The Land Before Time: A Primer on Grief
The animated film is an invaluable guide to understanding death and loss for audiences of all ages.
by Jeffrey Webb
“The great circle of life has begun,” says Rooter, an old dinosaur, as he comforts a grieving Littlefoot in 1988’s The Land Before Time. “But, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.”
Death is inevitable, Rooter seems to suggest, and that’s okay.
Heavy stuff for a cartoon.
I knew The Land Before Time was sad. I watched it frequently as a kid. The film hits even harder than I remembered as I watch it now with a son of my own and having experienced losses of my own.
The film revolves around dinosaurs and their struggle to survive extinction. And we all know how that turns out, which only reinforces the film’s elegiac tone. Death hangs over the film like a cloud of volcanic ash.
“Once upon this same earth,” says the unseen narrator, voiced by Pat Hingle, at the beginning of the film, “beneath this same sun, long before you, before the ape and the elephant, before the wolf, the bison, the whale, before the mammoth and the mastodon — ”
There’s a passing of time established in that opening narration, a notion that many generations of species have come and gone, a change in the earth, death and rebirth and death again.
There’s the idea, in that opening narration, that this is a tale borne by the oral tradition, a tale timeless and passed from generation to generation. As I watch The Land Before Time with my son like my parents watched it with me, I suppose in some ways that is true.
“The great circle of life,” like Rooter says.
Hingle voices Rooter, too. For both Rooter and the narrator, he delivers his lines with an earnest weariness. There’s little enthusiasm to the words. These are solemn times.
We see early in the film the hatching of the Brontosaurus named Littlefoot. At his birth, all that remains of his herd is his mother and grandparents; already death has touched them before the story has even begun. They live — exist — in a desolate landscape scarce of vegetation. “The land has been changing,” Littlefoot’s mother tells him. “That is why we must walk as far as we can each day, until we reach the Great Valley.”
The Great Valley is the Promised Land, the dinosaurs traversing the barren wilderness searching for a land lush with life, not unlike Moses and the Israelites wandering forty years in the desert searching for their land of milk and honey.
“The valley is filled with green food,” says Littlefoot’s mother. “More than you could ever eat and more cool water than you could ever drink.”
The Great Valley is, if nothing else, a sliver of hope in otherwise hopeless times. “How do you really know it’s there?” Littlefoot asks his mother. “Some things you see with your eyes,” she says, “and some things you see with your heart.”
In addition to their lack of food and dwindling herd, Littlefoot and his family are threatened constantly by eruptions and earthquakes. They are threatened by other dinosaurs, namely the “sharptooth” meat-eaters that feed upon fellow dinosaurs rather than plants. The first act ends with Littlefoot’s mother sacrificing her life protecting her son from a sharptooth. It’s all very Bambi-esque. An earthquake then separates Littlefoot from his grandparents. He must find his way to the Great Valley on his own (of course, he gets help from friends he meets along the way).
Littlefoot encounters Rooter the scene immediately following his mother’s death. “It’s not fair,” Littlefoot says through tears. “She should have known better….It’s all her fault….Why did I wander so far from home?” In this scene, we see Littlefoot experiencing denial, anger, and depression all at once. A scene later, we see Littlefoot uninterested in food, totally consumed by his mourning.
At one point, Littlefoot spots his own shadow projected large against a rock face. He chases the shadow, believing it’s his mother only to soon realize his folly. For those who have experienced loss, you know the dreams are often the worst. You dream and you see the face of your parent or sibling or spouse and for a brief, fleeting moment you wake up thinking the dream is true only to realize the cruelty of your subconscious mind. Such is how it works for Littlefoot in this moment chasing after his shadow, leaving him even more brokenhearted.
“Then Littlefoot knew for certain that he was alone,” says the narrator, “and that though the Great Valley was far away and the journey perilous, he’d have to find his way, or the chain of life would be broken.”
The film’s animation is colored with shades of orange, brown, and blue, giving the film a constant look of dusk. It’s a visual reminder the sun is setting on the dinosaurs, whether it be Littlefoot’s generation or the next.
Likewise, the music — composed by the late James Horner — accentuates the melancholy. There’s a haunting choral element to the music that recalls a church (or, more fitting, a funeral). It’s a similar choral element present in other Horner scores, such as Titanic and Glory, both of which are films that ultimately lead to inevitable demise for the characters onscreen.
The Land Before Time is not all doom and gloom. There is humor to balance the darker aspects of the film. Much of the humor comes from the characters of Ducky and Petrie. Missing is the ironic wit of recent animated features put out by studios like Dreamworks and Pixar. There’s no winking at the audience here, no pop culture references or innuendo. The humor is rooted very much in these characters and this world, which still gives it an undercurrent of sadness, such as Petrie being a Pterodactyl unable to fly or Ducky, a small Saurolophus, playing mother to Spike, an orphaned newborn Stegosaurus considerably larger than Ducky in size.
