Monday, 31 March 2014

The Land Before Time

Back in January, I had the chance to see The Land Before Time on the big screen, thanks to the Family Favourites weekend screenings that Cineplex Odeon runs. This was a film that I saw for the first time when I was only four or five years old, and which made such a tremendous impression on me at that tender age that I’ve never forgotten it since. The juvenile dino cast of Littlefoot the apatosaurus, Cera the triceratops, and their hangers-on Ducky the saurolophus, Petrie the pterosaur, and Spike the stegosaurus, had become part of my imaginative landscape, and the movie they starred in part of my innermost canon. The obvious caveat to all this, however, is that such childish loyalties are not based on real critical judgment, and when you go back and revisit their source more than twenty years later, you almost always find things very different than you remember. My experience seeing The Land Before Time was no exception.

The first three and a half minutes of the film are pure movie magic – every bit as wondrous as I remembered. We open on a wall of sediment, lit with a deep underwater blue, and for the first forty-seven seconds of the film simply watch a long, sustained take of this background, punctuated by periodic upsurges of bubbles and the occasional small creature passing before the frame. The point of this lengthy, sustained image seems fundamentally atmospheric – to establish in no uncertain terms that this is a film of some depth and grandeur of conception, not a typical “cartoon for children.” James Horner’s nobly swelling music emphasizes this strongly.

When the image finally does shift, it does so with the impression of a camera track to the right, following a small amphibian-like creature through a richly detailed underwater vista, as it chases a small red minnow, and narrowly escapes the jaws of giant mosasaur-like creature. The image dissolves onto the image of a clutch of weeds swaying gently underwater, before a dinosaur’s mouth descends into frame to chomp them away. With this, the frame seems to track past a natural obstacle, momentarily blacking out the screen so as to display the title, to a surging crescendo of Horner’s score. Following this, the frame continues to track right – onto a richly-detailed wide shot of a group of turtles seeming to soar majestically through the water, in front of a vast underwater cliff face. The frame tracks right with the turtles, eventually losing them behind another underwater outcropping, which masks another cut to a brief close-up of the surface of a pond, with small creatures jumping past the water lilies. We continue tracking right, and dissolve into another wide composition where the long necks of a pair apatosaurus are graphically matched with the tree trunks surrounding them, until they lean their heads down into frame to browse the vegetation on another nearby outcropping.

During all of the above, a voice-over narration, read by Pat Hingle, kicks in on the soundtrack.  “Once upon this same Earth,” he intones, “beneath this same sun… Long before you, before the ape and the elephant as well… Before the wolf, the bison, and the whale, in the time of the dinosaurs.” His deep, curmudgeonly/grandfatherly voice really complement the images here to – just like the opening shot against the underwater wall – suggest that this is going to be a film of much greater aesthetic ambition than most “animated kiddie flicks.”

As Pat Hingle finishes the opening phrases of his VO, the camera continues to track behind the latest obstacle, which masks another cut – this time out into a vast open landscape shot. And it is here, two minutes and forty seconds in, that the film begins to show its true majesty. Throughout the following moments, we see a herd of triceratops migrating off into the distance, down from a hilltop and across a plain towards a mountain range that frames the setting sun; we see a herd of saurolophus migrating across a barren volcanic landscape, with flaming volcanoes in the distant background and clouds of noxious orange-yellow fumes blowing through the foreground; and we see apatosaurs migrating past a lake beneath a full moon, overflown by a flock of pterosaurs. Ultimately, we cut back to the saurolophus herd, which has encamped by a stream in order to nest their eggs.

And it’s here, exactly 3:32 in, that the film goes slack and never really recovers. Because as soon as the eggs do start to hatch, they do so in a cartoony “stretch and squash” style – the ovals seem to strain from inside, and elongate exaggeratedly – which becomes the modus operandi for much of the rest of the film, with spastic and energetic cartoon action taking the place of the sense of real weight and solidity we’ve seen up to now. Everything before this has been done in a fluently hyperrealist style which fully demonstrated the principle that before CGI, animation was the most promising way to depict things that couldn’t actually be photographed or shown convincingly in live-action. Realistic drawings could offer a vivid simulacrum of the real, as with Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania in 1918. Depressingly few films ever did actually use cel animation along those lines, but for its first few minutes at least, The Land Before Time reaffirmed the principle. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of great hyperrealist footage in the rest of the film – there certainly is – but it has to exist in an awkward aesthetic synthesis with cartoonish animation that embodies a diametrically opposed use of the technique. The hybrid nature of the bulk of the film badly undermines the visual majesty that the first few minutes tantalized us with.

