The war for dominance in American animation between Don Bluth and the Walt Disney Company had gotten a bit more intense with their dueling mouse movies in 1986, but that had nothing on the pissing match the two studios engaged in late in 1988. Both companies released a new feature on November 18 of that year, in a battle for the hearts and minds of children waged in the trenches of two very different talking animal pictures. Disney had the altogether peculiar Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company, while Bluth released a fable about dinosaurs, The Land Before Time.
It ended up being a draw, sort of. I am giving privilege of the first review to the film that won the opening weekend at the box office: The Land Before Time came in at #1 with $7.5 million, while Oliver & Company could only manage #4 (behind Child's Play and Ernest Saves Christmas), with a touch over $4 million. Back in 1988, as it is too easy to forget, films didn't live or die based on their opening weekend, though, and as it turned out, Oliver & Company narrowly passed its competition with a total domestic haul of $53 million to Land's $48 million; though the Bluth film enjoyed a far more robust foreign take.
I give these numbers not because I think it proves anything about the quality of the two movies, but because it demonstrates the knife's edge that the American animation industry was balanced on in 1988, when the Disney Studios had just embarked on a massively ambitious and probably foolhardy attempt to revitalise its brand value, while Bluth had hitched his wagon to the two brightest stars in Hollywood: for after his great success in executive producing An American Tail, Steven Spielberg managed to bring along a friend to pitch in with this next Bluth feature - George Lucas, the only man in American cinema who might possibly have a more enviable track record than Spielberg as a successful producer.
As the '00s have proven with the twin ascents of Pixar and DreamWorks, the American film marketplace can support two competing animation studios; but then those studios never had the stones to compete with each other on the exact same weekend. I think that in 1988, what we were looking at was a struggle between two antithetical forces for the soul of an art form: between rickety old Disney, still looking to find its footing after 22 years in the wilderness, and the animator who was once the brightest member of his generation at Disney itself. The stalemate that occurred in this year was perhaps a sign of how evenly matched the two companies were, although if I didn't have hindsight on my side, I think I would have looked at the evidence and predicted victory for Bluth. Even though The Land Before Time is comfortably the weakest of his first three features, it's still better than the tedious Oliver & Company, which in the absence of any other evidence must have seemed proof that Disney's occasional drift into artistic success was more a matter of luck than planning.
There's more to say on this matter, later: for now, let us address this dinosaur movie. It starts out promisingly enough, with a simply gorgeous tracking shot through an ancient pool, following a small lizard-like creature as it swims by a variety of prehistoric creatures, as one of James Horner's finest themes from the late-'80s plays on the soundtrack, a moody, nearly tuneless hum that suggests a foggy, forgotten past with unusual effectiveness given that composer's typical unsubtle bombast. Eventually, we arrive on land, as a warm-voiced narrator (Pat Hingle) tells us of the dinosaurs who once ruled the earth, and how it came to pass that the ecosystem of their world was brought to the edge of ruin when the plants started to die off. I wonder if this isn't a holdover from Spielberg's original idea for the project, which was a dialogue-free excursion among the dinosaurs in the vein of the "Rite of Spring" sequence from Disney's Fantasia; an idea squashed when it was decided to make something a bit more easy and family-friendly.
And they certainly got just that. The Land Before Time ends up sharing quite a few similarities with An American Tail in the story department, cut with some elements of Bambi, and the resultant film is assuredly a kids' movie, even more than Bluth's two previous outings as director. In a nutshell, the film concerns a plucky young apatosaurus who is accompanying his family on a journey to a mythical place, the Great Valley, where things are meant to be much better than where he comes from. Along the way, he gets separated from the herd, watches his mother die defending him from a vicious tyrannosaur. With determination and a small amount of luck, he eventually makes his way to the valley, where he is reunited with his remaining family and finds peace forever after. Change "Great Valley" to "America", "apatosaurus" to "mouse" and change the omnipresent threat of the tyrannosaur to the dark form of cats, and you have very much the same narrative arc of Bluth's last film, and we can certainly not fault any of the filmmakers for wanting to stick to the model that had worked before; but it's more than a little sad to see Bluth reduced to copying his past successes, given that this was one of the very reasons that sent him scurrying from Disney in the first place.
