Long before humans fiddled with their smartphones and sipped overpriced coffee, dinosaurs walked all over this planet for 165 million years. While they’re still more than a few centuries and an epoch or so away from breaking that record, The Land Before Time franchise has existed for over three decades, making it one of the longest-running animated movie series without Disney or Warner Bros. in front of its name.
The Land Before Time premiered on November 18, 1988, becoming a massive box-office hit out of nowhere. This cartoon about baby dinosaurs went toe-to-toe against Disney’s Oliver and Company on the same opening day, beating them by a substantial margin. But then, it turned into a franchise that refused to go extinct. Thirty-five years later, this franchise is shockingly still around. You probably remember the first movie, but what about the other thirteen?
Long Necks Equals Big Bucks
Steven Spielberg always wanted to make a movie about dinosaurs, but by the mid-1980s, Jurassic Park was still some years away. The acclaimed director turned to Don Bluth to craft an animated film that combined the whimsy of yesteryear’s cartoons with a modern feel.
Taking place in the age of dinosaurs, an orphaned Apatosaurus named Littlefoot is separated from his herd after an earthquake and family tragedy that left him alone. He journeys to find “The Great Valley,” a place where his herd planned to seek greener pastures. Along the way, he befriends lost dinos from other species, including the headstrong Triceratops named Cera, chatty Saurolophus Ducky, unpredictable Pteranodon Petrie, and carefree Stegosaurus Spike. While trekking across their perilous quest to reunite with their families, the group battles generational prejudices (since three horns never play with long necks) and evades predators on the way to their new home.
Originally pitched as a silent film with no dialogue (really!), The Land Before Time went through some major adjustments before it touched down in movie theaters. One of the most memorable scenes from this film harkens back to a Disney classic, as Littlefoot watches his mom clash in a losing battle versus a “Sharptooth”, one which ends lethally for the herbivore. This moment straight out of Bambi was one of the more grim elements seen in so many of Bluth’s films and added maturity to the critically-loved film. However, some parts were considered too fatalistic and required last-minute cuts from the filmmakers.
To achieve that precious G-rating desired for family movies, editors trimmed out 19 finished scenes of T-Rex attacks from the film deemed too intense for kids to handle. Weeks before its theatrical release, Spielberg had another ten minutes chopped to avoid traumatizing kids. (Remember Watership Down?)
This cut shortened the run-time from 80 minutes to 69, barely making it feature-length. It wasn’t just scenes that were altered, as some of the screams from the characters were redone to make them sound less extreme. Still, as a kid, you probably barely remember this movie being so short, mostly because it was so moving.
While box office Oliver and Company ultimately earned more during its theatrical run, The Land Before Time made seven times its budget, with ticket sales worth over $84 million. Proportionately the bigger earner between the competing cartoons, families, and critics championed the quality of animation and storytelling, even if it was dark at times. The movie was a hit, and ready to enter the glorious annals of animation history… but then the sequels happened.
Six years after the original, The Great Valley Adventure arrived straight to VHS in 1994. Featuring drastically inferior animation, this continuation changed the franchise forever by turning it into a musical series. All of the darker themes that made the movie stand out against the saccharine kids’ cartoons of the time were yanked out like a dentist removing cavities, turning all future follow-ups into extremely family-friendly films without any sort of bite.
Over the next decade and then some, a new movie in The Land Before Time universe was released nearly every year, each more generic than the last. The franchise transformed from a dinosaur into a cash cow for Universal Entertainment, who milked it for 14 movies and a syndicated animated series. New characters were introduced along the way, like Chomper the baby T-Rex, Ruby the Oviraptor from the TV show, and a new longneck named Allie, introduced in the trailer for the fourth movie by Cera with the condescending line “She’s a girl!”
None of these films ever had a theatrical release, devolving into straight-to-home video fodder. Some were better than others, while a few should have been dumped straight into the tar pits. Oddly enough, many of the later movies are regarded as superior to its initial sequels, but user mileage may vary. The tenth film, The Great Longneck Migration, introduced audiences to Littlefoot’s father for the first time, giving it the most emotional stakes since the first film fifteen years earlier. But, the less said about its follow-up, Invasion of the Tinysaurses, the better. No matter the diverse quality of the sequels, none held a candle to the 1988 original.
While Spielberg and Bluth never worked together again after the first Land Before Time, the Jurassic Park director made another contribution to Dino movies beyond his landmark classic. The animated feature We’re Back!: A Dinosaur’s Story was done with Land Before Time co-director Ralph Zondag, bombing at the box office in the fall of 1993, unable to even recoup its production costs.
Keeping Their Teeth Sharp
As a time capsule, The Land Before Time series shows the rapid growth of the animation industry during the post-Disney Renaissance era. VHS was a boon to keep this series thriving, but it had to change with the times to stay relevant to kids and their parent’s wallets.
The seventh film, The Stone of Cold Fire, was the first in the series to feature CGI and dropped traditional methods of finishing the hand-drawn cels to transition into the modern style of digital inking and painting. For their eighth film, The Big Freeze, the pint-sized prehistoric reptiles made their way to DVD. Their most recent film, Journey of the Brave, was released in 2016, making it the first to be available on digital platforms.
The trailer for the twelfth movie claimed The Land Before Time was the #1 all-time best-selling animated movie series, and it’s hard to argue with that. While direct-to-video sales aren’t recorded in the same way box-office numbers are, the sheer volume of sequels tells the entire story. This franchise has turned into one of the most profitable series out there, and I wouldn’t be shocked if a fifteenth movie arrived before the golden jubilee of the original.
Sky Colors Shine On
Today in 2023, The Land Before Time has more sequels than the Fast & Furious franchise, Transformers, Mission: Impossible, and even Star Wars. It has a long road ahead if it plans to dethrone James Bond or the MCU, but for a cartoon movie about preadolescent dinosaurs, that’s a mighty feather in its proverbial cap.
These dinosaurs not only survived an ice age and meteors falling from the sky, but they successfully transitioned from the big screen to letterbox and finally HD to prove the sun never sets on The Land Before Time empire. Families still turn to these dinosaurs as a beloved and wholesome way to entertain their kids, and I don’t think Littlefoot’s found family will go extinct any time soon.