Produced by Sullivan Bluth Studios, Amblin Entertainment and Lucasfilm, it features dinosaurs living in the prehistoric times. The plot concerns a young Apatosaurus named Littlefoot who is orphaned when his mother is killed by a Tyrannosaurus. Littlefoot flees famine and upheaval to search for the Great Valley, an area spared from devastation. On his journey, he meets four young companions: Cera the Threehorn, Ducky the Bigmouth, Petrie the Flyer, and Spike the Spiketail.
The film explores issues of prejudice between the different species and the hardships they endure in their journey as they are guided by the spirit of Littlefoot's mother and also forced to deal with the murderous T. rex that killed her. This is the only Don Bluth film of the 1980s in which Dom DeLuise did not participate (instead, he starred in Disney's Oliver & Company that same year), and the only film in The Land Before Time series that is not a musical, as well as the only one to be released theatrically worldwide.
Released by Universal Pictures on November 18, 1988, the film spawned a franchise with thirteen direct-to-video sequels and a television series as well as merchandise.
During the age of the dinosaurs, a massive drought forces several herds of dinosaurs to seek an oasis known as the Great Valley. Among these, a mother in a diminished "Longneck" herd gives birth to a single baby, named Littlefoot. Years later, Littlefoot plays with Cera, a "Three-horn", until her father intervenes; whereupon Littlefoot's mother describes the different kinds of dinosaurs: "Three-horns", "Spiketails", "Swimmers", and "Flyers". That night, as Littlefoot follows a "Hopper", he encounters Cera again, and they play together briefly until a large "Sharptooth" attacks them. Littlefoot's mother comes to their rescue, receiving fatal injuries in the process. An earthquake swallows up the Sharptooth and divides Littlefoot and Cera from their herds. Littlefoot receives advice from his dying mother. Depressed and confused, Littlefoot meets an old "Clubtail" named Rooter, who consoles him. He is then guided by his mother's voice telling him to follow the sun to the Great Valley.
Later, Littlefoot meets a Bigmouth named Ducky and a Flyer named Petrie, who accompany him on his journey. Cera, who is attempting to find her own kind, finds the unconscious Sharptooth inside a ravine and mistakenly wakes him up. She escapes and bumps into Littlefoot, Ducky, and Petrie; she tells them that Sharptooth is alive, but Littlefoot does not believe her. As Cera describes her encounter, she accidentally flings Ducky to the direction of a hatching Spiketail, whom she names Spike and inducts into the group. Seeking the Great Valley, they discover a cluster of trees, which is abruptly depleted by a herd of Longnecks. Searching for remaining growth, they discover a single leaf-bearing tree, and obtain food by stacking up atop each other and pulling it down. Cera remains aloof, but at nightfall, everyone including herself gravitates to Littlefoot's side for warmth and companionship.
The next morning, they are attacked by Sharptooth, but they escape through a tunnel too small for him. Beyond this, they discover landmarks mentioned by Littlefoot's mother. Cera decides to go another way, but Littlefoot refuses and a schism divides him from the others. However, when Ducky and Spike become endangered by lava and Petrie gets stuck in a tar pit, he returns to rescue them. They then rescue Cera as she is being harassed by a pack of "domeheads". Ashamed of her fear and reluctant to admit her mistake, Cera leaves them in tears. Later, while crossing a pond, Petrie overhears Sharptooth nearby. The group devises a scheme to lure him to the pond and drown him in the deep side using a nearby boulder. During the ensuing struggle, a draft from Sharptooth's nostrils enables Petrie to fly for the first time.