On an external level, Littlefoot’s physical survival depends upon him finding his way to the Great Valley. On an internal level, the Great Valley is Littlefoot’s acceptance of his mother’s death. She will always be in his heart, sure, and the grief never truly leaves but the pain does subside. Littlefoot spends so much of the film hanging his head in sadness, spends time wallowing, literally, in the footprints of his forebears. By the end, he’s found new friends, he’s reunited with his grandparents, he reaches the Great Valley, and he is laughing and playing.
Steven Spielberg, along with George Lucas, produced The Land Before Time.Spielberg brought on a writer, Stu Krieger, from his Amazing Stories series to pen the script. The final product feels Spielbergian. The wonder of childhood and the journey and pain of growing up are all there. The Land Before Time tackles death with honesty and frankness, just as E.T. doesn’t shy from its depiction of divorce in the modern family and Hook doesn’t shy from showing that everybody must grow up someday, even the ever-youthful Peter Pan.
However, to give all the credit to Spielberg is unfair to the film’s director, Don Bluth. The Land Before Time feels like a Spielberg picture, but it just as much feels like a Don Bluth picture.
Bluth began his career in the animation department on a number of Disney classics: Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, and Robin Hood, to name a few. Bluth eventually parted ways with Disney. He directed his first animated feature, The Secret of NIMH, released in 1982. He first paired with Spielberg to make 1986’s An American Tail. The Land Before Time came out in 1988, also with Spielberg’s involvement, and in 1989 Bluth, sans Spielberg, put out All Dogs Go to Heaven.
There’s a dark undercurrent to all these films, a grappling with adult themes packaged in entertainment for children. To really call them adult themes, though, is a misnomer. They are, in truth, human themes. Do children and adults alike not deal with moving to unknown worlds, like Fievel and his family in An American Tail? Do children and adults not deal with loss like Littlefoot, with regret like Charlie the dog in All Dogs Go to Heaven? The title of the latter film warns you upfront of the movie’s emotional weight. Watch All Dogs Go to Heaven now and you’ll see a movie about a ne’er-do-well canine murdered by his business partner in 1939 New Orleans. The movie touches upon alcoholism and gambling addiction, shows that even the worst scoundrels deserve a shot at redemption. It’s an animated feature that could easily have its dogs swapped for humans and its drawings swapped for black-and-white photography and you’d have a film that could have been an Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney project back in the day.
1997 saw the release of Bluth’s Anastasia, which opens with the story of Rasputin and the murder of the Romanovs in 1916 St. Petersburg. Like The Land Before Time and other Bluth projects: heavy stuff for a cartoon.
The Land Before Time spawned thirteen direct-to-video sequels and an animated series. Neither Bluth, Spielberg, nor screenwriter Krieger were involved with the sequels. Though the sequels are still concerned with survival, there is a lightness to them that is not nearly as prominent in the original. The animation’s hues are brighter, the tones more playful. The sequels, unlike the original, all contain musical numbers. The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure, released in 1994, opens with a musical number that includes Littlefoot and friends singing, “Come on, let’s go run around, run around, what a beautiful feeling we’ve finally found….Everybody’s having a good time now!” The villain in this sequel sings about the joy of stealing dinosaur eggs, a far cry from the sharptooth antagonist of the original. There, the villain does not even get a single line of dialogue, existing purely as a primal, ferocious force.
Children may enjoy these further installments in the franchise. The original, though, doesn’t talk down to the audience, nor does the original draw back from the sad reality of a world headed for extinction. The original, in confronting death and loss head on, resonates all the more with children and grown-ups alike.
The Land Before Time, the original, functions as a primer on grief, for all ages.
Twenty-five years must have passed between my viewings of it. Many of the scenes I had forgotten, but fragments still seemed familiar.
Horner’s score, Littlefoot chasing his shadow, the tree stars and all their loaded symbolism — these are things that have stayed with me over the years, things I have forgotten but yet, at the same time, never really forgot. The images and music of The Land Before Time imprinted on me at an early age, as did many films of my childhood.
Imprinted on me as a mother imprints upon her young at birth. In the film, at Littlefoot’s hatching, he looks up and sees his mother’s face smiling down at him.
“I’ll be with you,” his mother says later in the film, moments before her death. “Even if you can’t see me.”
“What do you mean if I can’t see you?” Littlefoot asks.
“Let your heart guide you,” she says. “It whispers. So listen closely.”
We may forget things as we grow older, as we head ourselves toward our own individual extinctions. But, at the same time, the things we have forgotten in our minds are still there — like Littlefoot’s mother — in our hearts. I don’t remember my parents ever sitting me down and explaining death to me. I do, however, remember watching The Land Before Time on VHS numerous times throughout my childhood. The lessons there — its study of grief — etched a place in my heart. It showed me what death was, that it was inevitable, that grieving was inevitable and normal. It showed me there is a Great Valley at the end of all of it, an acceptance that will come, eventually, with the passing of time.