According to Paul Wells, The Land Before Time follows a narrative pattern that mediates between nature and narrative. Wells notes that Littlefoot overcomes his weaknesses in “strength and expression” (124) and “reaches his natural home in the Great Valley when reunited with his own kind” (125), seemingly cementing the narrative structure in which “community is normally restored, and the main character in completing the journey is advanced spiritually and practically” (The Animated Bestiary 124). But the resolution to this cinematic animal narrative is complicated in two ways. The Great Valley is constructed as a temporary haven for the last of Littlefoot’s kind based in an evolutionary narrative, and Littlefoot, a “long neck,” maintains relationships with animals outside his species. Several reviewers note the film’s focus on evolution without stating it explicitly. Hal Hinson asserts in his Washington Post review, for example, that “Death and separation are the themes of The Land Before Time, and unlike Bambi, in which we had to deal with the death of the mother on our own, the filmmakers here have attempted to address these issues in an instructional manner.” According to Hinson, “The heaviest share of this burden falls to a creature named Rooter, who tells Littlefoot about the great cycle of life, at the end of which the grieving youngster will be reunited with his mother.”
The Land Before Time, then, draws on organismic approaches to ecology and follows what Joseph Meeker calls a comic evolutionary narrative. According to Meeker, humans typically embrace a tragic evolutionary narrative that counters the climax communities of plants and animals, which are “extremely diverse and complicated” (162). But, this position comes at a price, and may cost humanity its existence, Meeker asserts: “We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival” (164). This attitude may not only lead to the destruction of other species but of humanity itself. Meeker believes humanity has “a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals” (164) and adapt to a biotic or climax community like that described by organismic ecologists, including Aldo Leopold.
Ultimately, in spite of the film’s sometimes horrific narratives, it embraces an evolutionary narrative. The narrative of The Land Before Time is based in a comic and communal view of survival, even though it also draws on a tragic and individually driven view that refuses to shed the pioneer role humanity sometimes seems to embrace and equates survival with extermination of all others. A review from Variety notes the focus on interdependence once the film’s narrative is in play, asserting that the “Idea develops that surviving in a changing environment depends on achieving unity among the species,” a unity that transforms the rules of nature laid out in Disney films and stresses interdependence rather than species-specific pioneering.
The film’s opening highlights this need for interdependence, showing a series of scenes that introduces herbivore species that survive once they “achiev[e] unity” through evolutionary transformations. A dark underwater scene introduces a fish with frog-like appendages eating a red fish and swimming through grasses, illustrating the food chain. Then while turtles swim under a brightening sea, a narrator quickly describes the evolutionary journey that culminated in humanity and then, more importantly why herds of dinosaurs ventured west, “in search of the Great Valley.” According to this narrator, there were two types of dinosaurs. “Some had flat teeth and fed upon the leaves of trees, and those with sharp teeth for eating meat preyed upon the leaf-eaters.” Although these types seemed distinctive, their symbiotic relationship became clear, according to the narrator, when “the trees began to die out.” Because they were dependent on the leaf-eaters for sustenance, “the mighty beasts who seemed to rule the earth were, in truth, ruled by the leaf,” just as were the leaf-eaters. Therefore, according to the narrator, “out of desperation, some of the herds ventured out west in search of the Great Valley, a land still lush and green. It was a journey toward life.”
That journey is illustrated by a colony of leaf-eaters protecting their newborns before beginning their search for the Great Valley. After a comic scene of a baby dinosaur coming out of its shell, a variety of herbivores are born, and, according to the narrator, “Some of the young seem born without fear,” foreshadowing at least some leaf-eaters’ survival. When a storm comes up and the last egg cracks, however, the tenuousness of that survival is illustrated. The narrator explains, “Even hatching could be dangerous,” and a meat eater tries to get the egg until an adult knocks it away, and it rolls and cracks. The adult leaf-eaters name the infant “Littlefoot,” and he is dubbed “the last survivor of the herd.” With the last of the leaf-eaters’ births complete, the herd must leave on its journey to the Great Valley, where a biotic community is still possible. According to the adult leaf-eaters, the land has been changing, and they must walk every day to reach the Great Valley and its life-sustaining leafy trees. Littlefoot’s mother shows him a tree star and tells him the Great Valley is filled with food like this. “Some things you see with your eyes. Others you see with your heart,” she says of this valley, and explains that “the bright circle must pass over us many times, and we must follow it each day to where it touches the ground” to reach its bounty.
Littlefoot’s actions contrast with those of other leaf-eaters and illustrate the interdependent biotic community they seek. He interacts with other species almost immediately, first ramming horns with Cera, a three-horned leaf-eater who seems to embrace separation rather than interdependence: “Three horns never play with long necks,” Cera tells Littlefoot. Littlefoot’s mother agrees, explaining that “We all keep to our own kind,” and when Littlefoot asks why, she tells him, “because we’re different. It’s always been that way.”
Playing with Cera is first constructed as destructive and serves as the catalyst for Littlefoot and Cera’s isolation from their herds. Littlefoot’s mother is killed protecting Littlefoot and Cera from a “sharptooth” who attacks them while they play with frog bubbles. Cera is separated from her family during the same episode, which coincides with an earthquake that divides the landscape, but ultimately, Littlefoot and Cera reach the Great Valley only because they work together with other young leaf-eaters, overcoming both the meat-eaters and the cruel environment through which they travel. As Rooter, a spiked leaf-eater, explains after Littlefoot’s mother passes away, it is no one’s fault. “The great circle of life has begun, but, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.” Littlefoot mourns his mother’s loss until he hears her voice reminding him he must journey to the Great Valley that is “past the mountains that burn.” With his mother as his guide, Littlefoot can begin his journey.
Littlefoot’s journey is also inspired by an evolutionary narrative. According to the narrator, “He had to find his way, or the chain of life would be broken.” Because of Rooter’s and his mother’s encouragement, Littlefoot begins this journey. More significantly, orphans from a variety of species join him: Ducky (Judith Barsi), big-mouth swimmer; Petrie (Will Ryan), a flying leaf eater; Spike, a spike-tailed herbivore; and Cera, the three-horned leaf-eater. The narrator explains, “So the five hungry dinosaurs set off for the Great Valley. There had never been such a herd before. A long neck, a three-horn, a big mouth, a flyer and a spike-tail all together, all knowing that if they lost their way, they would starve or find themselves in Sharp Tooth's shadow.” Together they destroy the sharp-toothed dinosaur and find the Great Valley, cementing the need for interdependence and adaptation in order to survive.
When the leaf-eaters reach the Great Valley and join its biotic community, the spirit of Littlefoot’s mother lights the way. Together they have found “a land of green, of leaves, of life” the narrator says, as children are reunited with parents. Littlefoot finds his grandparents. We see a montage of memories with family and friends. Then the leaf-eaters all grow up together in the valley and pass the story of the journey to the next generation, according to the narrator. The film ends with a song from James Horner sung by Diana Ross that emphasizes the need for interdependent relationships, “If We Hold on Together,” and Littlefoot tells his friends, “Now we'll always be together,” in a biotic community that accommodates difference for the good of all species rather than only tragic pioneers.