The plan nearly fails when Sharptooth begins attacking the boulder while the group attempts to push it onto him. However, Cera reunites with the group, allowing the others to push both Sharptooth and the boulder into the water below. Sharptooth momentarily takes Petrie down with him, but he later emerges unharmed. Littlefoot, alone, follows a cloud resembling his mother, which guides him to the Great Valley. He is then joined by the others. Upon arrival, the five are reunited with their families: Petrie impresses his family with his newfound flight; Ducky introduces Spike to her family, who adopt him; Cera reunites with her father; and Littlefoot rejoins with his grandparents. The group then rejoins at the top of a hill and embrace each other.Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot
Candy Hutson as Cera
Judith Barsi as Ducky
Will Ryan as Petrie
Helen Shaver as Littlefoot's mother
Burke Byrnes as Cera's father
Bill Erwin as Littlefoot's grandfather
Pat Hingle as Narrator and Rooter
Frank Welker as Sharptooth (uncredited)
During production of An American Tail, talk began of the next feature with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg wanted to do a film similar to Bambi, but only with dinosaurs, and George Lucas also brought in on the project. An early working title for the film was The Land Before Time Began. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas originally wanted the film to have no dialogue, like The Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia, but the idea was abandoned in favor of using voice actors in order to make it appealing to children. The film was originally planned for release in fall of 1987, but the production and the release date were delayed by a year due to the relocation of Sullivan Bluth Studios to Dublin, Ireland.
The production was preceded by extensive research, wherein researchers visited natural history museums in New York City and Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. The artists had to create a credible landscape and animals. Animators made more than 600 background images for the film. Littlefoot was originally going to be called "Thunderfoot", until it was found out that a Triceratops in a children's book already had that name. It was Lucas's idea to make Cera a female Triceratops, when she was in mid-animation as a male named Bambo. After voicing Digit in An American Tail, Will Ryan performed the voice of Petrie. The idea was brought up by Spielberg's son, Max. The character of Spike was inspired by Don Bluth's pet Chow Chow, Cubby.
Throughout production, The Land Before Time underwent a severe cutting and editing of footage. Spielberg and Lucas thought that some scenes in the movie would appear too dark and intense for young children. Spielberg told Bluth while looking at the scenes from the film, "It's too scary. We'll have kids crying in the lobby, and a lot of angry parents. You don't want that." About 10 minutes of footage, comprising a total of 19 fully animated scenes, were cut from the final film, to attain a G rating instead of a PG rating. Much of the cut footage consisted of the Tyrannosaurus attack sequence and sequences of the five young dinosaurs in grave danger and distress. Examples can be seen in the storyboards of the chase sequence in the briar patch. POV shots of Sharptooth's snapping jaws were deleted, and shots were rearranged to shorten the sequence. This results in continuity errors, depicting the Tyrannosaur with his right eye still open after it had been blinded. Some screams were re-voiced using milder exclamations.
The music for The Land Before Time was composed by James Horner, who had previously provided the soundtrack for An American Tail, and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Choir of King's College. An official soundtrack was released on audio cassette and vinyl record on November 21, 1988, and later on CD by MCA Records, and features seven tracks from the movie. The film's theme song "If We Hold on Together" was sung by Diana Ross and was released as a single on January 21, 1989, peaking at number 23 on the US adult contemporary charts, and was later included on her 1991 album The Force Behind the Power. A digital version of the soundtrack was released on a number of services on January 22, 2013 by Geffen Records.Track listing
- "The Great Migration" (7:49)
- "Sharptooth and the Earthquake" (10:33)
- "Whispering Winds" (9:00)
- "If We Hold on Together" - performed by Diana Ross (4:07)
- "Foraging for Food" (7:15)
- "The Rescue/Discovery of the Great Valley" (12:43)
- "End Credits" (6:22)
The Land Before Time was released on VHS on September 14, 1989, as well as LaserDisc in regular pan and scan and "Special Collector's Edition" CAV-play editions by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment in North America and internationally, and CIC Video in the UK. According to the book The Animated Films of Don Bluth, the original release did "very successful business" on the home video market, and included a promotional tie-in with Pizza Hut in North America, which was offering rubber hand puppets based on the film at the time. The VHS version was made available once more on February 20, 1996, under the Universal Family Features label, and was later packaged with following three films in the series as part of the Land Before Time Collection on December 4, 2001.
