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MOVIE REVIEWS : Dogs, Dinosaurs from Disney, Bluth : 'The Land Before Time'

November 18, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Parents may have a hard time scraping dinosaur goo off the young ones they take to "The Land Before Time," (citywide) a fatally cunning animation feature set back when the earth really moved.

Having dinosaurs, a whole array of different species, as central characters is an interesting challenge. Their size and the relative mystery about their disappearance still carry an almost primal fascination. Don Bluth ("An American Tail") must have been intrigued by these questions too, since he's gone to the trouble of differentiating between the species, of being careful of the scale of one in relation to another and of giving very little children a sort of primer of dinosaur lore.

Writer Stu Krieger, working from a story by Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss, has fashioned a quest in which Littlefoot, a baby Brontosaurus, who will lose his mother no less traumatically than Bambi, must find his way without her to the Great Valley, or starve. He and others of the baby "flat-tooths" around him--the plant-eaters--must always be on guard for the "sharp-tooths," chaps like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, who prey on Littlefoot's gentler species, among others.

Of course no one in Littlefoot's family, neither his still-extant mother nor his two grandparents, have seen the Great Valley. When the little hero-to-be questions his mother about it, she says, in the Great-Cartoon-Mommy voice guaranteed to cause dental caries, "Some things you see with your eyes. Other things you see with your heart." (Even non-smoking parents may feel an almost primal need for a cigarette about this time. In the lobby.)

Gathering other kidlets around him, Littlefoot sets out across deserts and waterfalls, guided in the real pinches by the voice (Helen Shaver's) and the shadow of his mother, a device the Disney crew was right to curl their lips about in "Bambi." They are forever dodging one particular Tyrannosaur, who illogically prefers these bite-size morsels while full-scale, dinner-portion dinosaurs are dropping all around him from the rigors of the trip.

The terrifying dinosaurs of "Fantasia" may have done their work too brilliantly. The earth truly shook under their feet as it never seems to here, except when the "clash of continents" heaves whole mountains about in a pretty good example of geological turmoil. But "Fantasia" had Stravinsky, and "The Land Before Time" has "If We Hold On Together," a cloying song of good-buddyhood and bad grammar, sung by Diana Ross in her tippy-topmost register.

It's nice that the Lucas/Spielberg forces, who are the film's executive producers, are behind the idea of overcoming differences and pulling together--that the Stegosaurus can lie down with the Pterodactyl, so to speak. But do dinosaurs really lend themselves to ootsie-cutesiness? To dinosaur babies with long tangly eyelashes, who say "Gee" and talk in the tones of curdled Junket? To an Anatorsaurus named Ducky and a little Triceratops called Sarah? (It's spelled Cera, but Sarah it is to our ears.)

There was a magnificence to these creatures, a quality of true awesomeness--if that word can ever be recycled again. By making dinosaurs into cute, squeaky charmers, little more than adorable bath toys, we may take away the fright they used to cause. (The film is MPAA-rated G.) We may even encourage children to learn more about them, which could hardly hurt. But we may diminish their essential majesty--even when we know, going in, the relative size of some of their brains. It's a question that parents will have to thrash out for themselves, parents of the under-6 set. For kids much older than that you don't have to bother; they'll be out in the lobby with you.

'THE LAND BEFORE TIME'

A Lucas/Spielberg presentation of a Don Bluth Film; a Universal picture. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas. Co-executive producers Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy. Producers Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy. Director Bluth. Produced by Sullivan Bluth Studios. Screenplay Stu Krieger, Story by Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss. Production designer Bluth. Production supervisor Cathy J. Carr. Film editors Dan Molina, John K. Carr. Music James Horner. With the voices of Pat Hingle, Helen Shaver, Gabriel Damon, Candice Houston, Burke Barnes, Judith Barsi, Will Ryan.

Running time: 69 minutes.

MPAA-rated: G (general audience).

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