STL Science Center

STL Science Center

01 January 2011

The Land Before Time

The Land Before Time, while a quintessential movie for children and dinosaur lovers alike, has many flaws in portrayal and is also a deeply involved societal critique. First and foremost it has to be noted that the flaws are only apparent to the dinosaur lovers, not the children, and thus the lessons learned by the story stand as typical good morality and ethical lessons as seen in other Don Bluth films such as An American Tale. I'm going to do my best here but I claim no mastery of the subject and that should allow anyone to feel free to counter any arguments I make to encourage healthy debate. Any non-healthy debate such as "told you so's" and "I'm right you suck" will certainly be ignored and deleted.

The Time of The Land Before Time

The time represented seems to follow the Cretaceous end of the Mesozic and extinction of the dinosaurs type theme, however, this calls into question a majority of the cast list. Littlefoot appears to be an Apatosaurus, Cera is clearly a Triceratops (hence the clever name), Duckie is a Saurolophus, Petrie is a Pteranodon, and Spike is a Stegosaur while the main villain, the "Sharptooth" is a Tyrannosaur. Pteranodon, Triceratops, Saurolophus, and Tyrannosaurus are all Late Cretaceous animals (as are the Pachycephalosaurus that show up in the film). Apatosaurus and Stegosaurus are Mid to Late Jurassic dinosaurs and would not even exist when the others lived. In addition there is a Dimetrodon, a Permian Era (before the dinosaurs) predator long extinct, and a Sauropelta named Old Rooter who would have been extinct by the Middle Cretaceous. From the child perspective these are some of our favorite dinosaurs together romping across the country. From an enthusiast stand point it's just wrong despite its fun cartoon side.


As an Apatosaur Littlefoot is only vulnerable to the world until he outgrows a city bus, which takes a little more than five years. After this his natural enemy, the Allosaur, begins to have trouble taking him on and will adapt to hunt in packs if he really wants to take down Littlefoot. However, in the movie a Tyrannosaur tries to make him a finger food from about a month old until he reaches the sanctity of what will become a cartoon Neverland thanks to the insipid sequels that mutilated the masterpiece that was The Land Before Time. Littlefoot is the epitome of a stand up fellow. He has courage to a point, smarts, a strong heart, and he never gives up on his friends. He rescues them from tarpits after the fool of a Triceratops trudges on without regard to the safety of her "friends" and comes up with a plan, in the end to smash in the head of one of the world's all time greatest predators with a giant frickin' boulder. All this after leading his friends across uninhabitable terrain with only the knowledge of two landmarks and the direction to go towards where the "great circle touches the land" which he was told by his mother whom, coincidentally, Littlefoot sees murdered in cold blood by the Tyrannosaur (which leaps like a Dromaeosaur onto her back) and whom he sits with as she fades into glory.


Cera's false bravado endangers everything around her whether it's insects, her friends or herself. She lies so much no one believes her about the resurrection of the Sharptooth, who may not have woken from his coma had she not rammed his face with her puny horn, and then claims that she's superior to the natural leader (Littlefoot) on account of knowing this one lie was, in fact, truth. Cera leads her friends into traps and leaves them behind as she sees fit, thinking herself to be the fittest and therefore worthy of survival at the price of others; very Darwinian but not very humanitarian which is why she, in the end, loses the reigns of leadership once again to the Apatosaur. Her bravado takes her into clear danger when, after abandoning her friends, she is attacked by three Pachycephalosaurs. Why they attack her no one knows as they are herbivores and will get nothing from her death, but it happens and she is rescued, lo and behold, by Littlefoot and her friends. Upon seeing this she promptly runs and sulks like anyone would but comes back in the end to save the day with her hard head. Some of Simba's rant in the elephant graveyard was clearly borrowed from Cera's character.


Duckie is optimistic. Duckie is a great swimmer. Duckie is comic relief. Duckie is a girl (this surprised me when I realized it as a child). Duckie is the first animal in the history of Earth to be diagnosed as ADHD. Repetitions of her classic "Yep, yep, yep" when I was little and had gotten the Duckie hand puppet at Pizza Hut drew the ire of countless adults. Duckie was there to pick up Littlefoot and give him a new purpose and was there at the end willingly becoming the bait for Littlefoot's crazy plan. She was the best swimmer after all and her expertise in the water was what was needed at the time. In addition she saved Spike countless times from eating himself to death in harrowing conditions after she found his egg (which should have been a fossil by then). Duckie also gave Petrie a reason to overcome his fears and take to flying, as he saved her from the Tyrannosaur. Duckie was just an all around motivational character.


What could be worse than a bird afraid to fly? I thought that growing up and Petrie, a Pteranodon afraid to fly, answered that question. Petrie was the cowardly lion of his day. He wanted to be strong and tough, offering to guard the priceless treestar, but morbidly afraid of his own fears. His greatest moment came when Littlefoot appointed him to whistle, without asking if Petrie could whistle and nearly ending a plan in disaster on account of this, to signal the prime time to push the boulder. When the boulder wouldn't budge and Duckie had to come up to try to get away the Tyrannosaur was right there, trying to get a tiny snack but the gallant Petrie, blown skyward by T-Rex breath, suddenly found his wings and dove to the rescue of Duckie.


What can't we say about Spike? He eats everything from roots to his nest. He is clearly the last remnants of the cold blooded dumb dinosaur theories. However, he is strong and fiercely loyal to both Littlefoot, though he follows Cera out of pure laziness and ease of path, and Duckie. At the end of the movie Duckie even adopts Spike as a brother. The true strength of Spike, however, is in his hidden abilities. He is truly motivated by his belly and his loyalty, and through these he shows his ingenuity, in pushing Littlefoot farther up the tree to get food than Littlefoot had intended, and his strength of character, in allowing Petrie to yank on his nose in the tar and the laughs he had at Cera when the group fooled the Pachys and scared Cera out of her wits. In ways he's like Lenny and Duckie is his George, and in other ways he is Silent Bob and Duckie is Jay.

Minor Characters

Who let in the Dimetrodon? Seriously!
Old Rooter. Old Rooter is only in the movie for about three minutes but in that one character there was so much potential for a mentor of Miyagi, even Yoda, proportions! Littlefoot falls on his back and he grumpily asks what the fuss is about. When he learns about the death of his mother and realizes he witnessed it Rooter gives an eloquent and heart warming or wrenching speech, depending on how you take it, about the great circle of life (Disney stole this speech for sure and paraphrased in the form of Rafiki). He then slinks off quietly and leaves Littlefoot to his own devices. I don't know what the discussion was concerning Old Rooter, but he could have easily become a mentor for the remainder of the movie. He could have even gone out like Obi-Wan to save Littlefoot from the Tyrannosaur!

In Conclusion

This is still one of my favorite movies. However, it was interesting to sit back and analyze it for the first time as an adult. The movie, if it were a modern realistic drama, would have ended with Littlefoot in a hospital pining over his mother's death before his eyes, but it was a cartoon about hope and friendship in unlikely places. As such, it was a genuine gem in its genre and unfortunately inspired many sequels which involved singing and dancing dinosaurs. By then I had moved on to Jurassic Park, however, and I'm okay with that.

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