The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
The Land Before Time
THE LAND BEFORE TIME debuted November 18, 1988 and faced off against Disney's newest feature, OLIVER AND COMPANY. In the first head to head battle with Disney, Bluth and Spielberg proved a formidable team. It would be a close race, and the last for the duo that re-animated an industry.
THE LAND BEFORE TIME takes place at the end of the late prehistoric era when the Earth was in the process of great change, giving rise to earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural phenomena. At this time the Earth was ruled by two classes of dinosaurs: those who were leaf eaters and those who were carnivores who fed on the leaf eaters.
The film opens deep underwater with bubbles and small creatures abounding. The camera pans to a lighter area where various forms of prehistoric sea life are seen. This is broken by the head of a brontosaurus coming under water to eat the foliage. The scene then moves above ground as the narrator instructs that this happened a long time ago, in "the time of the dinosaurs." The narrator explains that there are two types of dinosaurs; the leaf eaters and the mighty carnivores. Various land dwellers such as triceratops and others are viewed. As the narrator continues to explain, a drought came and the leaves began to die. It was discovered that the mighty sharp toothed dinosaurs also lived off the leaf.
This drought in the land sends some of the dinosaur herds West, in search of the Great Valley where they hope to find bountiful food. The narrator states it was journey of danger, as the sharp-teeth stalked the herds looking for stragglers. The leaf eaters only stopped to lay their eggs.
A nest of Platypus eggs begin hatching. One breaks mostly free of its shell, and rolls down the nest struggling to catch an insect. It is Ducky. She follows the insect and is almost bitten by another dinosaur, but her mother comes and brings her back to the nest. The first words of the feature are hers, "Mama!"
Next a pair of triceratops watch over their young ones. As the parents grunt, the children squeal in human tones. One is still in the shell, having some difficulty. Upon breaking out, the first thing she does, is butt her head against her parents'. This is Cera. The narrator says, "Some were born without fear." A thunderstorm suddenly breaks and Cera runs under her mother for protection.
Elsewhere, in the swamp, a brontosaurus family eats lazily around their nest. There is a stretch of mud full of broken eggs, but one egg is still intact and unhatched. This egg begins to shake with life when a small dinosaur runs and grabs it out of the nest. One of the parents, swats the small dinosaur with its neck and the egg goes flying. It rolls along the skeletal remains of another dinosaur, along some coastal area and into the water and over a waterfall, finally coming to rest in a nest of small lizards. As this egg hatches, the narrator says, "one herd had only a single baby, their last hope for the future." It is Littlefoot.
His mother comes up and greets him, the first adult voice heard from a dinosaur. She nuzzles him, but he becomes frightened by the return of the little lizards. He then returns to his mother's feet. She picks him up in her mouth and places him on her back. The narrator states all that remained of his family was his mother, grandmother and grandfather. Littlefoot then falls asleep.
Later, when Littlefoot seems a bit older, the family is eating. Littlefoot asks if there is more to eat. His mother explains that the land is changing, which is why they must walk as far as they can each day to reach the Great Valley. As Littlefoot tries to chew some dry branches, his mother calls to him. She shows him a leaf, the only one, in a large tree. She calls it a "tree star," and says it is very special. Then she picks it from the tree and brings it down to him.
Littlefoot is first awed by it, then becomes playful. He rolls on his back and bats it like a cat. She tells him it will help him grow strong. His mother explains that the Great Valley has many tree stars for him to eat, as well as all the water that he can drink. The family then begins walking again. His mother says they must travel to where the sun touches the ground each night.
Littlefoot, then asks if she has ever seen the Great Valley. She tells him that "Some things you see with your eyes, others you see with your heart." He says he doesn't understand and then follows.
Later while the group is resting and looking for food, Littlefoot hears a noise and goes to investigate. His mother tells him to be careful. Looking through a plant, he sees Cera chasing an insect. She runs straight into several small rocks attempting to smash it. As she is about to get it, the bug sprays her in the face.
Littlefoot bursts out laughing, as Cera casts an angry look his way. She begins to dig the ground as she prepares to charge. Littlefoot, wanting to play jumps out of the bush and also prepares to charge. The two young ones race towards each other, Cera growling a charge. Her father, hearing the charge, races to her, stepping between her and Littlefoot.
Cera's father gives Littlefoot a glare and the small brontosaurus backs up. As Littlefoot's mother begins calling for him, Cera's father continues staring at Littlefoot, while telling his daughter that three-horns don't play with long-necks. As Littlefoot's mother comes and gets Littlefoot, Cera runs after Littlefoot repeating her father's words.
As Littlefoot's mother carries him off, he asks what a long- neck is. She explains they are long-necks. When he asks why he can't play with the other dinosaurs, his mother states "We'll all keep to our own kind." Littlefoot does not let the issue die and asks "Why?" again. His mother explains that all the dinosaurs are different, and that it's always been that way. She also says when they reach the Great Valley there will be plenty of long- necks for him to play with. Littlefoot says he wishes he were there already, but his mother says they still must pass the rock that looks like a long-neck and the mountains of fire.