Like An American Tail, The Land Before Time sometimes suffers from an excess of sentimentality, particularly since the little apatosaur, Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon) quickly joins up with four other orphans in the creation of a loose kind of "herd" of their own: Cera the triceratops (Candace Hutson), Petrie the pteranodon (Will Ryan), Ducky the hadrosaur (Judith Barsi, who was murdered by her father before the film was released, a detail that makes her performance positively heart-rending), and Spike the stegosaurus, who does not speak. Together they form a happy little enclave of guileless children learning to overcome the speciesism that has been pressed into them since birth, learning that only when you stick together can you overcome adversity, and all that kind of fuzzy, pleasant, Aesop sort of thing.
What charmed me when I first saw it as a six-year-old in theaters now strikes me as rather middling, indifferent storytelling and character development. Put simply none of the characters in The Land Before Time are all that appealing, falling as they do into the trite roles of a Saturday morning production. From interviews, it would appear that Bluth had the same feeling: production on this film was not tremendously happy or efficient, after the generally smooth sailing of An American Tail. The biggest problem was that it simply wasn't a film Bluth was interested in making: the very idea of a dinosaur feature was pressed onto him by Spielberg, and having two masters in the form of his very important executive producers meant that Bluth had less control over this project's development than ever before. It's telling that in most of the anecdotes surrounding the fleshing-out of Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss's story (they also wrote An American Tail), we also see references to "Lucas proposed this" or "Spielberg had this idea"; Bluth himself was mostly on hand to see that other people's vision got executed as successfully as possible.
His success was inconsistent, but at its finest moments The Land Before Time has moments of beauty to match anything in The Secret of NIMH or An American Tail. There are certain points at which the animation of the dinosaurs is absolutely glorious, capturing the plodding, massive weight of these animals with gravity and seriousness; Littlefoot's mother is an especially fine example of what could happen when animators set themselves the the task of creating the most realistic movement they can muster up. At other points, the quality sinks to the level of a television cartoon; particularly in the deeply inconsistent color palette, even from shot to shot, or the lack of continuity in the characters' sizes, especially relative to the T-Rex. Part of this, I have no doubt, is due to Bluth's relocating his studio from California to Ireland, a massive effort that, mixed with the general lack of enthusiasm for the project among the Bluth people (his right-hand men, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, were if anything more down on the project than the director was), it's not surprising that some quality was lost in the shuffle.
Still, the good moments outweigh the bad, and the very best are quite beautiful indeed: the whole sequence of Littlefoot's birth, the shot of a single leaf clinging to a tree with the sun behind it. The design of the five characters is sufficiently cute - but not cutesy! - that they manage to become appealing despite being rather thinly conceived as personalities. It's still a massive step down in quality from the previous two films, but it's never really ugly to the eye - something that Disney was still not able to claim, not even in 1988.
Despite its financial success and lukewarm pleasant reviews, Bluth and his company had had enough. The relationship with Spielberg had reduced him from an ambitious man looking to rehabilitate the very concept of American animation to a competent producer of well-intentioned pablum - Spielberg and Lucas had even trimmed out ten minutes of finished animation, claiming it made the project "too dark". The animator quietly parted ways with Amblin Entertainment after this, even as production on Bluth's next feature was already under way. A bad business move, as it turned out, but a good personal one: The Land Before Time is a lot more disposable than nostalgia would have you believe, and being remembered as the creator of studio-mandated family fare would have been an awful fate for the filmmaker. Unfortunately, the opportunity for him to make his reputation had just about run out: for Disney had just about learned its lesson about making crummy family fare too.