What 'The Land Before Time' Got Right And Wrong, According To Experts
- Director Donald Bluth's "The Land Before Time" captured the hearts and minds of generations of children, following a merry band of animated dinosaurs.
- Though the film was well-received, experts found that certain facts were a little skewed in their portrayal.
- This group would have never existed in the first place because the different species lived millions of years apart in real life.
- The apocalyptic setting of the film likely did not happen during the time it was set.
- Though the film got certain facts wrong, it was the first film to more accurately portray dinosaurs as complex and social creatures.
Thanks to its plucky band of misfit protagonists, heartfelt plot, and carefully rendered depictions of dinosaurs, the 1988 classic animated movie " The Land Before Time" has become an integral part of many generation's childhoods.
The film was directed by Donald Bluth, with executive producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and follows the journey of a young, long-necked dinosaur named Littlefoot as he and a group of other young dinosaurs search for their family and food in a mythical place called "The Great Valley."
While the film is accomplished in how it helps children learn to cope with loss and overcome adversity, it is far less precise when it comes to teaching children the basics of paleontology.
From mismatched timelines to overly- anthropomorphized characteristics, experts spoke with Insider about a few of the missteps the film took when it comes to scientific accuracy — as well as a few things it got right.
The main characters of 'The Land Before Time' lived millions of years apart in real life
"The Land Before Time" features a cast of widely recognizable dinosaurs, including a Triceratops ("Three-Horn") named Cera, an Apatosaurus ("Longneck") named Littlefoot, a Stegosaurus ("Spiketail") named Spike, a Saurolophus ("Big Mouth") named Ducky, and a Pteranodon ("Flyer") named Petrie.
While the diversity of their group gave them an advantage when it came to reaching taller heights or muscling through obstacles, John Hutchinson, a professor of Evolutionary Biomechanics at the University of London's Royal Veterinary College, told Insider that it wouldn't have been possible for these different species to have all lived at during the same time period.
Littlefoot and Spike would have lived during the Late Jurassic period, which spanned from around 165 to 145 million years ago, while many of the others would have actually lived during the Late Cretaceous period, which spanned from around 100 to 66 million years ago. These Late Cretaceous dinosaurs would have included Cera, Ducky, T-Rex, and Petrie — even though Petrie is technically not a dinosaur.
To put that into context, modern humans have only existed for roughly 300,000 years, so grasping the vastness of such deep geologic time can be mind-boggling, but Hutchinson told Insider to get a better idea of the scale you can imagine it like this: "There's more time between them then there is between T-Rex and us."
Littlefoot's mother realistically would have left him to fend for himself before he had hatched
Littlefoot's relationship with his mother is another driving aspect of the film that experts say was likely unrealistic.
The loving relationship between Littlefoot and his mother is obvious during the very first scenes of the movie when his mother gently explains the Great Valley to Littlefoot and the young dinosaur burrows into her to sleep on their long journey. When Littlefoot's mother dies after protecting him from a "Sharp Tooth" or Tyrannosaurus rex, it's heartbreaking given their earlier bond. Littlefoot mourns his mother but holds her memory close as a guide for the rest of the film.
While this relationship was important for the emotional development of the film, Hutchinson says that in reality, Apatosauruses were probably very bad parents.
"We know now that Sauropods [including Apatosauruses] were not good parents," Hutchinson said. "They just buried their nests, abandoned them and the babies would hatch on their own and be pretty able to fend for themselves right away. It was a tough life being a Littlefoot in reality."
The apocalyptic setting of the film likely never happened during the movie's given time period
Apart from the banter and hijinks of Littlefoot's rag-tag group of friends, another ever-present characteristic of "The Land Before Time" is the land itself. Complete with dramatic, literally ground parting, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and softly falling ash, the landscape of what is likely North America has a striking similarity to that of an environmental apocalypse. The famine that resulted from these fictional conditions is what drives Littlefoot and his friends toward the Great Valley.
But Thomas Cullen, a paleontologist and postdoctoral research scientist at the Field Museum of Natural History, told Insider by email that there doesn't appear to be any record of an environmental disaster like this taking place during the movie's probable time frame.
"There is no particular record of a great famine or other environmental catastrophes in the Late Cretaceous that would cause a large migration like that seen in 'The Land Before Time,'" Cullen wrote.
Hutchinson also says that the tar pit the protagonists become stuck in later in the film would have been "basically non-existent" in the landscape as well, coming into existence much later instead.
The cute friendships in the film are not entirely inaccurate because dinosaurs were social creatures
Despite the scientific missteps in the film, there are also a few key aspects that it got right, Hutchinson told Insider. Particularly when it comes to our modern image of dinosaurs.
An important accuracy of the film, and one that was contemporary to palaeontological research in the 1980s, was the depiction of dinosaurs as social animals and not simply violent lizards.
"They got some details more right than previous depictions had," said Hutchinson. "[It showed] that dinosaurs were not just big, dumb reptiles, but advanced, sophisticated animals — which is true."
Ultimately, 'The Land Before Time' was one of the first films to present dinosaurs as complex and intelligent
Hutchinson also says that the film, which came out before "Jurassic Park," was one of the first examples of dinosaurs being depicted not in the classical style of "Fantasia" (1940), but instead with a more modern understanding, much of which still shapes our imagination of dinosaurs today.
"I think that the movie bridges the gap between 'Fantasia' and 'Jurassic Park,'" said Hutchinson. "I think that it introduced people to that new way of looking at dinosaurs and thinking about them less as screaming horrors that can only be fought. Instead, the dinosaurs in the movie, broadly speaking, are intelligent and social and behaving in ways most movies hadn't shown them before. I think the public latched onto that and could empathize with dinosaurs more."
And, despite its fumbles along the way, Cullen echoed Hutchinson and told Insider that the film was influential in his career as a paleontologist.
"I still think the movie is great overall, even if it isn't perfectly accurate, and I certainly remember being influenced by it as a young child," he said.