That night as they sleep, Littlefoot is awakened by a hopper (a frog). He leaves his family and follows it, running into Cera, again. She claims that it is her hopper. He asks why, since he saw it first. Cera claims that it is now in her pond. Littlefoot follows and the two begin playing with the bubbles rising from the pond bottom. Soon they are almost playing together as a shadow comes over the nearby rocks.
It is Sharp-tooth, a tyrannosaurus. The two young ones scramble to get away as the giant walks closer and closer. They take refuge in a large thorny growth. Sharp-tooth first looks at the situation, then begins trying to dig his way through the thorns. As his head draws closer to the pair, the giant's nostrils are sniffing, dog-like, around. The two go deeper into the growth, but argue over which direction to go.
Cera takes off one way, and Littlefoot runs after her yelling that she is going in the wrong direction. She runs out of the growth and into another, followed closely by Littlefoot and Sharp-tooth. In the second growth, Littlefoot gets caught up in some vines and can't get away from the ever nearing Sharp- tooth. As he slips through, the vines snap back at Sharp-tooth, causing him to stand up, breaking through the thorn growth. He then takes off after the two and is moments away from grabbing them when a large tail knocks him down
Littlefoot's mother has arrived. As Sharp-tooth tries to stand back up, the small dinosaurs take refuge under the large long-neck. She tells the children to run as she and the Sharp- tooth engage in a battle that crumbles the land they stand upon. Using her tail, she manages to again knock the Sharp-tooth over and run with the children. However the Sharp-tooth quickly recovers and leaps on her back. The children run to a mountainside and watch as the two battle, only their shadows visible to the audience.
Finally, Littlefoot's mother is able to knock the Sharp- tooth over a cliff. Injured, she leads the children to safety, when the Earth, itself, begins to shake and split apart. Suddenly the children are on one side, and Littlefoot's mother is on the other. Their side is also the side with Sharp-tooth, who has now recovered and is back with a vengeance.
They run and are aided at times by the shifting Earth. At one point, both almost fall into a chasm, saved only by grabbing on to Sharp-tooth's tail. He also almost goes over the edge, and is barely able to hang on. The children run up his back and to apparent safety, but they are soon sliding backwards, towards the jaws of Sharp-tooth. Mother arrives in time and with a final tail swipe knocks the monster into the chasm. She also grabs the pair before they fall away.
As the Earth continues to rumble, she and Littlefoot head for family, as Cera heads off for the same. The Earth's movement increases in intensity as mountains rise and the ground cracks. The narrator explains the clashing of continents caused a great quake that split families. He also explains that Littlefoot is separated from his grandparents. Also separated were Cera and her parents.
Time has apparently passed as it is now dark and raining. Littlefoot is looking for his mother. He finds her, laying on a rock. She says she is not sure she can get up, and then asks if he remembers the way to the Great Valley. He says he does, but why does he need to since they'll be together. His mother reassures him that she will always be with him, "even if you can't see me." He again doesn't understand. She says to listen for his heart. "It whispers" so he'll have to listen hard. She then dies.
The storm is gone and Littlefoot is traveling on his own. He slips down a ravine and rolls into Rooter, an older dinosaur. Littlefoot begins crying. When Rooter asks why, Littlefoot rambles about his mother and it being unfair, and her fault for fighting Sharp-tooth, and his fault for wandering. Rooter catches on and tells Littlefoot it isn't anyone's fault. He also discusses the "circle of life" and how not everyone arrives at the end at the same time. Littlefoot then claims his stomach hurts. Rooter tells him that too will pass, and then leaves the small one.
The scene changes to a group of small pterodactyls fighting over a fruit. It's taken from the group by a large animal. Their faces brighten up, though, when the mother produces a whole batch of the fruit. She throws them out and each catches one. The family then walks off the branch, past Littlefoot who is laying on the ground. One of the small pterodactyls offers Littlefoot the fruit, but Littlefoot just looks away. The pterodactyl then takes the fruit back. The narrator says that all Littlefoot did was think of his mother, even forgetting that he had to get to the Great Valley.
Littlefoot wanders through a desert landscape, crying and rolling in footprints left by long-necks. From high above, a tree star floats down. As it nears Littleneck, a light from above shines. The tree star lands in one of the footprints as Littlefoot hears his mother's voice. She asks if Littlefoot remembers the way to the Great Valley, and then proceeds to tell him. Then she says to have his heart guide him.
Thrilled, Littlefoot picks up the tree star and puts it on his head, calling to his mother. He sees a large brontosaurus shadow on a nearby cliff and runs to it, calling for her. As he nears the cliff, though, the shadow disappears. Not noticing it is gone, he licks the cliff lovingly. It is only then that he notices it is not his mother, it was only his shadow on the cliff. He looks saddened. The narrator explains that it was at this time that Littlefoot knew he was truly alone. Now Littlefoot knew he must go to the Great Valley or the chain of life would be broken.
