The Land Before Time

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This article is about the 1988 film. For the franchise in general, see The Land Before Time (franchise).
The Land Before Time
The Land Before Time poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Don Bluth
Produced by Don Bluth
Gary Goldman
John Pomeroy
Screenplay by Stu Krieger
Story by Judy Freudberg
Tony Geiss
Narrated by Pat Hingle
Music by James Horner
Edited by John K. Carr
Dan Molina
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • November 18, 1988 (1988-11-18)
Running time
69 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $12.5 million
Box office $84.4 million[2]

The Land Before Time is a 1988 American-Irish animated adventure drama film directed and co-produced by Don Bluth and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall.[1]

Produced by Sullivan Bluth Studios and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, it features dinosaurs living in the prehistoric times. The plot concerns a young Brontosaurus named Littlefoot who is orphaned[3] 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, a Triceratops; Ducky, a Saurolophus; Petrie, a Pteranodon; and Spike, a Stegosaurus.[4]

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 Tyrannosaurus 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 was a critical and financial success, and spawned a multimillion-dollar franchise with thirteen direct-to-video sequels (without association with Bluth, Spielberg, or Lucas) as well as merchandise (toys, video games, etc.) and a television series.


Near the end of the Cretaceous, a series of catastrophic events are causing intense drought, and several herds of dinosaurs seek one of the last livable places, a paradise known as the "Great Valley." Among these, a diminished "Longneck" herd gives birth to a single baby, named Littlefoot (Gabriel Damon). Years later, Littlefoot plays with Cera (Candace Hutson), a "Three-horn," who was trying to smash a beetle until her father (Burke Bynes) intervenes; whereupon Littlefoot's mother (Helen Shaver) names the different kinds of dinosaurs: "Three-horns," "Spiketails," "Swimmers," and "Flyers," and states that each has historically remained apart. That night, as Littlefoot follows a "hopper," he encounters Cera again, and they play together briefly until a "Sharptooth" appears. He attacks them, before Littlefoot's mother comes to their rescue. During the fight, she suffers severe back and neck injuries from the Sharptooth's teeth and claws. At that same time, an "earthshake" opens a deep ravine that swallows up the Sharptooth and divides Littlefoot and Cera from their herds. Littlefoot finds his dying mother, and receives her final words of advice in favor of his intuition.

Depressed and confused, Littlefoot meets an old "Clubtail" named Rooter (Pat Hingle), who consoles him upon learning of his mother's death. Littlefoot later hears his mother's voice guiding him to follow the "bright circle" past the "great rock that looks like a longneck and then past the "mountains that burn" to the Great Valley. Now alone in his journey, Littlefoot meets Cera once again and tries to get her to join him, but she arrogantly refuses his help, and stalks off into the darkness after falling down a ravine.

Later, Littlefoot is accompanied by a young "Bigmouth" named Ducky (Judith Barsi), whose cheery company bears him out of his depression. Soon after, they meet a "Flyer" named Petrie (Will Ryan), whose aerophobia makes him extremely insecure and nervous. Cera, who is attempting to find her own kind, finds the unconscious Sharptooth inside the ravine. Thinking he is dead, Cera harasses him, during which she mistakenly wakes him up, and flees. She soon bumps into Littlefoot, Ducky, and Petrie, and tells them that the Sharptooth is alive, although Littlefoot does not believe her. She then describes her encounter (exaggerating her bravery), during which she accidentally flings Ducky into the air. When she lands, Ducky discovers a mute hatchling "Spiketail", whom she names Spike and brings him into the group. Seeking the Great Valley, they discover a cluster of trees, which is abruptly depleted by a herd of Whiptailed Longnecks. Searching for remaining growth, they discover one tree still with leaves, and obtain food by stacking up atop each other and pulling the leaves 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 the Sharptooth, but escape through a cave-tunnel too small to admit him. Beyond this, they discover the Longneck-shaped monolith mentioned by Littlefoot's mother, and later a string of mountains that burn. Cera grows impatient of the seemingly aimless trip and decides to go another way, but Littlefoot tells her that she is going the wrong way and eventually he is pushed into attacking her, however Cera is able to easily gain the upper-hand due to her aggression and huge strength advantage and dominates the entire fight. Littlefoot continues in the direction he was told, while the others follow Cera. However, Cera's route soon leads them into danger, as Ducky and Spike become endangered by lava and Petrie gets stuck in a tar pit. Littlefoot rescues them, and they soon find Cera harassed by a small territorial herd of "Dome-heads," and having been coated in tar, scare them away. Ashamed of her fear and reluctant to admit her mistake, Cera leaves them in tears.

