That Moment In ‘The Land Before Time’ and Why Littlefoot’s Mother’s Death is So Important
The Land Before Time is 1988 animated film about an orphaned brontosaurus who teams up with other young dinosaurs in order to reunite with their families in a valley.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I kinda have a soft spot for kid’s movies, or at least ones done right. The older I get, the more, I don’t know, attuned I get to the message, and if it’s a good movie with a good story and it handles things with some genuine honesty, well, I get tripped up and … I’ll just admit it. I get weepy. A few Disney films work hard to earn these moments and most of the Pixar flicks get a strike in there s well, but there was no one more skilled at squeezing tears out of me than Don Bluth, a former Disney animator who created a slew of children’s movies in the 80s and 90s that had the biggest impact. Think of The Secret of NIMH or An American Tale or All Dogs Go To Heaven. Geesh, these movies were emotional trainwrecks.
One of the most popular of his films is this dinosaur story, The Land Before Time, released in 1988 that went on to spawn an incredible thirteen sequels and an animated TV series. There’s not a children’s film franchise that even comes close to exposure like that. At least one with talking dinos. The first, however, is a highly-influential movie that tapped into the whole dinosaur craze a full four years before Jurassic Park went all epic with it, a well-made, hand-drawn full-length feature film that steers clear of most of the conventions of a children’s movie, and goes much darker, as Bluth often did. It’s sweet and violent, uncompromising in its approach, and while that has mixed results, makes for a pretty compelling watch. Let’s talk about it.
Directed by Bluth, who, let’s face it, was the Disney alternative for a few decades there with a string of children’s movies that were darker, grittier and less, well, enchanted than those of the House of Mouse, The Land Before Time was produced by (speaking of Jurassic Park) Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and was originally meant to have no dialogue, keeping it even more out of step with Disney movies, but also certainly stripping it of any appeal to the target audience. That would have been a film I’d want to see, even as good as the released movie is, however, the movie as is has a lot of appeal and obviously resonants with kids (and adults).
The story tells of a terrible drought that has dried up the land, forcing herds of dinosaurs to make a pilgrimage to the Great Valley where paradise awaits. During this trek, a baby is born and a few years later, young Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon), a “longneck,” travels with weakening family. He makes friends with a “three-horn” girl named Cera (voiced by Candace Hutson), and together, as they continue their search, face great peril, tragedy, and adventures along the way.
Early on, as Littlefoot is still learning that there are great differences in the dinosaurs, the herd is attacked by a “Sharptooth” (Tyrannosaurus), who fights with Littlefoot’s mother (voiced by Helen Shaver) who comes to the children’s rescue in an epic battle that is suddenly weighted by a tectonic shift that shakes the land; it’s a massive earthquake that splits the ground in all directions into a run of high cliffs and deep ravines, separating much of the herd, including Cere and her parents. It also swallows the Sharptooth and leaves the children scrambling.
When it’s all over, as Cera desperately tries to reach her family now so far away, Littlefoot frantically searches for his mother in the dust and darkness, a storm now dumping sheets of rain. He finds her draped over broken rock, breathless, mortally injured, and unable to move. She beckons him near and tells him he must go to the Great Valley without her, though she will always be with him, even if he can’t see her. He’s confused, but she has no time. She offers him some hope, to let his heart guide him, but to listen closely as it whispers. The camera then pulls back and lets mother and child disappear into the growing shadows.
A good number of children’s films pivot on the need for a child to understand the cycle of life, and the importance of breaking free of the bonds of their parents, to forge on and take their place. Disney most famously kicked off the animated trend way back in 1942 with Bambi, a film that features an early death as well, leaving a youngster to navigate the wilds of the world without her. These kinds of stories illustrate for children in metaphorical terms the way nature ultimately plays out, while at the same time, helping them (and their parents) to talk about deeply emotional moments that are equally necessary for development. Bluth is very good at this, packing his films with these ups and downs in organic ways to provide plenty of fodder for such discussions.
Here, he follows a terrific moment of struggle, where Littlefoot’s mother sacrifices herself to save him, in essence ensuring the genetic line continues, with a focused and appropriately-earned scene of death that is brief but impactful. Bluth has never been one for much subtlety, and indeed, when molding young minds, clear, broad imagery is crucial. That’s what’s smart about this moment, how visually clear what is happening, even as it’s layered in more textured dialogue. Following one’s heart is a common theme in kid’s movies, and it’s central to this as well, yet, it is the addition of the “it whispers, so listen carefully” that I truly like best.
This sentiment is itself perhaps the most subtle thing in the movie, and arguably lost in the larger scheme of things considering how dramatic the overall moment is, but she is basically saying to Littlefoot that the world will be full of noisy distractions, that temptation, good and bad, will be at every corner, loud and overwhelming. There’s an often quoted line from a speech by Polonius to his son Laertes in the Shakespeare play Hamlet, where he says to him, “To thine own self be true” amid a lengthy list of worthwhile and purposeful advice. It is the same here, that the heart is what matters, to trust oneself and go forth with great care. This voice is small though and if not careful to be heard, will lead you to matters unsafe or worse. I love how Bluth tacks that on at the end and then pulls back in silence for twenty seconds, letting it sink in. It’s a great moment.