At this time, he meets Cera again. She is trying to find a way to get across the huge crack, caused by the quake, to be with her own kind. Littlefoot says he's tried and there's no way to get to the other side. She says, maybe for him there isn't but not for her and proceeds to try. He suggests that they go to the Great Valley together. Cera then accidentally slides to the bottom of the chasm, telling Littlefoot she doesn't need help from long-necks. Littlefoot says if they travel together, though they won't be alone. Cera states when she finds her sisters, she won't be alone. She then ventures into a dark cave at the bottom of the chasm, repeating her father's philosophy about not playing with long-necks.
Littlefoot picks up his tree star and heads off on his own. He soon finds himself next to a pond where he lies dejected. Out of the water comes Ducky, a small platypus. She asks his name, but he responds by getting up and saying that long-necks don't talk to whatever she is. She hops out of the water and follows him and tries to convince Littlefoot that she is a long-neck. Amused, but not believing her, Littlefoot smiles.
Ducky admits that she isn't a long-neck, she's a big-mouth. But she's all alone, having lost her family in the big earthshake. Littlefoot invites her to join his search for the Great Valley, if she can keep up. She says "Yes" and the pair walk off together eventually skipping and laughing.
Soon, their stomachs are talking and Littlefoot decides to taste a leaf of a nearby fern. As he pulls it, the fern seems to yell. Ducky says it's not good to eat plants that talk, "nope, nope, nope." Littlefoot continues pulling the leaf until a small pterodactyl comes sliding down it. When the pterodactyl hits Littlefoot's nose, Littlefoot shouts and lets go. The snapping leaf sends the pterodactyl off, crashing through the dry ground.
Ducky and Littlefoot go to investigate and find Petrie. Petrie asks if he "flied," but Ducky tells him he "falled." Petrie then gets angry and tells them that even though he is a flier, he cannot fly, "It's hard," he states. The other two agree since they can't do it.
Meanwhile, in the cave in the chasm, Cera continues her own trek. It is a world of eerie shadows and shapes. She comes across a still Sharp-tooth. At first frightened, she becomes bolder and begins butting her head against it. Suddenly it opens its eyes and comes to life. She runs away, as it begins to get up.
Back on top, Littlefoot and crew continue walking, avoiding a fin-back. However, Littlefoot becomes irritated by Petrie always riding on his head and ruining his tree star. The group decides to get Petrie flying, so Littlefoot and Ducky start running and Petrie, on Littlefoot's head, begins flapping. Petrie cries out there is danger ahead, but the group runs straight into a skeleton of another dinosaur. They turn and run screaming with the skeleton now on them.
From the other direction, Cera comes running at them screaming. The group collides with Cera. Littlefoot asks her why seems so frightened. Cera denies she is scared and asks what they were scared of. Littlefoot says they weren't scared. She then says, she could have been with the other three-horns, but she came back to warn them that she saw Sharp-tooth. Petrie and Ducky become frightened, but Littlefoot says Sharp-tooth fell into the underground. "And that's where he met me," replies Cera.
Ducky and Petrie are impressed with Cera's bravery, but Littlefoot maintains that Sharp-tooth is dead. Cera proceeds to give a full account as to what happened between her and Sharp- tooth. In doing so, she accidentally knocks Ducky far into the distance.
Ducky lands by a bush with snoring egg inside. As the others call for her, she examines the egg. The egg's inhabitant begins to hatch, but then falls back asleep. Ducky pulls the shell away revealing a spike-tail, a stegosaurus. She names him Spike and tells him that he is all alone and should move on, and then invites him to join on their voyage to the Great Valley. Spike gets up and starts following her, eating his nest/bush as he goes.
The narrator explains that all five are now hungry and heading towards the Great Valley. He further states that there had never been such a herd before, five different types of dinosaurs.
Below a waterfall the group stops. Littlefoot states that since tree stars need lots of water, perhaps they should follow the water. As they walk along the creek, Littlefoot says he smells tree stars. The group looks through a group of rocks and do see a small batch of trees. Cera claims they have found the Great Valley.
An earthshake knocks the group around. They begin to run, but Spike won't budge. Suddenly, the source of the earthshake is discovered when a herd of long-necks race by and begin devouring the batch of trees. The small group is discouraged that the Great Valley now has no green food left. Littlefoot states it is not the Great Valley, but they might as well go see if there is any food left.
After failing to convince Petrie to fly up to the top of a tall tree where there are still some leaves, the group makes a dinosaur ladder. Littlefoot gets up on his hind legs and leans on the tree. Ducky goes to Littlefoot's head and pushes Petrie towards the leaves. Spike crawls under Littlefoot. Petrie gets high enough that he's able to pull leaves off the tree as Cera laughs.
