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'The Land Before Time' : (G)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 18, 1988

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' "The Land Before Time," an animated prehistoric fable about a motley group of baby dinosaurs, has a sleepy, gentle spirit, and that seems entirely appropriate because its subtext is serious.

The picture begins at a time when the plant-eating dinosaurs have run out of food and in order to survive must journey many, many miles to a place called the Great Valley. The dinosaurs are divided into herds -- Long Necks, Three Horns, Sharp Teeth, etc. -- and as the trek commences, each herd is blessed with new arrivals. To the Long Necks is born the sole hope for the continuance of the species, a purplish, slightly timid creature named Littlefoot. (The name comes out of nowhere -- his feet seem perfectly normal.) About the same time, the Three Horns welcome a fiercely cute and rambunctious little dynamo named Sarah. Though they are from different groups, these two love to get into trouble together, but one day the trouble turns serious when a Sharp Tooth interrupts their games. A deadly chase ensues, and in the process of defending her offspring, Littlefoot's mother is killed. Simultaneously, an earthquake causes Sarah to become separated from her parents. And so, all alone, the two dinosaur tykes are left to find the Great Valley on their own.

Death and separation are the themes of "The Land Before Time," and unlike "Bambi," in which we had to deal with the death of the mother on our own, the filmmakers here have attempted to address these issues in an instructional manner. The heaviest share of this burden falls to a creature named Rooter, who tells Little Foot about the great cycle of life, at the end of which the grieving youngster will be reunited with his mother. (The warm, strong, comforting tones that actor Pat Hingle gives to the Rooter's reading of his message goes a long way toward selling it.)

Producers Spielberg and Lucas worked with animator Don Bluth on the undistinguished mousie-story "An American Tail," but this is a significant improvement on that effort. The animation work here isn't breathtaking, but it is workmanlike, and in places there are even touches of beauty.

The characters are appealingly conceived and engaging -- and never once do they pick up guitars and launch into dinosaur renditions of rock songs (as cartoon Chipmunks and Care Bears are prone to do). Along the way to the Great Valley, the main characters pick up several supporting players, a neurasthenic birdlike creature named Petrie (who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Charlie Callas), a perky amphibious thing called Ducky and a blobby, lethargic Spike Tail named, quite reasonably, Spike.

The film is blessedly short on digressions (it's only 80 minutes long), and there is always enough happening onscreen to hold even the youngest child's attention. There is nothing about either the story or its execution to place "The Land Before Time" alongside the classics, but then again, the age of animated masterpieces may be forever past. Still, though it's not a great film, it is an entertaining and, at times, emotionally rich one.

The Land Before Time is rated G

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