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Five years before he opened the gates to Jurassic Park (and reinvented the summer blockbuster along with it), executive producer Steven Spielberg delivered a very different kind of dinosaur story with The Land Before Time, which is streaming now on Peacock. Helmed by the legendary Don Bluth and co-produced by George Lucas, the animated classic took the premise of Disney's Bambi (1942) while turning the clock back millions of years to when giant lizard creatures, some terrifying and some benevolent, roamed the planet.
Instead of watching the early days of a baby deer, audiences were asked to connect with a newly-hatched Apatosaurus by the name of Littlefoot, whose journey toward adulthood begins with the tragic death of his mother (or as we like to call it: one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the history of cinema).
“I remember we came to that moment in The Land Before Time, and everyone said, ‘Oh, this is too hard — no, no, we don’t want kids to see this,’” Bluth recalled during an interview with Vulture back in 2020. “It was Steven Spielberg who said, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all are born, we all live to a certain age, and then we all go. And someday we come back again. Everyone has to go through it. ‘This is a moment.’”
Fortunately, Littlefoot discovers innate courage and a familial support system comprised of his grandparents and best friends: Sarah, Ducky, Spike, and Petrie. A beautiful and unpretentious expression of the emotional elements that bind us all together as humans — love, loss, friendship, resilience, and hope — The Land Before Time resonated across different age groups, netting $84 million at the global box office and a long-running franchise of direct-to-video sequels targeted at young viewers.
“When you look at the little dinosaur, it’s not a human being, so you’re not being attacked directly — it’s indirect,” Bluth added, referring to the subtle storytelling magic of convincing viewers to see themselves in the main character. “There’s a symbol on the screen of a little boy — he talks like a little boy, but it’s a dinosaur; it’s not you — and then that dinosaur loses his mother, and you can immediately say, ‘Me too!’ What we in the animation world are doing is presenting symbols that are reflective of real life. If you show the dark moments, then the triumphant moments have more power. And if animators don’t understand that, I don’t think they’re animating. What they’re doing is drawing."
Tying the whole thing into a neat, family-friendly package is "If We Hold On Together," the end credits song performed by Diana Ross. Written by the duo of composer James Horner, and lyricist Will Jennings — both of whom would later team up for Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On" — the soothing track embodies The Land Before Time's core elements of perseverance, bravery, and sticking by your friends in times of uncertainty.
"It was designed for kids but I wanted it to appeal to a wider audience," Horner, who sadly passed away in 2015 following an airplane-related accident, once said of his score for the beloved movie. "People still come up to me and say, ‘You know one of my favorite scores is The Land Before Time?’ and I can’t believe that they even saw it, but they did. There were some really nice scenes in that. I don’t respond to animation quite like I do live-action. It doesn’t hit me the same way. There’s a suspension of reality. Writing for something real and writing for something that’s not real and pretending is a little different."
However, no one could have anticipated the song's immense popularity in Japan, where it topped charts and, more surprisingly, became a cornerstone at karaoke bars, according to this 1998 interview with Ross. "This song is very special to me and I think it's very special to you," she said onstage during a 1992 concert in Tokyo (the opening notes alone drew a great deal of applause from the audience). "You've made it a very big, big record for me and I thank you with all my heart. It's a love song, a love song from me to you."
In the 1998 interview, Ross opened up about her relationship with Japanese fans and their love for "If We Hold On Together":
"I know what I feel when I sing the songs here in Osaka and Tokyo — anyplace that I perform here in Japan — that I get a reaction from the audience. It feels as if they understand what the song means, especially [when I sing] 'If We Hold On Together.' One of the things that I've always enjoyed doing is have the audience sing along with me and for me to walk among them and to look at their faces and see their eyes. It's a very special experience for me and I think it's one of the reasons why I've had such a relationship with Japanese audience[s] over all these years. I've been coming here since the '60s and it's really, really special. I think they understand what I feel and I feel their hearts."
Something tells us Ms. Ross wouldn't trade any of that for all the Tree Stars in the world.
The Land Before Time is now streaming on Peacock.