Don Bluth’s prehistoric epic The Land Before Time was significantly edited down prior to theatrical release, losing many scenes that producers felt were too intense for younger children. There was one edit however that may have actually been to the film’s benefit, creating the most emotionally satisfying moment in the entire movie.
Cutting ‘The Land Before Time’
For those who haven’t seen it, The Land Before Time is a 1988 animated film directed by Don Bluth with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas acting as producers. It tells of five young dinosaurs named Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, Petrie and Spike. Separated from their families, the five youngsters set out in search of the Great Valley, contending with everything from natural disasters to a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex on the perilous journey.
The Land Before Time is an unusually grim film for its genre, but it was originally a lot grimmer. The first cut ran between 79 and 88 minutes. Just prior to release, without Bluth’s involvement, producers cut and re-edited the film down to a sleek 69 minutes.
This was due in large part to concerns about the sequences with Sharptooth, the villainous T. rex stalking the heroes. These scenes were so intense that the original cut of the film purportedly gained a PG rating. Spielberg had them shortened to — in his own words — make sure the lobby wasn’t flooded with crying children and angry parents. While somewhat disappointing, these were not the most significant cuts in the film; the most significant edit was the film’s ending.
In what was, no doubt, the film’s most satisfying moment, Littlefoot and his friends finally find the Great Valley. All who’ve seen the movie remember the image of Littlefoot on a precipice as the sun spills onto the landscape below and lights it up with green. It was a powerful scene for sure but believe it or not, this wasn’t the original ending. In the first cut, this scene occurs much earlier.
The Original Ending
This scene was originally divided into two parts, the first with Littlefoot finding the Great Valley not with his friends, but alone. After his ugly spat with Cera where the others abandon him, Littlefoot originally travelled in solitude, coming across the spirit of his mother who then leads him to the entrance to the valley. This scene appears in the film intact.
Various screenshots and animation cells exist of what happens next. Afterwards, Littlefoot explores the valley, happily splashing in a waterfall before his thoughts return to his friends. He decides to go back and find them, leading to the scene where he rescues Cera and the rest from a tar pit. After the subsequent battle with Sharptooth, Littlefoot leads the rest to the Great Valley where they’re at last reunited with their families.
Prior to release, the two scenes were combined into one, with Littlefoot and the rest finding the Great Valley together after Sharptooth’s defeat. This begs the question: Isn’t that the way it should be? As with any edit, the impact on the movie is always up for debate. While I’m of the opinion the Sharptooth material almost certainly should have stayed, the newer ending may have improved on the original.
Is The New Ending Better?
Littlefoot rescuing the others after finding the Valley may have made the character more courageous, but this also seems to contradict one of the film’s core themes — that the characters needed to stick together to survive. Littlefoot finding the Valley without any aid could have nullified that. The new ending, by contrast, has all the characters play a part in finding their way home, the battle against Sharptooth serving as their final shared challenge before salvation.
One must consider an oft-forgotten thing about The Land Before Time. Unlike its sequels, the original is an incredibly bleak film. Dark, sinister colours and long, jagged shadows fill the screen right from the very first shot. It’s only when the heroes find the Great Valley that — for the first time in the movie — the entire screen is filled with images that are bright and alive.
Some moments you can only get away with once. If that moment came any sooner, it would have been Littlefoot’s moment alone, and the friends arriving later might have seemed like a repeat of the previous scene. Less is often more, and in holding off on the Great Valley until the very end, The Land Before Time may have created an ending that was far more meaningful.
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