When the group return to the ground, they begin eating. Littlefoot offers some to Cera, but she declines, stating she can get her own food. She starts butting her head against a tree to no avail. Littlefoot takes some leaves, and after one butt, tosses them to ground, fooling Cera into thinking she did it. It makes her even more adamant about not needing help as she walks off from the group.
Night is falling, and Cera claims she isn't afraid of being alone or of Sharp-tooth. Littlefoot again states Sharp-tooth is dead, but the others are frightened. As Littlefoot heads to a place to sleep, he finds he is alone. The group has gone to sleep next to Cera, much to her discomfort. Feeling dejected, Littlefoot goes to sleep by himself. Spike's snoring drives Ducky and Petrie to Littlefoot, and eventually Spike follows them. Cera is left shivering alone, and she eventually joins the group.
The next morning, Cera is awaken by growling. She looks out and is frightened. She tries to wake the others, telling them Sharp-tooth is coming. Littlefoot, again, denies it only to have Sharp-tooth's shadow fall over him. The small group panics and runs, barely escaping through a small hole in the rocks. On the other side, Littlefoot says they are safe now, but Cera claims no one is safe with him.
Littlefoot looks up and sees the rock shaped like the long- neck, a key landmark for finding the Great Valley. The narrator states that even though Littlefoot had been wrong about Sharp- tooth, the group followed him anyway. Only Littlefoot knew the way to the Great Valley, and if they were to survive, they would have to reach it.
Later, the group is climbing up rocks as ash falls around them. Obviously weakening and tired, Littlefoot urges the group on. He tells them the Great Valley could be just over the mountains they are climbing. The narrator states that even though Littlefoot couldn't see the Great Valley, his heart told him that they were close.
When they reach the top of the mountains, the swirling wind obscures their view. It appears to be a green wilderness below them, but when the wind stops, it becomes clear that it a barren, blue, rocky area. Cera decides to take the easy route and tells the group she's leaving. Littlefoot tells her it's the wrong way. When asked how he knows, Littlefoot tells her that his mother had told him. Cera then says his mother must have been stupid too.
Littlefoot and Cera begin fighting and roll down into the rocky area. Spike, getting too close to the edge, also falls in with Ducky and Petrie in tow. Below, Cera and Littlefoot continue to fight as the other three watch. Cera finally bests him and heads off. He calls out that it's okay, because they never wanted her anyway.
As Littlefoot begins to climb out of the rocks, back towards the peaks, he finds the others hesitating to follow him. They state that Cera's way does look easier. Angry, Littlefoot continues up the mountain. Petrie follows momentarily, asking Littlefoot not to be angry. Ducky calls after Cera asking her to wait for the rest are coming and all except Littlefoot join her.
The scene changes to a volcanic setting. As Cera leads Spike, Petrie rides Cera and Ducky is on Spike. Ducky wishes that Littlefoot was with them and Petrie agrees. Spike stops to eat some vines, much to Ducky's worries that they are becoming separated from Cera and Petrie.
Cera comes to a break in the route and decides to jump to the other side. She makes it, but Petrie falls off into a tar- like substance. Petrie cries for help, but Cera continues on. From the distance, Littlefoot is seen running towards the cries of help.
When he arrives, he looks down to see Spike and Ducky caught on a small rock surrounded by lava. He knocks a rock down near them and helps them cross the burning river. They then race to Petrie and by forming another "bridge" they are able to reach him. Unfortunately, the stump Littlefoot is holding on breaks and all four end up stuck in the tar.
Elsewhere, Cera is being chased by various meat eaters. She is only saved when a monstrous creature arrives, scaring the meat eaters away. Cera is equally terrified. The creature turns out to be the foursome she had abandoned, covered with tar and other material. As they laugh, Cera claims to have known it was them all along.
Cera walks off angrily as the others call for her. She settles down by a waterfall and cries. The narrator tells that she was too proud to admit that she had gone the wrong way.
The scene changes to a water area where the foursome are all frolicking. The fun ends when Sharp-tooth is seen further up on the mountain. Littlefoot suggests that they get rid of Sharp- tooth once and for all. His plan is to drop a rock on Sharp- tooth's head when the monster is over the deepest part of the lake. Since the Sharp-tooth can't swim, he'll drown. Littlefoot and Spike will get above Sharp-tooth, and Petrie is to tell them when the beast is over the deepest part. Ducky is left for the bait.
As Sharp-tooth roams various caverns, Ducky appears at an entrance. Spying the creature, she screams to attract his attention and then hides behind a rock. When she looks back, he is gone. Upon turning around, he leaps in behind her. She shrieks and runs with him right behind her. Both slide down the cliff and into the water. All of this is seen by Littlefoot and Spike who are standing with Petrie next to the rock.
