Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1989)

***

Directed by Don Bluth.
(MCA Home Video, color, 69 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

The Land Before Time is one of the recent spate of films that revive Disney-quality animation--classic Disney, that is--as the labor-intensive visual luxury it always was. The George Lucas/Steven Spielberg presentation was the hit followup to their earlier "family entertainment," An American Tail, an adventure story about a mouse. It's a sign of how cannily the team exploit their market that they keyed their second effort to one of the prime consumer items of modern kiddie culture: the dinosaur.

Never have reptiles been cuter. Still wet behind their unevolved ears, they tumble on their chubby little triceratops legs, stretch their graceful little brontosaurus necks, and fruitlessly flap their scrawny little pterodactyl wings. And naturally, their drama is downright human. As in so many feature-length cartoons, Spielberg films, and for that matter fairy tales, the five darling protagonists must survive rents in the fabric of their nuclear families. And they must learn to--major kiddie concept coming up--cooperate, overcoming the reptilian version of ethnic prejudice as the one who flies and the one who butts and the one who knows the way all contribute their special gifts to a trek threatened by earthquakes, volcanoes, tarpits, and nasty old carnivorous tyrannosaurus rex.

Sarcasm behind us, we're happy to acknowledge that The Land Before Time is a treat to look at, and that at least one of the characterizations, Petri the scaredy-cat pterodactyl, is a comic classic in the tradition of Thumper or Cinderella's fat mouse Gus. The film is overdone, but it is intended primarily for children, who are owed all the lessons in self-reliance they can stomach. It may be a little scary for really young children--our four-year-old took two days to get through it. And among the childless, only animation nuts need apply.

Animation nuts, and maybe dinosaur nuts.

Video Review, June 1989