Just a few days from now, Episode VII: The Force Awakens will crush every box office record set by this summer’s Jurassic World, let alone every imaginable record that exists for Hollywood. And so it is worth noting that, after George Lucas made Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, he followed it a few years later by making a dinosaur movie. It was released by Universal, the same studio that makes the wildly successful Jurassic movies. Steven Spielberg was involved on this dinosaur picture, too. The movie was The Land Before Time and Lucas remained far far away, preferring to stay in Northern California to provide his script notes and advisement through a proxy—or via conference calls—to the Amblin Entertainment offices on the Universal studio lot.
The Sullivan Bluth studio, continuing its partnership with Spielberg from An American Tail (1986), also animated this film, but every step of the production had to be approved at Amblin, which was already looking ahead to this next movie. For a hint at Lucas’ influence, read this memo by Deborah Jelin from May 2, 1986 (below, click to enlarge), a full six months before American Tail had even been released in theaters. She writes, “Per my conversation with George and Steven yesterday, George agreed with Steven’s attached comments and wanted to pass on the following additional thoughts:” (Be aware that a considerable conflict at the end of production was that, when The Land Before Time was shown to test audiences, it became regarded as far too scary for its intended audience of young children.)Jelin stated that “George felt that after the opening PANORAMIC SWEEP of Prehistoric Times, we need to establish the Dinosaur’s environment in a DRYER more DESOLATE look. It should be clear that there is only a limited supply of food, and every dinosaur—young and old—is hungry. Therefore their TREK becomes a life-or-death necessity, rather than merely an instinctual drive.” This was his most prominent comment for the earliest storyboard review, perhaps imposing or restoring the bleak and dire worldview on which the film was conceived. In 1986, George Lucas was the one person who, besides Spielberg, easily commanded the most directorial clout in the world. His involvement on this film instantly gave it the halo of something special.
A strong opinion from him would not easily go unheeded, even in light of Amblin’s intended desire to make a G-rated family film about dinosaurs. His extended note about this visceral impression of the landscape, his wish to contrast the desolation with the lushness of the land, encompasses a full first page of just two pages of his notes. It ends in this manner: “George also felt whenever our band of orphan Dinosaurs come across other Dinosaurs, the others should be alone and stragglers. In other words, all the Dinosaurs need to get to the GREAT VALLEY in order to survive. . . if they don’t get there, they will die.”This conviction to cast prehistoric times in such a stark and despairing light was, of course, coming from the man just accused of ruining Return of the Jedi with so many cuddly Ewoks. Long before fanboys were filling message boards with conspiracy theories that Lucas sold out Star Wars to sell more plush dolls, there was a conventional wisdom brewing that Jedi was just too cute. In that case, this might be considered the revenge of the Jed’ntle Guy. Thus spoke George calmly—and a hail of meteors scorched the Earth and killed most dinosaurs, leaving only one sanctuary. Yes, the man who gave us Ewoks told his associate producer Deborah Jelin that “they-will-die” should be a visual signature of this forthcoming G-rated film.
To anyone who holds the notion that Lucas went soft, let this be a reminder that he still had some Dark Side left—and in 1986, Jar Jar Binks was a full thirteen years away from dispelling your newfound respect. And Han Solo still shot first. The gravitas that the global success of Star Wars conferred on him allowed Lucas to now pursue a dream that he had held since childhood. The Walt Disney features and Bugs Bunny cartoons were arguably his entrée into an early love of cinema. He was so smitten with animation that when he was a student at USC’s film school he competed for and won a coveted Warner Bros. scholarship to effectively be a paid intern at the studio.
His inclination was to learn how Looney Tunes were made, not to see live-action films being shot on sets. However, the year was 1967. The legendary cartoon division was closed down. Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson, and Friz Freleng were all gone. When young Lucas dropped in to see the animation department—which by that point was actually DePatie-Freleng—he was shocked to find it so recently vacated. It stood like a ghost town with just a single employee remaining, an executive who sat alone at a desk waiting to answer a phone there in case it should actually ring.This was an unpleasant but strongly-served notice of his prospects working in the animation industry. It surely bolstered his will not to waver from the path he was following to become a movie director. However, this anecdote shows how easily he might have rekindled this earlier interest to be involved in the prodution of studio cartoons. Twenty years later, discussing an idea with Spielberg of making “a Bambi film” with orphaned dinosaurs, he must have relished the chance to have a key role on this animated film. Its originating premise was to turn Fantasia’s “Rite of Spring” into a feature-length epic.
In the same way that Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola once jostled for the macho bragging rights of one-upping Orson Welles to realize his failed attempt at adapting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — with Coppola winning the dare by filming Apocalypse Now — so too Lucas and Spielberg wanted to revitalize the cinematic terrain of Walt Disney at his very darkest: a T-Rex gnashing at a Stegosaurus as their species plunge into extinction. In contrast to the violence that found a muse in Apocalypse Now’s Vietnam War, their original intention to make an impassioned dinosaur film came crashing against the market expectations of kid-vid executives.As the production of the film went on, so much had to be reined in and made cute. There would be no compromise on the G-rating. Universal made clear that PG was not acceptable, and ironically the scrutiny of how movie ratings reached a flashpoint was instigated by Lucas and Spielberg themselves two years earlier. The violence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins resulted in the newly minted PG-13. With no leniency from the MPAA, the only recourse was to heavily cut down the more intense sequences from The Land Before Time.
These cuts removed about ten minutes of animation from the final runtime of the film, shrinking it on release to only 69 minutes, hardly even enough to really justify calling it a “feature-length” movie. There was tension with this predicament, and Sullivan and Bluth were both unhappy at the removal of the set-piece battles of which they were most proud. Nonetheless, The Land Before Time held up as a good time at the movies and was a box office hit. Its subsequent life in video has lent it a status as a generational classic for millenials who grew up repeatedly watching Littlefoot’s journey to the Great Valley.
The movie became a huge franchise success for Universal Home Entertainment, even if Lucas and Spielberg have long since parted ways with the spinoffs and direct-to-video series that it spawned. Steven Spielberg came roaring back to give dinosaurs their much-deserved PG-13 treatment with Jurassic Park. And of course George Lucas inaugurated a new era of computer graphics imagery with his prequels and by spinning off Pixar from his visual effects studio. While Star Wars will loudly reach its seventh episode as a feature film this week, you might be surprised to know that Universal has gone twice that pace and is readying Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave for a February 2016 release.