Unfortunately, it's the shallow end of the pond. Ducky hides underwater, but Sharp-tooth is using his feet to dig up the ground. Littlefoot and Spike try to push the rock anyway, but can't get it move enough. Meanwhile, Petrie is tossing small stones at Sharp-tooth and laughing. Sharp-tooth hits his head against the cliff, knocking Petrie off. Petrie falls towards the beast flapping his wings desperately. The monster roars and the blast lifts Petrie higher and Petrie continues to rise suddenly, discovering he can now fly!
Back in the pond, Ducky is racing for her life from the jaws of Sharp-tooth. Spike and Littlefoot are still struggling with the rock. As Sharp-tooth rises up, Ducky is on his muzzle. Petrie sees this and gallantly attacks Sharp-tooth's eye. An enraged Sharp-tooth leaps up to the cliff where the pair are pushing the rock. He stands on the other side as Petrie continues pulling at his eyelid.
Spike and Littlefoot continue trying to push the rock, when Cera comes at them shouting she will help. Her head butt turns the tide and the rock goes over the cliff with Sharp-tooth hanging on to it. Petrie is grabbed by Sharp-tooth's mouth and dragged under water with him. Both disappear into the deep end of the pond.
From the cliff, the remaining four look sadly down. They begin to walk away as Petrie pulls himself up onto the land. Ducky runs over and hugs him. She then runs along with the rest, carrying Ducky.
Next Littlefoot is seen out on a ledge. He hears his mother calling as overhead, clouds form the shape of long-necks. He tells his mother he tried, but it's just too hard. The clouds begin to blow away and Littlefoot runs after them. They blow though an opening in the mountains. When Littlefoot comes out on the other side, below him is the Great Valley. A beam of sunlight comes through the clouds and shines on him, eventually spreading out to reveal the entire Valley.
Littlefoot calls to the others who come and see the Valley. As Littlefoot declares, "We did it together," the narrator states that the Valley was all they had hoped for. The dinosaurs would now have all the tree stars they wanted.
Ducky discovers her family and introduces them to their new brother, Spike. Her parents nuzzle him warmly. Petrie locates his mother, proudly announcing he is now a flier. Cera finds her father and has a warm reunion. Littlefoot locates his grandparents and then (via flashback) recalls his first moments with them and the journey he made with his friends. Littlefoot is called and the fivesome meet atop a green hill, grouping closely together in friendship. The narrator explains that they all grew up in the Valley, and for generations, the tale of how they journeyed together to the Valley was passed along.
During production of AN AMERICAN TAIL talk began of the next feature with Spielberg. Amblin was interested in doing something with dinosaurs, which they saw as a popular topic with children. Again, Spielberg saw animation as mostly a child's medium, much to the disappointment of Don and others.
Spielberg's first concept was doing a film like BAMBI, only with dinosaurs. It would tell the story of a young dinosaur growing up in prehistoric times; similar to the dynamics of the "Rite of Spring" sequence in Disney's FANTASIA. In fact, Spielberg envisioned the entire film with no dialogue.
From this rough concept, the film grew to include several young dinosaurs. Eventually it was believed that the film couldn't carry a storyline without dialogue. Don recalled the origin. "THE LAND BEFORE TIME was actually a concept before it was a story. Spielberg said, 'Basically, I want to do a soft picture that does not have a real driving plot. It's about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.' We agreed that the Tyrannosaurus Rex would be a great villain. As we talked, we decided this would be more of a pastoral kind of picture. It needs to be symphonic in nature, soft and gentle."
Brought on as initial writers were the same team responsible for TAIL, Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss. Their script was developed from the ideas of Spielberg and Lucas. However, early in production it was felt that storyline was too juvenile and Stu Krieger was brought in to rework the material.
Since the script had to be approved by a number of parties in different locations, sections of script were approved at a time, rather than as a whole. Don remarked this was like the old days of Disney when segments were developed independently of a finished script.
"As the storyboarding continued," recalled Don, "we came up with another idea, that none of these dinosaurs get along with each other, they all hate each other. They're taught from the time they were born not to associate with each other, that's racism. They're going to have to be untaught the racist idea and learn to like each other and therein lies the triumph of the movie. They would work together to overcome a common goal or enemy."
Unlike a lot of youngsters, Don had never been a fan of dinosaurs. "I had to do lots and lots of research because I never was a fanatic about dinosaurs as a kid. But in many ways it became a fictional fantasy because it's about these young children who are taught to hate each other; anyone who is different from him. When they are separated from their parents, these five little children have to learn to get along with each other for survival. So there is a bit of a moral in it, too."
As work began on the script, Don assigned some of his crew to begin creating concept art. Using the FANTASIA sequence and characters as a guide, they created a number of striking scenes. Don, assisted again by Larry Leker, began storyboarding. Work didn't progress too quickly, though, for Amblin and Universal were not willing to make a firm commitment to the feature until the release of TAIL. (They felt there was still a chance that TAIL could fail.)
