The Land Before Time (1988) [1988 Week]

(spoilers ahead, which is only really relevant if you’re under 6, the movie is not that unpredictable)

The Land Before Time is a rather typical animated movie for its time, I’d say. I probably saw it as a kid but rewatched it now because I’m intrigued by children’s movies and the messages they’re sending. This movie is okay, I guess, but so clearly aimed at children, meaning it tries to be cute and soft all the time, with a fair amount of scares to balance it out. There isn’t much for adults here, which in turn means I think it’s not great for kids either. It doesn’t hurt them (depending on how harmful you view its messages), but it also doesn’t challenge them, except for emotional manipulation. It’s not a movie I necessarily would show to my kids.

The narrator makes it clear that there are two kinds of dinosaurs in this world: leaf eaters and meat eaters. There is something inherently wrong, I think, about this, which works throughout the movie. The distinction is only there to make it easy for the filmmakers to portray dinosaurs as nice and cute. If we saw our heroes feasting on some other dinosaurs, this might have been problematic. Which leads to the movie making a clear distinction between good and evil dinosaurs. And because this world is so clean-cut, there actually is only one meat eater, Sharptooth, the stereotypical T-Rex. But this T-Rex is so evil, it’s beyond villainy. It’s a red-eyed, relentless aggressor, always out to kill. Why do children need to learn that such bloodthirsty predators exist? Why do they have to be depicted as evil? In good Disney tradition, Sharptooth also gets no dialogue since only the “good” dinosaurs can speak. My problem has always been that kids are taught to believe there are plain categories to everything, this binary worldview that our culture promotes wherever it can. What’s the benefit for kids to believe that once they realize the world doesn’t really work like that?

There’s also the death of Littlefoot’s mother. I felt the movie was a big ambiguous in that scene because while it seemed like the big earthquake killed her, Littlefoot claims it was Sharptooth. And maybe she would have survived the earthquake without the injuries the T-Rex had inflicted upon her. Which only happened because Littlefoot basically lead the T-Rex to his mother, so, as he later claims himself, his mother’s death was basically his fault. And while Rooter, the wise dinosaur who appears, supposedly, to make kids feel better. He talks about “the circle of life,” but it feels a bit pointless, like an excuse to show a kid being traumatized. And isn’t the message in the end that Littlefoot shouldn’t have walked away from her? That it was his fault because he didn’t listen? That it is better to listen to your parents, if you don’t want them to die? There is a long tradition of parental death, especially in animated movies and it’s often both used to make kids feel more willing to follow their parents’ authority or to harden them for a life in which they’ll have to get used to misery. And, just like in Lion King (and Hamlet), Littlefoot from then on listens to his mother all the time, who appears in visions to make sure her son does not leave his chosen path again. He does not get to the valley because he is clever or strong-willed or independent (like Cera, who is shown as a reckless and bitchy brat) but because he listens to his mother.

Then there is the racism/tolerance angle. The dinosaurs are essentially divided into different races and the “threehorns” are especially intolerant towards the “longnecks,” but in the end of course they all work together (even if Cera, the little threehorn, is incredibly annoying throughout). It’s so strange because in real life, we wouldn’t expect different animal species to work together but also not to hate each other. But if they are just meant to be symbolic, then all of them are racist and accept that you shouldn’t mix races. I mean, what kind of society are they suppose to represent where someone still said, “Our race doesn’t mix with other races!” As a tolerance parable, this is utterly confused, as long as you look beyond the “We have to overcome our differences” message.

Finally, there is something about the plot that is fascinating and odd. For one thing, the dinosaurs all seem very reminding of Native Americans (or with the stereotype of Native Americans). They all talk in poetic metaphors that are often connected to nature. But they also have to go on a long trail to get to a land full of promise, The Great Valley, where everything will be fine again. Seeing them walk through desolate landscapes reminded me of the Trail of Tears. And as glorious as The Great Valley is in the end, if you think about it, they are just as doomed as the Native Americans were. Even little kids know that dinosaurs went extinct and as the movie makes it clear that the world where they can survive is coming to an end, The Great Valley is only the last stop before extinction. It’s a paradise with an expiration date. Oh, and it’s also only a paradise for “leaf eaters” obviously. We have to overcome our differences but paradise is only open for the nice ones who are perfect and don’t hurt or kill others. You know, good ones. Like we are supposed to be. Do you hear, kids? Be nice, eat your vegetables and listen to your hearts, then you might get a shot at paradise.