All this, however, is simply formal criticism of animation style. If the film’s awkward hybrid of hyperrealist and cartoon animation had been its only problem, I might still be calling it a masterpiece. Alas, the film’s really fatal problem is its script. Apparently, Lucas and Spielberg were interested in making The Land Before Time wholly dialogue-free, and just letting it play out with music and graphic logic, like the “Rite of Spring” dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. When the obvious fact sunk in that this would be commercial suicide for a mainstream animated film, Lucas and Spielberg grudgingly commissioned a script. And it’s perhaps here that the film’s problems began in earnest. Because they’d never wanted to have to have a script in the first place, the relative quality of it seems not to have mattered to them. It’s as though writer Stu Krieger was simply assigned to generate a completely generic iteration of all the usual bromides and formulas – the routine “words of wisdom” from a “wise elder” character early on, which the protagonist will spend the rest of the film trying to live up to;  the “character friction” moments which precede the inevitable rapprochement and “character bonding” moments; the wholly contrived “setbacks and adversity” which precede the inevitable happy ending; and, of course, the lame comic relief which must run parallel to it all. When written with sufficient investment and purpose, the formula aspect of all this can be completely forgotten, and the story seem fresh and vital even if it isn’t remotely. This investment and purpose, however, is totally lacking in The Land Before Time. Virtually all the film’s best moments are those which are free of dialogue, and Lucas and Spielberg can to some degree approach their original ambition and channel the “Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia.

Again, had the script been merely generic – and avoided committing any unforgivable gaffes – the film might still have worked at least reasonably well. Alas, however, this was not the case. The one truly irredeemable idiocy of The Land Before Time’s script is what might be called “the Sharptooth factor.” Simply put, the film’s treatment of its T-Rex is idiotic beyond words, and Lucas and Spielberg ought to have known better. The film demonizes the T-Rex, which it calls a “Sharptooth,” as a cruel, slavering monster, from which we are meant to recoil with fear and hatred. How Lucas and Spielberg – the two Hollywood directors most known for their acute insight into the 6-year old mind – could have been so stupid simply boggles the mind. Every child in the world is of course going to view the T-Rex as the real hero-star of the film, and if not actively root for it to eat Littlefoot and his friends, then at the very least not be onboard with wholesale demonizing of it for trying to do so. Furthermore, it’s the word “trying” that takes the film to a whole new level of idiocy. Because of course the Sharptooth can’t actually succeed in killing and eating Littlefoot or any of his friends, and so ends up doubly insulted by being characterized as terrible on the one hand, and yet impotent on the other. This is the very scummiest, most infantile, dynamic of genre filmmaking, whereby a film characterizes its villain in broad, crude terms as totally monstrous and dangerous; but in a childish, temper-tantrum-style insistence that the heroes must always be invincible and immortal and never get so much as a hair out of place, the film can’t ultimately give the villain anything concrete to do to justify their dangerous-monstrosity characterization. The ultimate implication is, simply, that he’s bad because he looks/acts different from the hero, and must therefore be destroyed. In animated films particularly, you can generally judge a film’s worth by how closely it adheres to this logic. The Lion King stands as such a masterpiece because it had the narrative courage to let us fully savour Scar’s killing of Mufasa, giving real weight to his subsequent actions. Last year’s Epic, at the other extreme, was particularly disgusting in its treatment of the Christophe Waltz-voiced villain “Mandrake.” My first thoughts on leaving the theatre after seeing Epic were about the sheer breathtaking effrontery of children’s films which present themselves as morality tales, when their ultimate moral basically seems to be “never play fair.”

The Land Before Time’s treatment of the Sharptooth stands as perhaps an all-time worst for this sort of thing. Most contemptible of all is the way that it censors itself in the one scene that might have balanced the scale a bit: the sequence of Littlefoot’s mother’s death, in a battle with the Sharptooth on a crumbling mountain ridge. The logic of the scene obviously seems to be that the Sharptooth kills Littlefoot’s mother, but in post-production, Lucas and Spielberg decided that this might be too scary/traumatic for children, and the scene was re-edited to give the impression that Littlefoot’s mother fights off the Sharptooth, and simply dies from the fall after the ridge collapses beneath her. The result is that throughout the battle sequence, Sharptooth never seems to get in a single bite or claw, while Littlefoot’s mom is constantly slamming him down with her tail. The scene is beyond infuriating to watch, and this was not an isolated incident. Apparently 19 scenes – a full 11 minutes of footage – almost all dealing with the Sharptooth, were shortened or removed from the film because they were deemed too traumatic for young children. This is American pop culture at its very worst – where everyone is more concerned with the cloyingly therapeutic aspect of representations than their actual quality. For my money, the damage done to children by showing them invidious shit is probably far worse, in the long term, than that done by showing them scary pictures.

