I never actually saw The
Land Before Time in the theater; when it came out I was too old for
"kiddie" movies but not yet not old enough to realize that kids'
movies can be fun for all ages. It's nonetheless been part of my life: Pizza
Hut ran a promotion in which you a rubber Land Before Time puppet came
with every purchase of breadsticks. (I can't believe I still remember about the
breadsticks after all this time.) Well, I ended up with a "Spike"
puppet... and the goofy little guy became my pal. He weathered high school with
me, tagged along to college, survived a number of moves, and to this very day
grins cheerily at me from a spot on a bookshelf. Well, to make a long story
short, Spike and I were excited about actually seeing the movie that started
Unfortunately, the movie that I
imagined that The Land Before Time would be was better than the movie
that it actually turned out to be. The synopsis is pretty straightforward. Set
millions of years ago (in what's presumably the Jurassic period), The Land
Before Time is the story of a "long-neck" dinosaur named
Littlefoot, who follows his family as they migrate out of a barren landscape to
the perhaps mythical Great Valley where food will be plentiful. Along the way,
Littlefoot becomes separated from his herd, and along with other babies he
meets along the way, must find the Great Valley on his own.
And that's really all there is
to it. The movie is well suited for an audience of 4- to 5-year-olds. There are
child-dinosaur characters; a tragedy that kids will identify with (loss of a
mother); a straightforward story that has the characters striving to reach a
clearly defined goal; a clearly defined threat figure to add some scares; a
touch of little-kid humor; and a happy ending. What it doesn't have, however,
is anything that makes it worthwhile for an adult to watch. The story is not
just simple, but simplistic, and the emotional content is broadly but shallowly
Another reason why The Land
Before Time doesn't weather adult viewing well is that it's sappy.
Extremely sappy. In fact, if it were any sappier, it would have to carry a
warning label for diabetics. We have touching exhortations from mother dinosaur
to baby, we have the sad little baby dinosaur mourning his mother, and we have
the mother's spirit guiding him on his journey. That sounds fairly sentimental,
doesn't it? Well, imagine the sentiment being laid so thick you could cut it
with a knife, and you've got The Land Before Time. I have a soft spot
for cute movies, but here "cute" is being ladled on with a vengeance,
so while it may be appealing for preschoolers, it's likely to cause a gag
reflex in Mom and Dad.
So is there anything special
about The Land Before Time (other than the fact that it spawned nine
direct-to-video sequels)? I'll give it credit for a distinctive setting, one
that allows for a fantastic feel while still working with real natural history.
Dinosaurs and the prehistoric past are perennial favorites with kids, and while
the main characters are heavily anthropomorphized, the overall setting is
fairly consistent with what was known about dinosaurs in 1988. (The one faux
pas that I noticed was the presence of fruit: you can't have fruit without
flowers, and true flowers hadn't evolved yet.) It's interesting to note the
solid reptilian hues of the dinosaur characters as well: it's only recently
that people have realized that they could have been all sorts of colors and patterns.
I also appreciated the fact
that The Land Before Time is an animated feature that doesn't have songs
in it; the characters never break into song, and there are no cheesy pop songs
shoehorned into the middle of the movie, as seems to happen all too often in
otherwise well-done kids' movies.
There's bad news and there's
not-so-bad news. The not-so-bad news is that while The Land Before Time
appears in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it appears to be an open matte transfer
rather than pan-and-scan. There's no "formatted to fit your screen"
message (not that that's proof positive) and as far as I could tell, the
framing appears to be correct. There's none of the misframing or excessive
close-ups of a pan-and-scan hack job, but there's plenty of open space in the
top and bottom of the image most of the time. Personally, I would have
preferred to see the film presented in its widescreen theatrical aspect ratio
(1.85:1), or at least with both a widescreen and an open-matte transfer on the
disc, but this is an acceptable option.
Now for the bad news. The image
quality is very poor. It's been brutally edge-enhanced, which baffles me: this
is animation! It already has sharp, well-defined edges for all the objects in
the picture! Well, we get stuck with heavy edge enhancement that results in
distinct haloes around all the edges, and ironically makes the picture much
less sharp. The image is also very grainy.
I'd guess that the print was
given minimal cleaning at best before the transfer was made. Dark scenes look
murky and lack detail, print flaws appear at times, and the colors overall are drab
and muddy. On top of that, there's frequent fluctuation in color values
throughout the film; for instance, Littlefoot shifts between being purple,
brown, and orange, Ducky is sometimes green, sometimes brown or yellow, Cera is
alternately gray or yellow, and so on. It's really quite disconcerting. All in
all, this is a visually quite unappealing transfer.
Surprisingly, given the shoddy
video transfer, the audio quality here is excellent. We have a choice of a DTS
5.1 track or a Dolby 5.1 track (as well as Dolby 5.1 tracks in Spanish and
French). The sound is clean and full, with excellent use of surround to create
a believable atmosphere around the listener.
English closed captions and
Spanish and French subtitles are also available.
The Land Before Time has
the dubious distinction of having the most cloyingly cutesy and condescending
special features I've had the misfortune of seeing in some time. Any kid with
half a brain will be insulted by them, and parents will soon be rolling their eyes.
It's clear that the DVD is
being targeted toward very young viewers; all the text that appears in the
special features screens is also read out loud (in very patronizing tone, I
might add). We also get two "how to" features: "How Do I Find
Things?", which is a mini-tutorial in how to use the remote control, and
"I Can Put This in My Computer?", which explains how to access the
DVD-ROM features. If you think this sounds condescending, you are right: it is.
For actual content, we can go
to "Littlefoot's Playhouse," which starts off with "Adventures
in the Land Before Time." This is basically a set of trailers for the
other DVDs in the Land Before Time series: we get 21 different clips
highlighting "special places" that Littlefoot and company have explored.
If your kids make you sit through all 21 of them, you will want to punch out
the narrator woman. Or your kids might want to; she uses the cloying
"talking to dumb kiddies" voice that I hated when I was a kid.
The next option in
"Littlefoot's Playhouse" is "Sing-Along Songs From Your Favorite
Land Before Time Adventures": "You Are One of Us Now," "It
Takes All Sorts," "Friends for Dinner," and "The Lone
Dinosaur," which are just as cheesy as their titles suggest. We also get a
section called "Dino-Stars," which gives some information on the
kinds of dinosaurs that appear in the movie, and "Dino Activity: Break the
Code," which makes a game out of figuring out the meanings of the
dinosaurs' scientific names.
There's also a link to DVD-ROM
content and a short text blurb on the "Jurassic Park Institute" and
its web site.
If you have very young kids who
like dinosaurs, and you don't mind a strong sappiness quotient, The Land
Before Time makes for a passable rental. Its dismal image quality precludes
any sort of purchase recommendation, though, even for fans of the film.