The release date for TAIL got closer, but Don realized a rapidly approaching deadline. Spielberg had hoped to bring out his next feature the following Fall. This meant if Amblin and Universal waited until the release of TAIL, there would a year or less to complete a film that would be far more complex than TAIL, which took over sixteen months.
Finally the other parties agreed and in late Summer of 1986, the studio began working on THE LAND BEFORE TIME. At this point the story featured a group of young dinosaurs looking for a wise older dinosaur. Don joked the title might be changed to "the Lizard of Oz."
Due to the studio's move to Ireland, the film was actually delayed for another several months. The crew of artists arrived to find the studio still not ready for full production. Month after month passed as they scrambled to find any work space or desk (which were still in the process of being built when the crew arrived). There were also delays in combining the two operations (the Irish ink and paint studio and Sullivan Bluth's management) into a single, smoothly running entity. By Spring the film was finally in full production.
A THIRD WHEEL
If Don had felt restricted with two parties looking over his shoulder, on LAND he had three: Amblin, Universal and George Lucas. Adding to this difficulty was the decreased amount of communication between the parties. On TAIL, both were physically quite close with Universal and Amblin only minutes away from the Sullivan Bluth Van Nuys studio. During the production of LAND, Spielberg was heavily involved shooting INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE in Spain. The demands on his schedule made constant communication impossible.
Lucas had been involved since the beginning, but most of his input came in May 1987 at a special screening in London for the producers. John Pomeroy recalled the session for an issue of the Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine. "The production was at a critical point, about halfway complete, just enough to determine if we were on the right track. Overall, it looked great, but some things were missing with the characters and their personalities. While he [Lucas] was in London, we had a two-day marathon story session with George Lucas, and during that time my respect for him went up about 10 decimals. All of us, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, George Lucas, and myself sat down, and I won't say we rewrote the story, but we made major structural changes. We took all the raw material and everything we had done up to that time, and reformed it without taking anything away from the original story writers (Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss), or script writer (Stu Kreiger). We were all very happy with the results, and 80% of the story came from that story meeting."
One idea that remained was having Littlefoot's mother die. In that same interview, Pomeroy discussed that aspect of the film. "A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence. We considered eliminating the whole sequence, but that produces a lot more problems when you're trying to show a small boy going through his rites of passage to manhood. You must eliminate the parent in that cycle. Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted. On their advice, we ended up adding another sequence with the Rooter character. He is a mole like reptile that Littlefoot falls into company with just after his mother's death. That sequence softens the blow, showing that death is a reality that Littlefoot, and the audience, have to deal with."
Spielberg and Lucas insisted on the cutting of around 10 minutes of footage from the final film. ANIMATION magazine reported that "One of the principal sections that was cut was the Tyrannosaurus Rex attack sequence. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas apparently felt that it was too frightening and could even cause some psychological damage in very young children." The article went on to state that in all, "Nineteen scenes were cut, including front-on scenes portraying the children in severe jeopardy and distress. In addition, the children's screams were replaced with milder exclamations." Don fought for the footage, but finally had to give in making the final running time only 69 minutes, one of the shorter animated features ever produced.
Though the studio tried to maintain a pleasant face, the editing session was quite difficult to go through. Over $1 million of footage was left on the floor by the end of the session. This is when a large number of scenes considered "too intense" were trimmed. One person involved stated that Don and Spielberg really wanted to make two different movies. Bluth would state that Spielberg didn't have time to look over storyboards and test reels because of the INDIANA JONES filming. Spielberg would state he had not been given a chance to see any of the process. Which, production was slowed having to make the many changes.
What distressed Don most was the lack of heart and character in the film, "I wanted to see the characters have more depth in their personality. I don't like the stereo-typed, cardboard cutout, two-dimensional character that we've seen too many times, so I try really hard to avoid cliches." Don also "wanted to put more into the relationships of the characters to each other."
Many of the original forceful drawings had to be toned down to fit into a more "get-along gang" approach. Don's desire to do a forceful, dramatic recreation of prehistoric times often was at odds with the other parties' desires to produce "a cute movie about dinosaur kids," as one executive called the project. VOICES AND MUSIC
Equalling the troubled production was a troubled search for voices. Many were cast and recorded several times by different talents. One character, Cera, was in mid-animation before a decision was finally made to use a female voice!
Most of the parts were for young voices, though not all were young. Will Ryan, who voiced TAIL's Digit, played Petrie, the Pterodactyl. He obtained the part when Max Spielberg (son of Steven) suggested "Digit's voice." Originally planned as a major character, Petrie was upstaged by Judith Barsi who played the little Platypus called Ducky. Best remembered for her "yup, yup, yup," she so entranced the studio, Don would remember her for his next feature.
