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Nostalgia Fact-Check: How Does The Land Before Time Hold Up?

Photo: Universal

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider the surprisingly bleak dinosaur movie The Land Before Time.

Background: After George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up to tell the tale of whip-cracking, Nazi-fighting archeologist Indiana Jones, the natural next step was to dig through the geological strata to the Cretaceous Period. And so, in 1988, the dynamic duo, along with director Don Bluth, created the seminal children’s dinosaur movie The Land Before Time.

The film that spawned twelve direct-to-video sequels is set in a time when Earth is becoming increasingly inhospitable, leaves called “tree stars” are more precious than jewels and, like nineteenth-century homesteaders, the dinosaurs are heading west to seek a better life. After he loses his mother and is separated from his grandparents, young long-neck hero Littlefoot teams up with an annoying, brave-to-a-fault three-horn named Cera; Petrie, the flyer who’s afraid to spread his wings; loudmouth Ducky, the swimmer; and a mute, hungry spike-tail whom they creatively christen “Spike.” The ragtag bunch is determined to make it to the Great Valley on their own, to be reunited with their families and gorge themselves on tree stars until they puke.

Nostalgia Demographic: eighties and nineties kids, dinosaur lovers.

Fact-Check: Not so long ago, in the throes of a pre-graduation existential crisis, my friend and I thought we might retreat to a simpler time and indulge in a classic film from our childhoods. I hadn’t given much thought to the story of Littlefoot and his friends since my family got a DVD player and the well-worn VHS fell out of our rotation of most watched movies, along with an anime version of Thumbelina and a bootleg copy of The Lion King. Perhaps, I thought, some dinosaur high jinks and a happily-ever-after would be just what the doctor ordered.

Not so. Watching this film did not pull us out of our spiral of depression — if anything, it shoved us deeper into the abyss. Don’t get me wrong, I knew going in that our heroes had some obstacles to overcome, but I remembered it to be ultimately uplifting. As it turns out, what I thought was a kid-friendly romp through the land of dinosaurs is actually a dark and fatalistic depiction of the inescapability of a species’ eventual oblivion.

Watching as an adult, it’s a lot harder to ignore the dinosaurs’ impending extinction, and the movie doesn’t even try to help you forget. For every scene with adorable baby dinosaurs bursting out of their eggs and rolling around to the sound of a playful clarinet, there are three that depict the harsh reality of their situation with hardly the slightest veneer of frivolity: Littlefoot gnaws on a stick, trying to extract some nutrients; Petrie is almost embalmed in a tar pit; the friends discover a stand of trees only to be trampled by a starvation-crazed pack of brontosauruses who devour almost everything, leaving only a small shrub for the team to call dinner.

They suffer through all this for the promise of the Great Valley, a land where, the narrator tells us, there are “enough tree stars to feast on forever.” Putting aside that it seems unlikely one valley would be enough to sustain all of dinosaur-kind in perpetuity, we the viewers know that the Great Valley is, at best, a stall. Littlefoot’s grandparents aren’t getting any younger, and before long an asteroid, climate change, or something else will do the rest of them in. I mean, I guess we know they survive until at least The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends. But as we watch the End of Days unfold for our giant reptilian predecessors, we can’t help but wonder when our time, too, will come to an end.

A rarity for a children’s movie, there is no real villain, no one we can blame for our heroes’ suffering. Sure, the T. Rex they call Sharptooth terrorizes them on and off, but he is one of the few dinosaurs that is not personified. He is driven purely by animal instincts, not a higher consciousness, and we can hardly fault the guy for chasing after a decent meal; it’s hard out there for a Sharptooth. Even the death of Littlefoot’s mother doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders. At the same time she is fending off the T.Rex, tectonic plates begin to shift beneath her at frankly improbable speeds, causing a devastating earthquake.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” a wise old dinosaur tells a sniveling Littlefoot as he rails against his mother for leaving him and himself for not saving her. Then, years before Elton John would sing of it, the old dinosaur says that “the great circle of life has begun.” This is just nature, crueler than any cartoon villain, and not as easily foiled. Even in The Land Before Time, no one can escape the ticking clock.

As a family-friendly, feel-good movie, The Land Before Time does not hold up once you’re no longer young enough to believe you’ll live forever. But if you enjoy contemplating your own mortality, as I sometimes do, the movie does offer something else worthwhile, albeit a little bleak. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle,” and, ridiculous as it sounds, that’s what I thought about the entire time I watched those godforsaken baby dinosaurs plodding across a barren landscape, seeking the temporary salvation of their Great Valley.

From the omniscient narrator at the beginning intoning about a world that existed “long before you” to the flashback montage at the end that replays the only 30 seconds’ worth of happy moments that took place in the entire movie, The Land Before Time feels like an allegory for the constant slog of life. Even though, like Littlefoot, we are all doomed from the start, we have no choice but to struggle on and hope that our memory montage is worth it at the end.

How Does The Land Before Time Hold Up?