Later, while crossing a pond, Petrie spies the Sharptooth nearby. Tired of being stalked and determined to avenge his mother, Littlefoot plots to lure him into the water (using Ducky as bait) beneath a nearby boulder, intending to drown him. Their luring of the Sharptooth succeeds, but Littlefoot and Spike have trouble moving the boulder, putting Ducky in serious danger. In the struggle that follows, a draft from the Sharptooth's nostrils enables Petrie to fly. Sharptooth leaps onto the boulder and the plan nearly fails until Cera reunites with the group to allow Littlefoot and his friends to push both Sharptooth and the boulder into the water below. Sharptooth, who is still determined to attack the young dinosaurs, tries to take Petrie with him to his death. Littlefoot and his friends mourn the loss of Petrie until Ducky finds him, soaked and exhausted, but still very much alive, to Ducky's delight.

Littlefoot, alone, follows a cloud resembling his mother to the Great Valley, there to be joined by the others. Upon arrival, Petrie impresses his family with his newfound flight, while Ducky introduces Spike to her family, who adopt him. Petrie reunites with his mother and siblings showing his mother he can fly, Cera reunites with her father and Littlefoot rejoins his grandparents. Cera then calls for Littlefoot to play. They join their friends at the top of a hill and embrace each other in a group hug.



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. An early working title for the film was The Land Before Time Began.[5] 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.[6] 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 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. Steven Spielberg and George 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. Some screams were re-voiced using milder exclamations.[6] Though Don Bluth was unhappy with the cuts, and fought for all the footage, he had to settle on a final running time of 69 minutes, one of his shortest; in fact one of the shortest feature films ever produced. The sequence of Littlefoot's mother's death was shown to psychologists who gave their feedback to the production team, and the character of Rooter was added to the story to soften the emotional blow. Brief portions of the scene which showed the mother's neck and back bitten have since been edited out of home-video releases and television airings, though this footage was present both in the theatrical cut and on earlier VHS copies of the film.


The theme song "If We Hold on Together" was sung by Diana Ross and released as a single in January 1989. The soundtrack was composed by James Horner and released on November 21, 1988.[7]

Track listing
  1. "The Great Migration"
  2. "Sharptooth and the Earthquake"
  3. "Whispering Winds"
  4. "If We Hold on Together"
  5. "Foraging for Food"
  6. "The Rescue/Discovery of the Great Valley"
  7. "End Credits"


Box office[edit]

The Land Before Time was a box office success, grossing $48 million, 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 domestic release, slightly more than Don Bluth's previous film, An American Tail. The film became a hit worldwide, and while Oliver & Company had grossed over its domestic earnings, The Land Before Time grossed nearly $84 million worldwide, which the Disney film did not surpass.

Attached to the film, Universal and Amblin issued Brad Bird's Family Dog short from their television anthology Amazing Stories.

Critical reception[edit]

The film has received mostly positive reviews, with most critics comparing the film to the classic Disney films. The film was more critically successful than Bluth's previous film, An American Tail. At review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 70% "fresh" rating from 30 critics.[8] Critics praised the fact that it covered many adult contexts such as diversity, disaster, death, and poverty.

Siskel & Ebert gave The Land Before Time "two thumbs up". For his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert gave the film three 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."[9]

A review in the Motion Picture Guide 1989 Annual notes that the film "has been called a sort of prehistoric Bambi", and considers it to be more in the style of a classic Disney film than Oliver & Company.[10]


The film generated many direct-to-video sequels, which differ from the original by adding "sing-a-long" musical numbers akin to Disney animated films. 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.

A 2007 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).

Home video release history[edit]

  • September 14, 1989 (1989-09-14) (VHS and Laserdisc - standard and Special Collector's Edition)
  • February 20, 1996 (1996-02-20) (VHS and Laserdisc)
  • December 1, 1998 (1998-12-01) (VHS - Family Features)
  • December 2, 2003 (2003-12-02) (VHS and DVD - Anniversary Edition)
  • October 13, 2015 (2015-10-13) (DVD and Blu-ray + Digital HD)

International distribution[edit]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ The Land Before Time (1988) at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ Lenburg, Jeff (2009). The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons Third Edition. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 0-8160-6599-3. 
  4. ^ The Land Before Time DVD
  5. ^ Maltin, Leonard (1987). Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New American Library. p. 354. ISBN 0-452-25993-2. 
  6. ^ a b The Animated Films of Don Bluth by Jon Cawley
  7. ^ page for original The Land Before Time soundtrack.
  8. ^ The Land Before Time at Rotten Tomatoes
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (November 18, 1988). "The Land Before Time". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  10. ^ The Motion Picture Guide: 1989 Annual. Jenny Mueller (Editor), Jeffrey H. Wallenfeldt (Senior Editor), Jennifer Howe, Michaela Tuohy (Associate Editors), William Leahy (Editorial Director). Evanston, Illinois: Cinebooks, Inc. 1989. pp. 185–186. ISBN 0-933997-20-5. 

External links[edit]