Jurassic Juniors: The 35th Anniversary of “The Land Before Time”

Long before “Barbenheimer,” (this summer movie season’s phenomenon where the disparate movies Barbie and Oppenheimer opened in theaters on the same day, igniting the box office), there was a similar occurrence in the late 80s.

It’s never officially been given a name, but maybe “OliTime” or “Land and Company” would work. On November 18, 1988, two major animated features from two competing studios opened on the same day.

One of them was Oliver & Company, a brand-new Disney release heralded to be the first in a one-new-animated-feature-a-year schedule that the leadership team at the studio was promising.

The other was The Land Before Time, another brand-new animated feature. However, this one was from a team and a studio (Universal) that had challenged Disney two years earlier with An American Tail and won.

That film made $47 million domestically, had a hit song connected with it, “Somewhere Out There” (nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar), and out-grossed Disney’s animated release from 1986, The Great Mouse Detective. An American Tail was the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time.

An American Tail was directed by Don Bluth, who had led a walkout of animators from Disney in 1979, which garnered a lot of attention. The executive producer was Steven Spielberg, one of Hollywood’s biggest names and synonymous with blockbusters.

For The Land Before Time, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, both Bluth and Spielberg were back in their respective roles, joined by George Lucas, who was also on board as an executive producer.

The film told a Bambi-esque tale set in the prehistoric world, where an orphaned Apatosaurus named Littlefoot befriends four other young dinosaurs: Cera, a, quite literally, hard-headed Triceratops; Ducky, an upbeat Saurolophus; Petrie, a Pteranodon with a fear of flying and Spike, a quiet Stegosaurus. They all set off to find the Great Valley, a place they’ve heard of where dinosaurs can live in peace.

With The Land Before Time, Bluth and his team of artists crafted a purposefully paced and peaceful film. It opens with beautiful underwater images, rising into the prehistoric world, recreated here in beautiful backgrounds by Sunny Apinchapong, Barry Atkinson, and Mannix Bennett, as well as work by layout artists Rick Bentham and Elizabeth Byrne, with Bluth overseeing production design.

This sets the stage for scenes in The Land Before Time that run the gamut of emotions. There is a touching connection between Littlefoot and his mother (particularly in one heartbreaking sequence), and several well-choreographed action scenes where the young dinosaurs attempt to outrun the T-Rex, Sharptooth. These moments are made even more exciting through some dynamic camera angles.

The young actors providing the leads’ voices give nice, believable performances, including Gabriel Damon as Littlefoot, Candace Hutson as Cera, and Judith Barsi as Ducky.

Veteran voice actor and legend Will Ryan provides a solid comedic role as the nervous Petrie.

Additionally, actress Helen Shaver is appropriately warm as Littlefoot’s mother, and actor Pat Hingle brings his gruff voice to the role of the narrator and as a supporting character, Rooter, a wise dinosaur that Littlefoot encounters on his journey.

It’s all tied together by a lovely, soothing score by James Horner, including the theme song, “If We Hold on Together,” sung by Diana Ross over the ending credits.

The Land Before Time did very well at the box office, opening at number one, and would instantly connect with audiences, especially children of a particular generation, who still hold the memories of the film close to their hearts (as evidenced in several reviews on IMDb).

Critics embraced the film, with Candice Russel stating, at the time, in the Sun-Sentinel, “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.”

From its success at the box office, The Land Before Time spawned no less than 13 direct-to-video sequels, as well as an animated TV series that debuted in 2007.

When the dust settled on the “Barbenheimer”-like collision that occurred thirty-five years ago when The Land Before Time and Oliver & Company bowed on the same day, both films found an audience. The Land Before Time’s popularity and connection with filmgoers was, in many ways, a harbinger of things to come, as these little dinosaurs found themselves not on the precipice of extinction but of an animation renaissance that boosted all studios in the 1990s.