Why The Land Before Time is one of the greatest kids’ movie ever made

In the wake of his untimely death, we remember James Horner’s vital contribution to this family classic.


Sophie Monks Kaufman


The film composer James Horner, who died aged 61 on 22 June, 2015 after crashing his personal plane, was a genius, a humanitarian and an enigma. He has left us a wealth of musical riddles that could power a lifetime’s worth of creative engagement. He clearly hadn’t finished contributing his wares to the world, and it would be easy and understandable to let grief and grim existentialism colour thoughts of his legacy.

What this writer wants to do, as someone whose attachment is forged primarily through his creative output, is pay tribute to him through a film that floored me as a child and then floored me again as an adult when – through sheer coincidence – I rewatched it just two days before his untimely passing.

Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time from 1988 is a 66-minute movie about five cartoon dinosaurs who can no longer survive in their scorched homeland and set out on a quest to reach the Great Valley. It’s also one of the most powerful meditations on childhood bereavement within the family film canon – fuck it – in any canon. Small, anthropomorphised animals being separated from their mothers may have become a tried and tested trope in Disney movies, but The Land Before Time – animated in the classical, hand-drawn style for Universal – is more poetic and consistent in how it renders the spiritual significance of a dead parent.

The narrative moves so fast and yet stays with the baby Diplodocus, Littlefoot, in the agonising aftermath of his mother’s demise. He curls up in her footprint, too depressed to move. It’s so real. I felt the pain of losing my noble purple Diplodocus mother after she gave her life saving me from a rampaging Sharp Tooth.

Lesser films would have done the soap opera thing of having a character go through a period of trauma that they never again reference as other, more exciting events take over. Littlefoot’s mother never disappears. She is never far from his mind and the film stays with how that feels.

He can only drag himself into action after he hears her softly issuing directions to the Great Valley and leads his new, also lonely young friends, towards this promised Valhalla. This crew is comprised of the stuck-up Cera (a Triceratops), talkative, friendly Ducky (a Parasaurolophus), eating machine Spike (a stegosaurus) and Petri (a Pteranodon) who is scared of flying.

There is lightness and there is danger, there are quarrels and disagreements between the dysfunctional band which give The Land Before Time its constant momentum. But its power source – its depth – remains rooted in the fact that a brave little dinosaur is trying to follow through on his mother’s last words while still devastated by her absence.

Whenever she comes back to him, though whispered words, long shadows or shapes in the clouds, James Horner’s score is there, reaching tortuously high notes, using heavenly chorals to remind us both of the place that she is and where a glimpse of her character can take Littlefoot for a temporary psychological elevation before a return to the blackened ground. James Horner’s music is the sound of an absence made present. It is the sound of a bond that by all rational accounts should be severed but is saved by the depth of its impression on memory.

As a writer, plying my trade in words, it seems miraculous that sounds can convey not just feeling but layers of feeling and not just on-screen characters but ones that have been ushered off. I don’t know how to celebrate James Horner’s achievements in the lingo of his trade but I know what the application of his music does to a film landscape. Anyone with the power to understand and channel such exquisite nuance of feeling knew about life and knew about death.

There is no more fitting a solace for those harmed by the news of his premature death then to listen to the eulogy he provided for the characters that he cared for in his own exemplary and emotional musical language. In the score he wrote for The Land Before Time are insights into the bittersweet secrets of the universe and how it feels to live in a land after a loved one’s time.

Published 24 Jun 2015

Tags: The Land Before Time

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