less common.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect.
To start with, the animation is among the best in the series. It has the polish of the later films without the clunky C.G.I. The characters are mostly similar, though they seem somewhat stupider than they used to be (especially Spike), and Littlefoot is more aggressive.
The plot is sleek and streamlined, as if the screenwriters sat down and- as their primary goal- wrote what they thought people would expect from an adventure movie featuring anthropomorphic dinosaur children. Which is probably the best approach for this material.
Littlefoot’s father is in trouble somewhere in the Mysterious Beyond. Littlefoot and his friends launch a rescue mission. That’s it. Simple and elegant, without any preaching or weird diversions. There aren’t even any villains.
There are a few new characters, but only one of them (the neurotic Wild Arms) is obnoxious. The songs, which were often a highlight of the previous sequels, are even better here. The songwriters returned, but the screenwriter and director didn’t, which might account for the occasional out-of-character moments and lack of preachiness. It’s a solid, entertaining film, not particularly inspired but lacking any major flaws.
If they never make another Land Before Time film, this is a good note to go out on. Unlike so many of the other sequels, and unlike the vast majority of direct-to-video products, it has dignity and grace.
My Mental State:
I anticipated being a broken man at the end of this, bereft of light, hoping fervently to never think about dinosaurs, friendship, animation, or film ever again.
Surprisingly, this is not the case. I’m glad I’m done, but also glad I undertook this marathon. Right now, in this moment, I believe it was fun and worthwhile.
This is probably just a symptom of insanity.
A note about the final ranking:
Roger Ebert taught me to only compare films to comparable films. You could, for instance, compare Citizen Kane with Casablanca because they’re both American dramas from the 1940s. But comparing Citizen Kane to The Lego Movie would be useless. You’d think then that comparing a film to its sequels would be fair game. Except the original Land Before Time has very different goals than its sequels. The Land Before Time was conceived as a serious artistic statement, meant to rival Disney films in terms of quality. It failed abysmally in this regard, and is worse than any Disney animated film of the 1980s (with the exception of Oliver and Company). It is also worse than The Secret of NIMH, which is the only other Don Bluth film I’ve seen.
The sequels were designed as products. They are mercenary cash-grabs with no artistic ambition. That being said, for the most part they were much better than they had to be. The animation quality, voice talent, and music are- for the most part- decent, and there are some genuinely interesting ideas and storylines in the sequels.
Of course The Land Before Time is better than most of its sequels, but that’s only because it’s playing major league baseball while the sequels are playing kick the can.
So how do I compare the two, especially when The Land Before Time fails according to its own terms and the sequels mostly succeed according to theirs?
I decided eventually not to rank the original film alongside the sequels. It would be nonsensical. But if you were to get completist about the ranking, I would slot The Land Before Time in second place.
- The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Valley
- The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire
- The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration
- The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
- The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure
- The Land Before Time IV: Journey through the Mists
- The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze
- The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving
- The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers
- The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses
- The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water
- The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends
- The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock