Sharper Teeth: The Deleted Scenes of The Land Before Time
If you grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, you may have fond memories of watching The Land Before Time over and over and over again. For me, it is a very special film because it is one of the first movies I remember seeing as a kid. It was 1989, we had just seen The Little Mermaid in theaters (my first film-going memory!) and later that day, we went to the video store. I vividly remember my impression of this strange place. There were shelves as tall as I could see, each filled with VHS tapes with a colorful assortment of spines. Off to the side, I spotted a poster with a tiny man with bizarro red hair, wearing overalls and wielding a sharp knife. (“Chucky! Get me out of here!” I thought, maybe said.) Quickly, my parents selected a tape with a blue spine. It was called The Land Before Time (or, as I called it, The Lamb Before Time.) We took it home (So long Chucky!), watched it, and to my sensible young mind, it was thrilling and magical!
A collaboration amongst film titans Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Don Bluth, The Land Before Time tells the story of infant dinosaurs, led by an apatosaurus named Littlefoot, who are separated from their parents during a great earthquake caused by “the clash of continents.” They must find their way to the Great Valley, a safe haven where they’ll be reunited with their families. But along the way, they are stalked by a savage Tyrannosaurus named “Sharptooth.”
At 65 minutes, the film is tightly paced, simple, and straightforward. But upon further inspection, things start to get messy. Objects, such as Littlefoot’s “tree star,” and sometimes even characters disappear and reappear from shot to shot. There’s even a major scene that feels misplaced.
So where did it all go wrong?
In a Fall 1988 issue of Animation Magazine, it was reported that the film had been cut down from its initial runtime of 78 minutes to 69 minutes, claiming that “19 scenes were cut.” According to the article, these scenes involved “the children in severe jeopardy and distress” and were removed at the request of Spielberg & Lucas, because they believed it would “cause some psychological damage in very young children.” (See above.)
Early on in the film, Littlefoot and Cera, a triceratops, are playing around in a bubbly puddle under a tree. Suddenly, Sharptooth appears, chasing them through a thick patch of thorn trees, before Littlefoot’s mother comes to the rescue, sacrificing herself to save the kids. In this sequence, there are many subtle continuity errors that appear from shot to shot. It cuts from the kids outside the tree immediately to them underneath the tree. Then they run away from Sharptooth, but in the next shot, they run towards him. Also, Sharptooth’s eye is shown damaged moments before it’s pierced by a thorn.
These sort of oddities are common in live action editing (just watch the opening scene of Jurassic Park, where the attacked worker changes positions from shot to shot). They result from dialogue and actions being removed so scenes can be tightened up or, in the case of Jurassic Park, because the editor is trying to create a chaotic whirlwind of suspense with fast-paced editing, emphasizing emotion over continuity. However, in animation, editing is done before the animation is complete. In other words, you edit the film before it’s shot! Deleting shots and scenes afterwards is like lighting money on fire (every frame is essentially a special effect), but also, since the animation and final mixing were complete, inconsistencies and sometimes even jumps in the soundtrack would occur, a notable example being The Black Cauldron, when a grizzly death scene had been removed.
Recently, Mark Pudleiner, who worked on the film as an additional character animator and character key assistant, posted storyboards from this sequence on his personal blog (here, here, and here). These boards included a lot of extended material, including a moment where after the shot of them running into his feet, the kids take solace in the thorn tree. In a creepy image, Sharptooth’s eye peaks in through a clearing. He then violently attacks the thorn tree, trying to get the children inside. (In the final film, you can see thorns flying as the children flee their attacker). A still from this moment was also included in “The Land Before Time: Friends in Need” storybook that was released at the time (see above).
The sequence continues in the thorny thicket as it does in the film, but many intense shots of Sharptooth and his menacing teeth were deleted and many events were shuffled around. For example, the sinister moment when Sharptooth’s mouth pushes down on a limb, trying to sniff out Littlefoot and Cera hiding beneath it, survived the theatrical cut, but like many of the shots in the final version, was actually meant to occur after Littlefoot snapped Sharptooth’s eye with the thorn. Also removed was a moment where Littlefoot and Cera try to run under Sharptooth’s body moments before they are rescued (see above).
Pudleiner’s storyboards stop right as the mother saves the day, but it’s believed that her deadly fight with the villainous T-Rex had been trimmed as well. At one point, as she’s stumbling away, a large wound appears on her spine, which she received off-camera. It is believed by some that there may have been an actual shot removed where we see Sharptooth bite into her.
This isn’t the only scene that was heavily edited! According to a passage from the book “The Animated Films of Don Bluth” by John Cawley, the Production Coordinator from another Spielberg/Bluth film, An American Tail, “When Spielberg received the final film from Sullivan Bluth, he reportedly was still dissatisfied with it. He re-mixed the music and sound effects, as well as supposedly did additional trimming of some scenes.” (The book also mentions that Cera was originally written and recorded as a boy.)
The entire final act of the film was cut down and re-arranged. As Littlefoot leads our heroes, the group bickers over the which route to take to the Great Valley. They split up, with Littlefoot going his own way, alone and upset, while the others take the “easier” route. The order at which everything that happens after this vary between the original version and the theatrical cut.
In the final film, we follow the other characters as they find themselves trapped by a stream of lava and a tar pit. Littlefoot comes to the rescue, saving the group. Together, the children then brave up against Sharptooth in a pond, standing their ground as they shove a large boulder on top of him, banishing Sharptooth to a watery grave. Then we cut to Littlefoot in a different location, by himself. He’s not sure if he can find the Great Valley. Suddenly, the spirit of his mother appears and shows him the way. We then see him running with the others to the Great Valley. In the final cut, the transition from the group’s victory to Littlefoot’s discovery is rather jarring. Structurally, it’s too sudden and emotionally, it doesn’t make sense to jump from the entire group being happy immediately to Littlefoot feeling lost and sad without any beats in between.
The original version handles this scene differently. It placed Littlefoot’s somber moment with his mother’s spirit before he rescued the group. From a narrative point of view, it makes sense. Having separated from his companions — and perhaps feeling betrayed and abandoned — his internal doubt consumes him from within. Then, when he’s at his most vulnerable, he hears his mother’s voice calling for him. Emotionally, we transition from a low point to a high point, smoothly, the way it was designed.
The storybooks “Land Before Time: The Illustrated Story” and “The Land Before Time: The Search for the Great Valley,” which depicted the final act as it was originally intended and used actual stills from the movie, show Littlefoot in the waterfall of the Great Valley before realizing that he must find the others and show them the way (see above and below). From there, he comes to the rescue. (In the final cut, you assume he heard the cries for help.)
Further evidence of this scene-swap lies within the actual film. In the wide shot, when the clouds re-shape to form the spirit of his mother, you can actually see both the pond where they defeated Sharptooth and the boulder they used to stop him sitting where it was before it was pushed. The pond was on Littlefoot’s path, not the way Cera went. In the script, they encountered Sharptooth while he was leading them to the Great Valley. Littefoot, originally named Thunderfoot, stated, “We’ve got to get Shaptooth away from the high rocks before he finds the entrance. We’ll have to kill him.” I doubt that “kill” line would have ever made it to the final cut, but still, man, that’s cold, Littlefoot!
Additionally, in the track “The Rescue/Discovery of the Great Valley” from the commercial release of James Horner’s score for the film, the cue that directly accompanies this scene appears before the rescue music.
Finally, before the final battle, it cuts to a sad moment with Cera, where the narrator, voiced by Batman‘s Pat Hingle, states, “Cera was too proud to admit she went the wrong way.” In the final cut, she wouldn’t have known this until the final scene. But it still has a place in the film. After all that danger, she knew in her heart this wasn’t the right path to take. So it kinda works.
There is also evidence of further trims made to the final act. During the rescue sequence, Cera is seen walking away from Petrie, the pteranodon, as he screams for “Help!” The next time we see her, she is running away from three Pachycephalosaurs. Since the Pachycephalosaurs are introduced in the film as they’re chasing her, it’s a logical assumption that at least the prologue to this scene, where Cera runs into them, is missing. The “Friends in Need” storybook gives us a vague idea of what was removed from this scene: “Cera’s path took her to a deep dark cave, where she was surrounded by fierce lizard-heads. She bravely fought them off for a while, but they were closing in.”