Other voices included Pat Hingle as the Narrator (Fred Gwynne was mentioned on some early publicity), Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot (a Brontosaurus), Helen Shaver as Littlefoot's mother, Candice Houston as Cera (a Triceratops), Burke Barnes as Daddy Topps, and Pat Hingle, again, as Rooter. Like previous Bluth productions, almost all the voices had extensive credits in film, television or radio.
Once again James Horner was brought in to do the score. It's melodies were rich, but somewhat reminiscent of Horner's score for COCCOON. Unlike the song laden TAIL, it was agreed to simply have a song at the end credits that could be promoted. "If We Hold On Together" was written by Horner and Will Jennings and sung by Diana Ross. Though nowhere near the hit "Somewhere Out There" was, the song did become a popular instrumental.
The art crew on LAND was somewhat altered from Don's earlier productions. Now settled in Ireland, not all of the original artists wished to relocate. Skip Jones went to Bagdassarian and worked for a number of years on the Chipmunks' feature, series and other projects. Dave Spafford went independent, working at a number of studios (including his old home Disney) before setting up his own commercial studio.
To boost awareness the feature had a major tie-in with JC Penny's (Disney had grabbed Sears for OLIVER). They also had a special give-a-way at Pizza Hut restaurants featuring hand puppets of the characters. Universal also once again spent heavily on TV ads. A month before the film debuted, ads began appearing on Saturday morning programs. Also, magazines aimed at parents, such as Parents, had ads promoting the film.
When Spielberg received the final film from Sullivan Bluth, he reportedly was still dissatisfied with it. He re-mixed the music and sound effects, as well as supposedly did additional trimming of some scenes.
DINOSAURS VERSUS DOGS
The film was released to generally polite reviews. Most critics were impressed with Don's new team and their treatment of the dinosaurs. However, few seemed pleased with the story and characters.
The trades, as well as most of the media seemed fascinated by this showdown between LAND and OLIVER AND COMPANY. Hollywood Reporter stated "With OLIVER and LAND competing for the holiday money pot, this Steven Spielberg-George Lucas co-production could well end up with the short end of the boxoffice stick. Despite its quality animation, LAND bears the same weaknesses of the trio's previous two feature efforts, THE SECRET OF NIMH and AN AMERICAN TAIL."
It continued with "The bugaboo that continues to haunt Bluth is his choice of storylines. Like AMERICAN TAIL before it, this is another variation on the 'cute little baby who gets separated from his family and must find his way home' scenario. Aside from the built-in message about getting along with those different from your own kind (Cera is a segregationist who doesn't believe that species should mix company), that's all this tale has to offer. There's no memorable villain, nor any first-rate comic relief (Petrie just isn't very funny) to distract us from the script's lack of freshness."
The review concluded with "It's surprising that these cute dinosaurs (with long eyelashes and pink cheeks yet) are the best that Spielberg, Lucas, et al., could come up with for a new animated feature - an idea, one could say, that Uncle Walt first exploited some 40 years ago."
Variety was equally unimpressed. "Same team that drew up AN AMERICAN TAIL, creating the mouse that roared in holiday box- office two years ago, delves into the dinosaur era to deliver THE LAND BEFORE TIME, indeed, one of the slowest hours ever to crawl across a screen. Animation quality is fine, but two-dimensional story will try the patience of all but the youngest viewers. Spielberg-Lucas aegis should lure initial business in 1400-screen release, but pic faces extinction soon after." It gave the ultimate blow by saying, "For the most part, pic is about as engaging as what's found on Saturday morning TV."
"Parents may have a hard time scraping dinosaur goo off the young ones they take to THE LAND BEFORE TIME, (citywide) a fatally cunning animation feature set back when the earth really moved," started the Los Angeles Times. The reviewer thought that the Bluth studio had done a good job at depicting the times, but found fault with the basic premise. "But do dinosaurs really lend themselves to ootsie-cutsiness? To dinosaur babies with long tangly eyelashes, who say 'Gee' and talk in tones of cudled junket? To an Anatorsaurus named Ducky and a little Triceratops called Sarah? (It's spelled Cera, but Sarah it is to our ears.)"
The review continued on that point stating that making dinosaurs "cute" would take away the frightening aspects, and maybe even encourage some to study the creatures. "But we may diminish their essential majesty - even when we know, going in, the relative size of their brains. It's a question that parents will have to thrash out for themselves, parents of the under-6 set. For kids much older than that, you don't have to bother; they'll be out in the lobby with you."
The (Los Angeles area) Daily News did a duo review of both LAND and OLIVER. "Parents of small children get a break today with the opening of two excellent animated movies: Don Bluth's THE LAND BEFORE TIME and a dogs-and-cats version of Oliver Twist from Disney, OLIVER AND COMPANY. Of the two, OLIVER AND COMPANY is the most fun."
It went on to say "THE LAND BEFORE TIME, for which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were executive producers, is less lively and falls into sappiness at times, but it's still a fine children's film." It concluded with "But the drawing is beautiful and dramatic, and the baby dinosaurs are truly adorable."
