Home > Reviews > THE LAND BEFORE TIME – James Horner


December 6, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Land Before Time is an animated feature film for children, directed by Don Bluth and produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It’s set in the late cretaceous period, and follows the adventures of a group of orphaned dinosaurs searching for a fabled oasis where there is food, water, and safety. The main character is Littlefoot, a young Apatosaurus, who along with his friends – each of whom is a different species, such as a triceratops or a pteranodon – find themselves having to escape from numerous dangers, not least of which is a deadly ‘sharptooth’ Tyrannosaurus Rex that is hunting them. The film was incredibly popular at the time, and it works on multiple levels. Firstly, it is a fun story for children, with playful characters and a friendly cartoonish animation style. However, it also has some deeper meaning, addressing issues of racism (some of the adult dinosaurs are prejudiced against different species), climate change (the dinosaurs don’t know it, but they are living through a famine that heralds the beginning of their extinction event), friendship, and family. There is also some surprisingly dark material too, including some quite intense and frightening sequences involving the Tyrannosaurus, as well as character deaths which left real emotional scars on an entire generation of kids. Amazingly, the film spawned an incredible thirteen direct-to-video sequels and even a TV series, although none of them reached the level of acclaim the original had.

The score for The Land Before Time is by James Horner, who reunited with director Don Bluth for the second time after the success of An American Tail in 1986. Horner wrote some truly outstanding scores for animated films in his career, including Balto, We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story, and Once Upon a Forest, in addition to those already mentioned, but for my money this one is his best. When presented with a film like this, many composers would bow to temptation and write a ‘standard’ animation score, filled with short cues, musical onomatopoeias, and moments of Mickey-Mousing, as a way to appeal to children. Horner did not do this on The Land Before Time; instead, it’s a score which teems with color and life, features gorgeously rendered instrumental passages, and contains abundant emotional content which speaks directly and clearly to its audience. It plays almost like a classical work, a tone poem or a ballet, and is through-composed with a great deal of elegance and symphonic sophistication.

It’s at this point, however, that I again need to point out Horner’s classical ‘inspirations,’ the most notable of which are the ‘Victory’ theme from the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, the ‘Wolf’ theme from Peter and the Wolf, and the ‘Interlude’ from Romeo and Juliet, all of which are by Sergei Prokofiev. As I wrote in my review of Willow earlier this year, these influences are completely clear and obvious, and in order to enjoy the score you simply have to acknowledge that this was something that Horner did, move past it, and enjoy the score for what it is.

The score is presented in six long suites, each lasting between six and thirteen minutes, and each containing music that varies in tone from action to comedy to soaring pastoral beauty. Just from a purely technical standpoint, the fact that Horner was able to do this for an animated film, hitting emotional markers over and over and over as part of multiple elongated cues, is quite astonishing, especially when you consider that the musical flow of each piece is in no way diminished by having to meet the narrative requirements of the film. Each cue features several recurring character themes, weaving in and out of the story, and the majority of them are introduced in the first cue, “The Great Migration.”

It begins with a sense of mystery and wonder – soft shimmering strings, warm brass, chorus – before emerging into a glorious theme for horns at 1:56 as the opening titles play. The theme is majestic and noble, graceful yet powerful, and as it develops Horner allows the theme to move around his orchestra, with strings and woodwinds taking the lead in turn. The timpani rolls give the theme depth and grandeur, while the florid instrumental touches showcase Horner’s mastery of the orchestra – listen to how he passes the same motif around the brass section, from trombones to trumpets to horns, beginning at the 2:37 mark. Things become lighter at the 3:38 mark when Horner introduces a playful dance for woodwinds augmented with elegant string accents and tapped percussion, while the choral writing at 4:49 mirrors the stylistics he used in scores like Krull and Willow and have an ethereal quality. The final theme which begins at 5:51 is a lilting piece for solo flute, strings, and choir, and is sublimely beautiful. It’s also a direct quotation of a theme Horner originally wrote for The Journey of Natty Gann in 1985, and is another example of Horner’s career-long tendency to use the same melody to illustrate the same concept across different movies: in this case, the theme represents the concept of an ‘epic journey,’ whether undertaken by a little girl in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s, or a group of plucky young dinosaurs.

“Sharptooth and The Earthquake” begins with a magical-sounding statement of the Journey theme for a soft choir and shimmering orchestrations, including high wavering strings, gently hooting oboes, and metallic chimes, all in tender harmony. This sequence shares tonal similarities with scores like Cocoon, and the softer parts of Star Trek II and Krull, and is quite gorgeous. Further moments of tenderness and heart follow this opening sequence, including an especially lovely lullaby-ish piece for flute that begins around the 3:50 mark, and a reprise of the wonder motif from the beginning of the score, but as the piece continues a new motif for the group’s dinosaur nemesis emerges – listen to the repeated statements on increasingly ominous-sounding woodwinds beginning at 5:17 – and this gradually grows into one of the score’s most impressive action sequences. Horner’s action music in the 1980s was especially vivid and flamboyant, as evidenced by his writing on scores like Krull and Willow, and even Brainstorm, and The Land Before Time is very much a part of that same sonic world. The evocative collisions of brass, the racing string writing, the rolling percussion, and the repeated statements of the Sharptooth motif are quite thrilling, and perfectly illustrate the danger presented by the terrible lizard.