It’s understandable why the scarier aspects of the film were toned down, but why did they move the ending around? One likely scenario is either Spielberg or Lucas decided it was better for the audience not to see the Great Valley until the very end. But it could also be partially linked to the intended social commentary that was toned down.
In his interview from that Fall 1988 issue of Animation Magazine, Bluth spoke of this segregation, “As the storyboarding continued, we came up with another idea, that none of these dinosaurs get along with each other […] They’re taught from the time they were born not to associate with each other […] They’re going to have to be untaught the racist idea and learn to like each other.”
Here’s another passage from “The Animated Films of Don Bluth”: “John Pomeroy [a producer on the film] reflected that ‘It never came up to my full expectations, simply because it was a perfect opportunity to really showcase five disturbed personalities trying to work towards each other’s mutual goal. They were rich characters, but [we] never really got a chance to project that richness.’”
While some of the “disturbed personalities” show in the film, particularly in moments where Cera and Littlefoot bicker, there are also hints of segregation and prejudices amongst the Great Migration. At one point in the film, we’re told by Cera’s dad that “Three horns don’t play with long necks” and when Littlefoot asks his mother about this, she responds, “That’s the way it’s always been.”
Another deleted scene explored this concept even further. On their journey, the children come across an oasis, where two different species of dinosaurs are eating and drinking. They ask if they can have food and water, but the “crown-heads” and the “gray-noses” refuse to share either, even with each other. When Littlefoot asks why they can’t share with each other, he is told, “Gray-noses and crown-heads are different from each other.” This scene can be found in both the “The Illustrated Story” (see above) and “Friends in Need” (see image below) storybooks and follows the scene where they find the “long-neck” shaped rock. It is also worth noting that the “crown-heads” are the same Pachycephalosaurs from the scene I mentioned earlier.
Cawley’s book and film history itself, considering Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg never worked together again after The Land Before Time, suggests a difference in creative philosophies between Bluth and his powerhouse producer. At one point, Cawley even says, “One person involved stated that Don and Spielberg really wanted to make two different movies.”
Presumably, Spielberg was expecting a film that would appeal to the younger kids in the audience, while Bluth also wanted to make a film that appealed to kids (albeit older kids too), but also dealt with bigger issues, such as racism. In that Fall 1988 interview, Bluth said, “Children nowadays watch television and are well aware of the problems we have. So, tell them a story that will help them solve the problems of the world they live in and then the story becomes relevant.” Spielberg might’ve felt that all this racism could have been a bit too much for the younger children in the theater. Ultimately, this aspect of the story was toned down.
In the script, the racism is dealt with at the end, in another scene with Cera’s father. Cera refers to Littlefoot as her best friend. “A long neck?” her dad says, described as “taken aback,” as well as having seen “a change in his daughter.”
Other deleted scenes from the film include Littlefoot encountering a snake, Ducky luring Spike to follow their group with berries (see below), and Ducky making funny faces while distracting Sharptooth, which was seen in the trailer. The final line of dialogue was also removed from the film. As the five characters hug, as they do in the final film, we cut to a close up of Littlefoot, who proclaims, “Now we’ll always be together.” This moment was included in a Pizza Hut commercial for their promotion of the film.
I have no doubt the original content, in terms of structure, would’ve made a better film and I do wish they had retained the original final act, as well as the social commentary on racism, but the film does work as it is. The Land Before Time still has some of its serious teeth left and maintains a good balance of lighthearted levity with suspense and tragedy.
Some might say Spielberg and Lucas were overreacting, but in their defense, it’s not like they sliced off the film’s balls. Despite all the edits, the saddest parts of the story remain intact and after seeing the film, you’ll never forget Littlefoot’s mother taking her final breaths on screen nor Littlefoot mistaking his own shadow for his deceased parent. Those moments stick with you forever.
*Availability may vary
**Out of Print
- Storybooks: “Friends in Need” and “The Search for the Great Valley”**
- Mark Pudleiner’s Blog
- “The Animated Films of Don Bluth” by John Cawley**
- “The Land Before Time” Wikia featuring storyboards and excerpts from the script
- “The Land Before Time” Pizza Hut Commercial*
- Animation Magazine Fall 1988 Issue*
- Theatrical Trailer*
- VHS Trailer*