When you're a kid, most of the stuff made for you to watch is drivel. The shows and movies focus on bright colors and loud noises to entertain, but there are a few that rise above and stick with us for generations.
For me, that movie was The Land Before Time. Not only did it fulfill my desire to hang out with dinosaurs, but it was an adventure movie that also carried a lot of weight. For me, and many Millennials, this was the first time we saw the parent of a cartoon character die on screen.
And I think I speak for everyone when I say... it wrecked me.
The studio almost had the scene cut, but the film's director, Don Bluth, had some help saving it.
He told Vulture, "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.' 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 called the great circle of life.'"
Obviously, this idea went on to change the animations of the 90s. Mufasa was slain on screen and we even had that circle of life branded. Bluth made not only animation serious again but also the idea of consequences for characters' actions marketable.
The rest of the movie is a fun romp through the prehistoric lands, as dinosaurs make friends and attempt to migrate to somewhere safe. And it was seen as another one of Bluth's influential masterpieces, along with The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Anastasia. He left Disney because he felt the movies had become too soft and the animation was too boring. He wanted to do something different.
He wanted to depict danger.
"In all of our lives, there’s danger, whether it’s danger to your health or danger by driving a car or by anything else at all—there’s always danger," Bluth says. "So your cleverness, and how you face that danger, plays a really important part in each of our lives."
We saw this danger with Littefoot's mother, but if you look at all his work, we always understand the consequences are life and death.
American Tailis about fleeing the holocaust, All Dogs go to Heaven is about dealing with mortality, and the twists and turns in NIMH show the mice are always trying to survive.
Bluth wrote and directed this way because of Bambi, and the way it made him feel as a child.
"I saw it sitting in a theater next to my own mother," he says. "What that scene did was prepare me for the moment when that would happen to my mother. She wouldn’t be shot by a hunter, but she would depart. And when we were making The Land Before Time, we knew the mother was going to depart, and had to, for Littlefoot to grow up. Mothers have to leave their children, or they won’t grow up. That is a human thing."
At his own Don Bluth University, one of the lessons he makes a point of teaching the new generation of animators is not being afraid to reflect the human experience...even the sad, dark, or unpleasant parts. He says, "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."
These kinds of lessons are so important in storytelling. They ground the characters, and make them accessible for the audience, and they teach them life lessons.
I know that those Bluth movies were some of my favorites growing up and that the lessons helped shape me into who I am. I also can see how they influenced Pixar and Disney to step up their game as well and to take the stakes of their stories seriously.
What's your favorite Bluth film? Let me know what you think in the comments.