Things return to a more pastoral sound in “Whispering Winds,” which offers a great deal of restraint and tenderness after the excesses of the action sequence. A slow, reflective statement of the Journey theme for oboe surrounded by pleasant orchestral textures opens the piece, and as it develops the haunting tones of the King’s College Choir of London add another level of intimate beauty. Statements of additional minor themes in a similar style, sequences of light and playful woodwind effervescence, and some amusing comedy romps, add to the overall tone of the piece – the jolly interplay between flute and piccolo beginning at 3:41 could have been written by Tchaikovsky himself. It’s all superbly rendered, full of so much musical dexterity and with so many subtle shifts of emotion, and when the full choir comes in for a final time to perform the theme towards the end of the cue, the effect is just sublime.

“Foraging For Food” begins with a second statement of the Prokofiev-esque opening title theme, re-orchestrated for warm strings, but thereafter settles into an elongated exploration of some of the score’s more light hearted and comedic ideas, featuring some blustery writing for trumpet and clarinet, puffy pan flute textures, a prancing harpsichord, and light tinkling triangles to enhance the playful mood. This is perhaps the only cue on the album which sounds like ‘traditional’ animation music, mimicking the movement of the lumbering dinosaur characters. Some may find it to be a little twee and overly-cutesy at times, but it’s still pleasant enough, and Horner’s richly-textured orchestrations provide ample opportunity to appreciate how well he used the array of instruments at his disposal.

The longest cue on the album is the last one, “The Rescue/Discovery of The Great Valley,” which at almost 13 minutes in length is longer than some complete classical overtures. It begins with a guest appearance from the four-note Danger motif, some impressionistic writing that sounds like some of the music from Aliens, magical choral textures, and a truly spine-tingling reprise of the main theme for layered strings and brass, before heading off into the second of the score’s significant action sequences. This one is much more threatening than the first, and includes some quite anguished-sounding string phrasing to offset the wild brass performances of the Sharptooth motif, before launching into a passage of wonderfully expressive writing beginning around the 8:50 mark which Horner would go on to explore in more depth in The Rocketeer in 1991.

Everything changes after the 10-minute mark, which represents the turning point where Littlefoot and his friends finally make it to the Great Valley, where they are reunited with their families. In the final three minutes of the cue Horner brings out his themes for one final go-around, and he plays them at their most powerful and most emotional. The cymbal clash and subsequent statement of the main theme at 10:37, which comes complete with cascading string accents, is just breathtaking. This leads into the “End Credits,” a 6-minute reprise of all the score’s main thematic elements. They are arranged in a more cheerful way, with a frisky string undercurrent, which gives the piece a feeling similar to the end credits of An American Tail.

Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the ubiquitous song, “If We Hold On Together,” which was written by Horner with lyrics by Will Jennings, and performed by Diana Ross. It’s based on the main theme, and is spiced up with a more contemporary pop sound courtesy of arranger David Campbell; it’s a perfectly fine arrangement, and Ross performs it adequately, but – as several of my contemporaries have mentioned in their reviews – the lyrics are mind-numbingly awful, an exercise of trying to squeeze in as many rhyming couplets as possible with little to no regard for what the words actually mean.

The fact that this score did not receive any critical acclaim from awards bodies in 1988 is truly baffling (especially when you look at what scores were being honored at the time). It’s so impressive to me that James Horner could look at this fairly simple animated family film about a group of young dinosaurs, and be inspired to write music as sophisticated as this. Even amongst Horner’s own astonishing 1980s output, The Land Before Time continues to exist as a high water mark, an intellectual and emotional masterpiece that shows it is possible to make an artistic statement on the most unlikely of films. Yes, there are numerous classical references which will undoubtedly annoy some listeners, but it’s what Horner does with them that remains – his clever inter-weaving of the various melodies, the wonderfully creative orchestrations. It almost exists on a different plane entirely from the film itself. Thirty years after its creation, and more than three years after the death of its creator, The Land Before Time is easily one of James Horner’s most accomplished works, and is an essential for anyone wanting to understand why his music remains so beloved.

Buy the Land Before Time soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Great Migration (7:50)
  • Sharptooth and The Earthquake (10:32)
  • Whispering Winds (9:00)
  • If We Hold On Together (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Diana Ross) (4:07)
  • Foraging For Food (7:15)
  • The Rescue/Discovery of The Great Valley (12:43)
  • End Credits (6:22)

Running Time: 57 minutes 49 seconds

MCA Records MCDA-6266 (1988)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and The King’s College Choir. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrickson. Album produced by James Horner.

  1. Kevin
    December 7, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    Good review. One wonders what Horner would’ve done with the 90s Disney films or even the Pixar movies if he had continued writing for animation.

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