Despite the fact that it has accumulated a great deal of terrible sequels (that are apparently now musicals???), The Land Before Time is an important movie. The story of five Dinosaur kiddos who undertake an epic journey to find The Great Valley while navigating an apocalyptic landscape is not only rife with mythological symbolism and beautiful animation, but quite a bit of wisdom. Also, it makes me cry every single time, but that’s beside the point.
|Not so “d’awwww”|
It’s the story of five friends (all different species) who join together to find the
Promised Land Great Valley, the only place on Earth not affected by natural climate/tectonic change. If that sounds a lot like Disney’s Dinosaur, that’s because studios like the whole Moses thing, so they keep doing it over and over again. When discussing dinosaurs in film, there are two choices: dinosaur’s bravely stave off extinction for a bit longer OR dinosaurs are resurrected in the future/visited in the past and eat people. But that’s neither here nor there. What it lacks in narrative originality, it makes up for in its brilliant and concise exploration of human relationships.
1. The world is bigger than you think, so make friends with folks of all sorts.
What initially seems to be a cliché message about tolerance (that shows up ALL the time in movies aimed at children) is actually a more thoughtful exhortation for people to come together because they are stronger because of it.
In the beginning, Littlefoot’s mother tells him that everyone keeps to their own kind just because that’s the way it’s always been. There’s no arc in which she learns the error of her ways and changes her mind (nor does there need to be). There’s no conflict between her and Littlefoot. It’s just the way everyone thinks and Littlefoot takes it to heart. It isn’t until he begins meeting others that he realizes that maybe that’s not the best idea. He tries reaching out to Cera, but she has to go run off and do her thing, preferring a single-minded quest for her own kind.
Later, he meets the gregarious Ducky, who is not only the most adorable character in the movie, but one of the wisest. She embraces Littlefoot as a friend in his time of grief of losing his family, even though he weakly tries to tell her that longnecks can’t be friends with other types of dinosaurs. Her joy renews his desire to find his family and gives him the push to move past the grieving process.
Once the whole group comes together (Petrie, Spike, Ducky, Cera, and Littlefoot) they are much more suited to surviving in the hellscape they find themselves in. And they do ultimately find their way. Spike, having completely lost his family, is adopted by Ducky and her sisters who call him “our new brother Spike,” while everyone else is able to find their families while maintaining their ties of friendship which, it is implied in the end narration, inspire others in the Great Valley to come together and put aside past suspicions.
While Littlefoot’s mother is quite a positive character, she’s internalized the idea that dinos shouldn’t mix with others. Littlefoot’s journey exposes him to new friends outside his species and he is able to learn that cooperation is generally more helpful. Expanding one’s mind is good because it helps future generations. If whole generations of folks believe something just because everyone else believes it, ideas become stale. Littlefoot’s generation is going to be even wiser than his family’s generation because he was able to learn something his parent’s hadn’t even realized.
2. Complaining and placing blame on others accomplishes nothing
The death of Littlefoot’s mother is probably one of the more traumatic scenes in a kids movie. It doesn’t happen off-screen, like in Bambi, nor does it happen in a montage sequence like in Frozen. It’s a brutal scene in which she saves Littlefoot and Cera from Sharptooth at the cost of her own life and then dies, crumpled, in the rain. And if that weren’t horrible enough, a good deal of screen time is spent on Littlefoot’s crushed, aimless wanderings as he gives up on his mother’s goal of reaching the Great Valley, consumed by grief and loss.
One scene in particular really stands out to me. Littlefoot bumps into a kindly old Ankylosaurus named “Ol’ Rooter” who delivers some brutal but necessary tough love. Mired in grief, Littlefoot blames first himself and then his mother for her death, to which Rooter replies that it is nobody’s fault and that the circle of life turns whether we want it to or not and not all of us make it to the end (which is why it’s best to keep those we love in our hearts). Then, when Littlefoot says that his tummy hurts (because he hasn’t eaten since his mother died), Rooter simply says that that, too, will pass in time. It’s very zen, and it takes Littlefoot a while to really understand what was said to him. An old guy chastising a grieving child for being sad is not something one would see today, but it’s a great moment.
Grief is awful, but it’s a necessary, natural thing. It can, however, be possible to stay there too long, especially if you are constantly attacking yourself and shouldering blame. Letting go of that blame is a great way to find peace (and the Great Valley). Littlefoot’s struggle is very real and I love how this movie deals with it. So many animated characters either react melodramatically to grief (becoming a supervillain/hero, going on a revenge quest, etc.), that it’s nice to see a real exploration of how grieving works and how one can move past it. If only adult movies were so often as poignant.
3. Going the wrong way sucks, but it’s worse to admit you haven’t
I love Cera. A lot. She’s sort of the bully of the group, but she’s also the strongest, and for all the insults she hurls at the others, she really is the most sensitive. The filmmakers do a great job of showing her strength and vulnerability equally, which makes her one of the most complex characters of the whole group.
