Jonathan has been writing since 1995 about various topics, from movie reviews, works of fiction and media commentaries to Bible sermons.
It's hard to believe, but 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of The Land Before Time, a series of animated films that introduced the world to Littlefoot the Longneck, Cera the Threehorn, Duckie the Bigmouth/Swimmer, Petrie the Flyer and Spike the Spiketail, besides many other characters. For better or worse, a total of 14 movies and 2 TV seasons have been released over the decades, so let's take a trip through time and sort it all out.
It all started in 1988 with the original film from Don Bluth, the man behind An American Tail. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, it had beautifully animated visuals with squash and stretch style and rustic, detailed scenery. It told a story in the vein of Bambi and other classics in which Littlefoot's mother dies and the others are separated from their parents, forcing them to work together and find their way to the Great Valley, a lush promised land safe from the viscous Sharptooth. The movie was originally 10 minutes longer and would've received a PG rating, but it was cut out of fear of scaring children. Unfortunately this footage was lost and has never been recovered, but at least the theatrical cut has recently come to Blu-ray. Like most movies of the period, it was mastered in 4x3 ratio and cropped to "widescreen" for the movie theater and Blu-ray. Therefore, the original VHS and DVD have lower picture and sound quality, but more imagery on the top and bottom.
It wasn't until 6 years later that the franchise as we know it came to be. The enormous success of Jurassic Park in 1993 led Universal Studios to revive their other dinosaur movie with a direct to video sequel, The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure. While the original film has a beautiful score by James Horner and an end credits song to match by Diana Ross, the sequels started the tradition of being musicals. The visuals were cleaner, brighter and simpler than the original, being lower budget, but it was a well written story with good songs, and was successful enough to encourage more sequels. This movie featured the birth of Chomper, a Sharptooth who is befriended by Littlefoot and pals and remains loyal to them despite being a meat-eater.
1995's The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving was about solving a mystery behind a sudden lack of water in the Great Valley, while also dealing with issues of bullying. The VHS contained a preview for the already in the works sequel for the following year.
1996's The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through the Mists turned up the drama with a story about Littlefoot and friends trekking to a faraway land to find a special flower that will cure his grandfather from a fatal illness, with the help of another Longneck named Ali. This entry also features the dramatic moment when mentally disabled, non-verbal Spike utters his adopted sister Ducky's name in a moment of desperation when she's in danger.
1997's The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island is in my opinion one of the best of the whole series. From three catchy songs, (the comedic Big Water, the sentimental Always There and the very memorable Friends For Dinner), to the return of Chomper, to the most intense action seen since the original film, to clever dialogue and plot, to even thought provoking psychological aspects, this one is as good as it gets. This was also the first to experiment with CG, with the opening outer space sequence being completely computer animated, but no integration beyond that.
1998's The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock had a western vibe to its' songs and story, even featuring a character named The Lone Dinosaur. Cera's nieces, Dinah and Dana are a part of the story, but thankfully don't appear beyond this movie, having an annoying toddler stereotype that's aiming for cute but really isn't. This film was thought by some to be a little weaker than previous entries, and it was also the last to be released yearly, with no movie coming out in 1999.
The first film of the new millennium, 2000's The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire, also was the first with a new visual style. While all the previous entries used traditional hand drawn and colored animation, this one switched over to the industry standard of hand drawn images completed with digital ink and paint, resulting in brighter, cleaner more vibrant imagery, and also enabling the inclusion of computer animated elements, textures and shadows. It also was the first be released on DVD and to have 5.1 surround sound. (The first was in stereo, and 2-6 were in Dolby Surround, which is stereo with a third rear channel embedded into it, resulting in a lower quality pseudo-surround experience.) The story was also easily the most epic and outside of the box of the whole series, with an semi-evil uncle, a plot that involves the adults point of view hearkening back to the first film, and . . . aliens. Yes that's right, aliens. You will literally see Littlefoot gazing up at a spaceship, and it's awesome.
2001 saw a new look for the Great Valley in The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze. When snow falls for the first time, the valley's inhabitants have to deal with dwindling food during frigid blizzard conditions. Spike also meets a herd of his own kind for the first time, testing his loyalty and Ducky's jealousy as they learn the true meaning of family. This was the first to be released on video with a new visual style that emphasized the film's subtitle while relegating the number to a footnote on the bottom side of the DVD or VHS case, although the film's opening titles still featured the number.