Animato magazine's reviewer was generally disappointed, not only by the film, but by the potential lost. "It's inconsistent. Sometimes the dinosaurs of LAND act like the fascinating creatures dinosaurs really were (as when Mama Littlefoot slowly turns her long neck to speak to her son; an impressive moment). Other times, they behave like Saturday-morning caricatures. Though LAND awes us with some wonderful animation and gorgeous backgrounds, the effect is ruined by shoddy editing and a lackluster story."
As to actual story points, he comments "Predictably, the movie has a character who sacrifices his life, but it turns out he isn't really dead. You've seen it before in LADY AND THE TRAMP (Trusty), JUNGLE BOOK (Baloo), PETER PAN (Tinkerbell), and THE BLACK CAULDRON (Gurgi). At least in LAND, the comic relief deserves to go down."
One of his final comments is "THE LAND BEFORE TIME entices us with its intriguing subject matter and its big-name producers, but ultimately it fails to deliver to our expectations."
Other critics were more taken in by the art style. Newsday called it "a beautiful, lyric odyssey." The Dallas Times-Herald referred to it as "a warm family film that's long on charm and excitement." Siskel and Ebert gave the film "two thumbs up."
Oddly, these kinder sentiments were not echoed by Don and his colleagues. "I'm not really fond of LAND BEFORE TIME," Don would comment in a 1990 interview. "I think we made a very appealing story, but it was a little too slow paced for me."
Gary Goldman was a bit more blunt about his disappointment. "It dipped down into what we call pablum and it was directed, after the fact, to an age group of four to six or seven year olds and it eliminated some of the things that we found exciting. As you know, there was over ten minutes cut from the film, and I believe the cuts were the absolute correct choice to be made to make it commercially successful. Some of the elements that were cut from the film were beautiful and exciting and extremely artistic, both direction-wise and animation-wise."
John Pomeroy reflected that "It never came up to my full expectations, simply because it was a perfect opportunity to really showcase five disturbed personalities trying to work towards each other's mutual goal. They were rich characters, but [we] never really got a chance to project that richness."
He went on to compare two audiences. "What's strange is that what an artist considers an artistic disappointment will be considered the greatest thing ever achieved by the layman. I walked into a friend's house who's got five kids, and they're gathered around their TV set, and they're on their third showing of LAND BEFORE TIME that day. They've got all the dialogue memorized. I see those five kids glued to that TV and have to scratch my head and say, 'well, maybe there was something there that was worthwhile."
Pomeroy was correct, for the film did dynamic opening business. The film opened as the number one grossing film in almost 1400 theaters. Its opening weekend gross of over $7,526,000 broke all records, becoming the top grossing opening weekend for an animated feature. The per theater average was an impressive $5,395. It handily beat out Disney's new film, OLIVER AND COMPANY (number four on the list of top films) which debuted at under 1000 theaters and took in just over $4 million ($4,226 per theater) that first weekend.
For four weeks, LAND topped OLIVER. Week five found OLIVER on top. OLIVER began catching up and eventually passed LAND. OLIVER then became the record holder for the top grossing animated feature on first release. This was somewhat due to Universal's marketing department moving on to other projects while Disney continued pushing the film well into January. Gary Goldman complained to Universal about their dropping the push for LAND. LAND's final gross was just over $46, topping TAIL, but still behind OLIVER's nearly $54 million. In fact, Disney president Michael Eisner allegedly said he was willing to leave OLIVER in theaters through the summer if it meant getting a bigger total than LAND and TAIL.
LAND went on to do very successful business in the video market. Priced at only $24.95, it joined the number of videos that were released with tie-ins to other products. As with the feature, there was heavy buying of TV commercial time and magazine space.
The tape had a special commercial at the start featuring the new promotion with Pizza Hut. Tapes also contained a mail in coupon for Pizza Hut. At Pizza Hut, two additional hand puppets were offered. For nearly a year, the film and characters were associated with the restaurant's children's menu and birthday parties. (They were eventually replaced by the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.)
Hailed as a first, Universal even lined up a promotion with the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service was issuing a new series of stamps featuring dinosaurs which were tied into the film with posters seen at all Post Offices. Inside the tape was a notice about the stamps, stamp collecting and a T-Shirt featuring the stamps and Little Foot. Postal Employees were also to wear buttons showcasing the feature and the stamps. (Actually a similar link between the Post Office and an animated feature occurred in 1959 with UPA's 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS starring Mr. Magoo.)
For Don and his crew, like the dinosaurs, it was the end of an era. No new productions were being looked at partnered with Spielberg and Amblin. There would be no third picture in the three picture deal originally negotiated. Instead, Sullivan Bluth had lined up a new sponsor, Goldcrest International. It was a new three picture deal giving Don total autonomy on what he could do. After working for video game companies and major directors, Don and his crew were once again free to do whatever they wanted.
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