So juvenile is the film’s sensibility that even censoring the sequence leading up to Littlefoot’s mother’s death wasn’t enough. They had to cap this whole part of the film by adding an idiotic dialogue-dump whereby a tearful Littlefoot runs into a wise old ankylosaur named “Rooter,” who imparts generic “wise counsel” about how the circle of life has begun, and he’ll always miss his mother, but she remains a part of him, etc. Pat Hingle pulls double-duty here, giving the same patriarchal gravitas that he does to the narration, but the effect is totally opposite. Lucas and Spielberg, who usually know their audience so well, have managed to completely miss the mark here, leaving viewers devoutly wishing that the Sharptooth would resurge and bite the stupid ankylosaur’s head off.

Less idiotic than the film’s treatment of Sharptooth, but still cringe-inducing, is its treatment of the little girl triceratops, Cera. Like so much that came out of Hollywood in the 80s, The Land Before Time lives in a world where a vacuous, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy is paradigmatic of humanity, and anyone or anything not conforming to this type is by definition strange and “Other.” One remembers that just the year before this, audiences had had inflicted upon them not only Corey Haim in The Lost Boys, but also Joshua Rudoy in Harry and the Hendersons. Littlefoot is, if not quite as bad, alas very much in the same tradition. Accordingly, Cera is routinely characterized as being prideful, arrogant, bossy, or outright mean. And just like Sharptooth, Cera isn’t even granted the positives to go with these negatives – the film makes sure to emphasize that she’s always wrong, deluded, and emptily boasting, and that when danger actually appears she’ll simply squeal and run. Even the film’s framing device gets in on the action, with the narration explicitly kicking in to diss her at one point. Early in the film, when Hingle’s deep, gravelly voice talked in generalities about “the mighty beasts who ruled the earth” and “a journey towards life,” the patriarchal gravitas worked dramatically. When, on the other hand, he intones that “Cera was still too proud to admit that she’d gone the wrong way,” it’s like having excrement shoved right up under your nose.

Despite all of the above, however, the film is not without a few redeeming points. As mentioned earlier, the brilliant hyperrealist animation which defined the first few minutes never really goes away, it just has to co-exist with the more cartoony animation. But the really moving, evocative hyperrealist shots – like one which slowly tilts upwards to follow Littlefoot’s mother walking off towards the mountainous horizon, through a forest of bare dead trees – stick in your mind much more than the crude cartoonish ones – like the protracted bit of business where a half-dozen or so pterosaur chicks fight over a berry. And speaking of Littlefoot’s mother, for all that the preceding Sharptooth scene befouled its premise, and the subsequent Rooter scene ruins its payoff, the scene of Littlefoot’s mother’s death is indeed every bit as soulfully dramatic as it was intended. It was perhaps karma that just five months before The Land Before Time’s November release, Disney re-released Bambi, allowing the audience to fully appreciate this film’s audacity in actually, heart-wrenchingly, showing what Disney had simply tiptoed around with suggestion.

And at its very end, the film’s penultimate redeeming feature is its end credits theme – Diana Ross’s performance of “If We Hold on Together.” Many animated films, even great ones like DreamWorks’s How to Train Your Dragon, simply cut to some fairly generic pop music for the end credits, and rely on the general energy and vibrancy to carry audiences out of the film. Ross’s “If We Hold on Together,” does far more than that. Again, I wasn’t more than five years old when I first saw the film, and the song moved me so deeply that, for twenty-three years afterwards – even as so much else of the film faded – I never forgot it or the end credits it accompanied. The song carries a tone of “bent and broken, but unbowed,” whereby the heroes have endured great misfortune, but still persevere because of their solidarity with each other. It’s reminiscent of the conclusion of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Aragorn declares that the fellowship will not have failed, so long as “we hold true to each other.” The difference, of course, is that at that conclusion, Boromir had just been killed, Merry and Pippin just been carried off to some gruesome orc-ish fate, and an increasingly tormented Frodo had wandered off on his own, so there was real weight and pathos behind Aragorn’s assertion. Yet again, The Land Before Time just has no comparable sharpness, even as a children’s film. To really be worthy of Ross’s song, it would have to have ended with Sharptooth having eaten one of the dino kiddies, and the Great Valley still out of reach, so that all they have to sustain themselves is each other. A conclusion on this note would have matched the faintly mournful, elegiac tone of the song far better than the saccharine “happy ending” that does close the film. It’s yet another element that seems either to belong in a better film, or indicate just how much better this one might have been if not for Lucas and Spielberg’s cravenness.

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