2002's The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water was about Littlefoot and friends helping a dolphin-like creature named Mo to get back to the ocean when he gets stranded in the Great Valley after flooding. Two bright spots are a reprise of the song Big Water from number 5, and an end credits song by Donny Osmond, but that's about it. In my opinion this is the weakest of the series due not only to extended scenes of nothing happening and other filler, but the very disjointed pacing and awkward editing and story flow.
2003's The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration gets things back on track with a movie that pulls no punches visually or storywise, and is definitely one of the strongest entries. Probably because it was the tenth in the series, as well as coming out during the 15th anniversary of the original film, it was made extra special, from the fancy opening titles, to the science fiction plot inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to finding Littlefoot's long lost father, to the extensive use of three dimensional character and scenery integration, (more than any other film before or after it), with eye popping results.
2005's The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses, introduces the concept that a race of miniature Longneck have been living underground the entire time, but hide due to being viewed as pests. While attempting to preach a message of tolerance, inclusivity and that everyone is important despite their size, it also might encourage misdirected kids to invite mice and yellow jackets into the house. Still, it's worth watching for the subplot about Tria, Cera's father's new girlfriend, (apparently her mother died off-screen at some point), and their rocky road to developing a civil relationship. This was the last one to be made available on VHS, as well as the first to feature a new cover design aesthetic.
2006's The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers was the first to be made for TV, and then come to DVD the following February. While Petrie learns to embrace what makes his flying skills special, (a message which in how it's presented can be counterproductive, causing kids to think they are already special, have nothing to learn, have no need of improvement and even worse shouldn't bother working together), Cera deals with having a half-sister, the adorable Tricia, whom she is initially jealous of but learns to love. Another new character in the film was Guido, who is apparently a feathered missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Writing extreme macroevolution into the story (where Guido is without any of his own kind and just existed out of nowhere, not knowing where he came from) stretches the bounds of believability even in a cartoon and will leave the smarter kids scratching their heads. This was the first one to be mastered in widescreen high definition for television, but unfortunately the DVD had the sides of the picture cropped to a traditional 4x3 square shape.
2007's The Land Before Time: The Wisdom of Friends was the last movie in the original series, and with a terrible title like that, besides one of the weakest stories and worst moral lessons in the series, it's no surprise. This was also the first movie to not include a number in the title, (although it would've been 13). This time around, the gang helps Loofah and Doofah, part of a herd of totally non-realistic "yellow bellies", as they search for a Great Valley equivalent called the "Berry Valley". While mildly entertaining if you're already invested in the franchise, the silliness is so random and excessive I find it offensive to the intelligence of children, and to the franchise as a whole. Similar to the movie that came before it, the moral lesson is one that degrades the importance of obedience and self improvement, promoting a free-for-all chaos that can lead to dangerous outcomes.
In 2007 and ending in 2008, The Land Before Time was adapted into a half-hour TV series on Cartoon Network. Greatly improving on the movies from that same time period, it featured some of the best stories and world-building in the series. Chomper became a series regular, along with a new friend named Ruby. The plot device that allowed them to be there was a rogue Sharptooth named Red Claw and his two minions who were terrorizing those in the Mysterious Beyond, prompting Chomper's parents to have him live in a cave adjoining the Great Valley, along with Ruby who was separated from her parents. The writing was very good, sometimes brilliant. A number of characters from the past were revisited, and many songs were reprised, always with new lyrics to tie into that week's story. The animation quality was also almost as high as the movies. While 5 DVDs of the series were sold, they were cropped from their original aspect ratio, were all out of order and were missing an episode. However later on, Universal released every episode in order for free on the official Land Before Time YouTube channel, in high definition widescreen. It was after this high note that the franchise took a hiatus.
Eight years later in 2016, the 14th movie was released to DVD and digital HD. This was also the first time a new movie would be presented in widescreen from the beginning. In this age of remakes and retreads, it would be understandable if after such a long gap that the filmmakers would go back to basics and do a soft reboot, tiptoeing around established continuity while going for a more nostalgic take like everything else these days. Instead, The Land Before Time: Journey of the Brave doesn't miss a beat from 2008, including characters from the preceding films, introducing new ones and even including Chomper and Ruby from the TV show! The only major differences were the notable absence of the actor who played Grandpa Longneck, as well as the actor who was both the narrator and Cera's father, both of whom died in the interim, but who's voices were synonymous with their roles and irreplaceable. While not necessarily a standout, it's still definitely a solid entry and leaves the way for future sequels if they choose to do so.
So now that you're caught up on the history of the franchise, go and binge it! All 14 movies are available in one DVD set available here, and the complete TV show is available for free on the official Land Before Time YouTube channel. Yup yup yup!