A defining moment for her is when she realizes that she’s made a mistake. All throughout the film, her brashness gets her into trouble, but there’s a great personal moment where she’s all alone and she actually admits to herself that, as the narrator says, “she’d gone the wrong way.” It’s this that encourages her to seek out her companions and join them. Even though she doesn’t really become a cohesive part of the whole for a while, this is a big step for her because she admits to herself that maybe, possibly, she can’t do it all alone.
This sort of ties into the whole strength in numbers thing I touched on earlier, but on a more personal note. Admitting to yourself that you’ve made a mistake is horrendously difficult. It means accepting that you’re mortal and fallible and that you will have to humble yourself by reaching out to others. Cera is a badass, but she also has the capacity to be the most caring person of the group, which makes her even more badass. Admitting that she is actually afraid makes her that much stronger and, by the time the climactic escape from Sharptooth rolls around, she’s able to play a defining role in his elimination.
4. Wonder is important
It’s really hard to impress people nowadays. Kids especially. Being jaded is boring because the cool stuff ceases to be cool and the world becomes predictable and bland. Ew. This movie really encapsulates the wonder of the universe well. The opening credits are, by today’s standards, a bit slow. It’s a gentle introduction that follows some bubbles and small animals through the water while the narrator talks about the time of the dinosaurs. James Horner’s score is restrained and haunting at first before the “camera” finally comes out of the water to reveal the world of the dinosaurs. It’s beautiful and inspiring and I love it. Don Bluth and James Horner do something similar with their earlier film An American Tail where the whole intro is nothing but slowly turning snowflakes and a solo violin.
There’s nothing rushed or sensationalistic about it. The slow build works beautifully, and every time I see it, I get all giddy and childlike. The whole movie’s like that. There are chase scenes and shots of violent natural disasters and interpersonal strife, but these are all interspersed with incredible landscapes and sunsets that, even in such a short film aimed at kids with shorter attention spans, manage to linger just long enough to be appreciated. And then finally, when the Great valley is revealed, it’s not through a quick montage of trees and brooks and idyllic scenes, it’s through a sustained shot in which the cloud cover pulls back and the whole thing is lit up by the sun. We see the characters interacting with their families, of course, but that first long sustained shot of the whole valley is one of those moments that made me, as a kid, stare wide-eyed. It’s still beautiful.
5. The Journey to the Great Valley is just as important as the destination
The whole “journey is better than the destination” thing is admittedly quite a cliché, but hear me out.
This is a movie about kids finding agency in the wake of tragedy. The journey is not only a way for them to come to terms with terrible things, but also to grow up, in true bildungsromantradition. Littlefoot is, in the beginning, kind of an entitled whiner, which explains why his grief turns eventually to defeatist self-pity. In the end, he gains a greater appreciation for others and for what he has.
Ducky is sort of the exception since she has everything figured out in the beginning. Like I said, she’s the wisest character (yep yep yep!). But she’s sort of the conscience of the group—their rock—so she doesn’t need to grow up much. Cera, we’ve talked about. She discovers her own weaknesses and embraces them. Petrie learns to fly, and in doing so, gains self-confidence that turns him into quite a formidable warrior, especially in the final battle with Sharptooth. Spike, like Ducky, is fine for the most part. What he gets out of the journey is Ducky, his adoptive sister who invites him into her life without a moment’s hesitation.
When the five arrive at their final destination, they’ve already found peace, confidence, and inner strength. Seeing their families again is sort of an extra bonus.
I read somewhere that the Great valley is actually “heaven” and the kids all die on their journey and are rewarded with paradise eternal. This is a terrible theory that doesn’t make sense, HOWEVER, it is possible to look at the Great Valley as some sort of mythical future place where all our woes and troubles are gone and everything’s perfect. In that sense, one must make the most of one’s journey so that, once you attain your goal/s, you’re not saddled with regret. Accomplishment is awesome, but if you complete your task and then go, “Eh, I guess,” then you clearly didn’t accomplish the right task (or you didn’t do it well).
When these five adorable dinos reach the Great Valley, they’re happy and confident and they have no regrets. Cera made a mistake and went the wrong way, but because she admitted her own limitations, she was able to find a new path (and, ultimately, her family). Littlefoot arrives with a much deeper appreciation of what he has (his grandparents and friends) instead of what he doesn’t have. It gets me all teary-eyed just thinking about it.
It’s seriously the best movie, and if you haven’t seen it in a long time, do so. It’s amazing. Even if you’re an adult and you’re all, “That’s a kids movie,” just do it anyways. Seriously.
|You don’t want to disappoint Sharptooth, now do you?|
Until next time!