The film was released on DVD for the first time on April 30, 1997, and re-released in December 2, 2003, as the "Anniversary Edition" for the movie's 15th anniversary, which included games and sing-along songs. The Anniversary Edition was later included with An American Tail and Balto as a three-movie pack in November 2007. A widescreen Blu-ray version was available for the first time on October 13, 2015, which included digital HD and UltraViolet copies, which was accompanied by a new widescreen DVD release on the same day.
The Land Before Time holds a 70% "fresh" approval rating from review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes from 30 critics with the consensus "Beautifully animated and genuinely endearing, The Land Before Time is sure to please dino-obsessed tykes, even if it's a little too cutesy for older viewers. Metacritic assigned a score of 66, based on reviews by 15 critics, signifying "Generally favorable reviews".
Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film "two thumbs up" on a 1988 episode of their television program At the Movies. Siskel found it to be "sweet more than it was scary" and "quite beautiful", also praising its straightforward story and remarked that he would recommend it to children over Disney's Oliver and Company, released the same day. In his own review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing "I guess I sort of liked the film, although I wonder why it couldn't have spent more time on natural history and the sense of discovery, and less time on tragedy." Peter Travers of People magazine felt the movie had an unclear audience, stating "The animation is fine. But the Stu Krieger screenplay contains violence that might be hard on the younger ones, [...] and a never-let-up cuteness that can turn minds of all ages to mush." Los Angeles Times writer Sheila Benson also stated that the movie's enjoyment was limited to younger viewers, remarking "do dinosaurs really lend themselves to ootsie-cutesiness?"
Many reviewers compared The Land Before Time to films from Disney's Golden Age. Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer said that the movie "looks and sounds as if it came out of the Disney Studios of the '40s or '50s. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing," calling it "meticulously crafted" but was also "mildly disappoint[ed]" that the dialog wasn't as sophisticated. In her review for the Sun-Sentinel, Candice Russel similarly remarked, "The Land Before Time works by evoking the simple virtues of this art aimed at children, as it was in the beginning when Disney animated Mickey Mouse." A review from the Motion Picture Guide 1989 Annual notes that the film "has been called a sort of prehistoric Bambi". David Kehr from the Chicago Tribune similarly felt that the film's title "also refers to the Disney past, but it goes for all the marbles. Its model is nothing less than the life-cycle saga of Bambi, and that Bluth gets even half the way there is proof of a major talent." Kehr gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling it "as handsome and honest an animated feature as any produced since Walt Disney's death; it may even be the best."
The Land Before Time grossed $48 million at the US box office, as well as beating the Disney film, Oliver & Company, which was released on the same day, for the #1 spot during its opening weekend. It brought in a box office total of nearly $50 million during its US release, slightly more than Don Bluth's previous film, An American Tail. While Oliver & Company had grossed over its US earnings, The Land Before Time grossed nearly $84 million worldwide, which the Disney film did not surpass. However, Oliver & Company beat out The Land Before Time at the US box office by about $5 million. Attached to the film, Universal and Amblin issued Brad Bird's Family Dog short from their television anthology Amazing Stories.
The Land Before Time was nominated for "Best Family Animation or Fantasy Motion Picture" at the 10th annual Youth in Film Awards, losing out to Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. It also received a nomination for "Best Fantasy Film" at the 16th Saturn Awards ceremony in 1990, beaten by Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The film generated many direct-to-video sequels, which differ from the original by adding "sing-a-long" musical numbers. Bluth and his animation studio have no affiliation with any of the film's sequels. The sequels have generally been met with mixed reception with several fans of the original disregarding the sequels, while others have embraced the sequels into the canon of the story.
In 2007 a television series was released in North America. It follows the style of the sequels in terms of the morality and the musical numbers (with some of the songs being shortened, and reworked).