The screenwriter of The Land Before Time doesn't much mind that the screenplay for The Lion King deployed the phrase "the great circle of life," even though he used it years before in The Land Before Time to help his young male protagonist cope with a parent's death.
"Ultimately, there are only so many stories, and everything is a variation or a recreation," screenwriter Stu Krieger told SYFY WIRE. The Land Before Time's plot echoes Disney's own Bambi, after all. But his son was not so charitable upon The Lion King's release.
"He was like, outraged as an eight-year-old," he says with a laugh. "'Dad! They totally ripped you off!'"
That wasn't the first time Krieger saw someone react emotionally to his work on the film, and it would prove far from the last. The Land Before Time is now considered one of the greatest animated films ever made. But Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg's film wasn't always a surefire hit. Early concepts for The Land Before Time featured dinosaurs, but no dialogue. There was a young brontosaurus with a dead mother, but he was not yet called Littlefoot. There was a folder packed with notes scrawled on napkins and scraps of paper, but it was a mess. There was a screenplay by Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss of American Tail fame, but the director and producer wanted something new.
Krieger cut his teeth writing for the show Amazing Stories and cranking out scripts before the right eyeballs saw his unproduced script. That led Spielberg and his producer pal George Lucas to ask if he would like to write a dinosaur movie for them.
"When somebody asks you that question, you say yes," Krieger says.
His job was simple: wrangle these disparate ideas from scratch and turn them into a story with characters and heart. Sometimes that meant running back and forth between working with Spielberg and Bluth, two men used to being in charge of a project, and sometimes that meant participating in spirited creative debates between Bluth, Spielberg, and producing legends Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, John Pomeroy, with Lucas chiming in remotely over speakerphone.
"Somebody would get very heated and go, 'No! A dinosaur wouldn't say that!'" Krieger says, laughing. "Well, a dinosaur wouldn't say anything."
But without Krieger, 66, who now teaches screenwriting at UC Riverside, The Land Before Time might have been a very different movie. It wouldn't have its glossary of terms like "great circle of life," "long neck," "tree star," and other iconic phrases. Its protagonists wouldn't have the names that have followed them from the original film through 13 direct-to-video sequels, an animated television series, and even video games. And it might not have balanced its bleakness with its herbivore protagonists' race to the lush Great Valley.
For Krieger, that balance meant staying focused on two things: the film's target audience and the perspective of the characters on the screen. That may sound simple, but it's how you can get the likes of Spielberg, Bluth, and fellow producer George Lucas arguing over what a dinosaur would or wouldn't say in a script meeting.
Early in story development, he says, the producers resisted anthropomorphizing the characters at all. Spielberg had a vision of a dramatic dialogue-free film similar to the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. As meetings continued, it became clear to the group that children would have trouble engaging with such a feature.
"I remember raising it [as an issue] really early because I had kids," Krieger says. "It's going to be really hard to keep their attention and keep their focus for 85 to 90 minutes with no dialogue. Everyone came to that conclusion after a while."
Once the team agreed on dialogue, Krieger began to break down the film based on how its characters would perceive the plot and the world around them. By his logic, Littlefoot and his friends are dinosaurs, but they're also children, and their language had to reflect that.
"I was always trying to look at their perspective," Krieger says. "If they were down below, looking up, what did [the trees] look like from underneath, craning their neck?" This is how the triceratops became "three-horn," how the brontosaurus became "long-neck," and how the tyrannosaurus became "sharp-tooth." And it's how Krieger came up with the word "tree star" to refer to the large leaf Littlefoot carries through the film like a totem.
"Leaves played such an important part in the story—as a source of food, as an emblem of the famine, as a connection between Littlefoot and his mother," Krieger says. If he and the producers nailed anything in the movie, they needed to nail this. Once Bluth showed Krieger a drawing he done of Littlefoot looking up at leaves in the trees, it all clicked for Krieger.
"They looked like stars to me," Krieger says, and the name stuck. "Everyone got excited about and went, 'Yes! That's it.'" To this day, Krieger still has two framed production cels from the film, given to him by Spielberg. Both of them feature Littlefoot and his "tree star."
Though Krieger focused on language, he also spent time establishing histories to flesh out the characters. He and Bluth, for example, gave Cera the triceratops a secret backstory to explain her gruffness, even though it didn't make it into the final film. ("She grew up in a family of all older brothers, always having to prove herself," Krieger says.) Brainstorms like those would later become easter eggs or the subject of message-board lore, but they still informed the characters in meaningful ways.
The team also took care to infuse their characters' names with meaning. They changed the original protagonist's name from Thunderfoot to Littlefoot. They decided that the spelling of Cera's name would reference her species. Krieger changed Terry the pterodactyl's name to Petrie after his filmmaker friends Don and Dan Petrie. Spike the spike-tailed stegosaurus "was pretty obvious." And Ducky, he says, remained "Ducky all the way through," since before he joined the project.
From start to finish, Krieger credits the development as a team effort, but the central thematic arc of the film — Littlefoot's reactions to the loss of his mother — was Spielberg's enduring contribution. "The idea of teaching kids how to deal with loss and how to go on from loss and find that strength was very important to him," Krieger says of the producer. When The Land Before Time was released, it was compared favorably to Bambi, which he acknowledges was a major influence and which at roughly 69 minutes has the same runtime as the final cut of The Land Before Time, which producer Gary Goldman has also noted.
At the same time, Spielberg's recurring mandate for Krieger was to "keep the story moving." The script had to treat Littlefoot's mother's death in a way that made an impact, but wasn't "so traumatizing that the kids can't get past it." It's why her death mom is immediately followed by a lighthearted sequence where Littlefoot watches baby pterodactyls play with their mother, externally illustrating his loss. It's why an elderly dinosaur named Rooter was added into the film late in production to give Littlefoot comfort and mention that "great circle of life" immediately after his mother died. It's why the film ends with Littlefoot's vision of his mother in the clouds, telling him she will always be with him in his heart.
"All of that was a very conscious effort to make sure we were balancing," Krieger says. "Not making the death so light that it was glanced over, and not having to stop everything dead in the middle of the film."
The effort in balance might be one reason the film's connected with audiences since it first came out. For all its darkness, The Land Before Time is now a coming-of-age classic — the subject of endless retrospective screenings, Internet quizzes, tongue-in-cheek fact checks, and science-driven takedowns. It was released the same weekend as Disney's Oliver & Company, and fans have proudly pit it and other Bluth-Spielberg productions against Disney films ever since. Today, Krieger's screenwriting students come up to him all the time and tell him that he "wrote" their childhood, based on both his Land Before Time credit as well as work on Disney Channel Original Movies. No one is safe from The Land Before Time tears.
"Over the 30 years, I've had countless parents come up to me and say, 'Goddamn you, do you know how many days it took to calm my kid down?' " Krieger jokes. " 'Or how many times I had to cry watching the movie with my kid?' "
Most starkly, none of its sequels match the original's tone or hold up in the same way, and they were all made far away from the original creators — including Krieger, who was offered a job as the direct-to-video franchise's writer early on by Universal thanks to a clause in his original contract. He declined, saying that while he wished the new creatives well, the project was pitched to him as a "down and dirty," cheap effort.
"I would rather be the guy who creates the franchise and steps away than be the guy who cheapens it, banging them out for bucks," he explains today.
"All due respect and God bless them, but I made the right decision."