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The Land Before Time
  • Composed by James Horner
  • MCA / 1988 / 58m

With Disney in a rut, other companies’ animated movies were more to the fore through much of the 1980s and one of the most successful was Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time.  There have been no fewer than thirteen direct-to-video sequels (the most recent coming in 2016) and a tv show spinoff.  The first film follows a young dinosaur trying to find the Great Valley, an oasis in the middle of general devastation near the end of the cretaceous period, and was a big success at the time.

Bluth’s previous film, An American Tail, was James Horner’s first animation and the collaboration continued on this film.  Virtually all of Horner’s scores for animation are quite balletic in nature, taking a through-composed approach highly unusual for the medium, and they generally plunder from the classics at a phenomenal rate.  In both of those aspects, The Land Before Time is ahead of the rest: Horner paints with such vivid colours, creating such a vivid dramatic piece; and he applies Prokofiev, Bruckner and Dvorak (and probably others I haven’t noticed) astonishingly liberally, even by his standards.  If that sort of thing bothers you, don’t go anywhere near this score; but it doesn’t bother me and I won’t attempt to explain the ancestry of each cue because countless others have no doubt already laid out exactly which bits come from where, if you want to look.

James Horner

“The Great Migration” gets the album off to a spectacular start – a long-lined, noble horn theme joined by lovely strings and winds and a heavenly choir before a second theme bursts forth, full of majesty and adventure – the strings swell upwards with rumbling timpani, the two themes alternate – and after all that, the score’s playful journey theme appears, the highlight being a gorgeous dancing passage for flute.  This gives way to a darker passage, danger clearly signified (not with the four notes you might expect) before things settle down again, one of Horner’s typically arboreal-sounding nods to nature playing out briefly to serve as an introduction to some sweet classical romanticism.  There’s enough material there to make up three scores – and we’re only at the end of the first track!

All of the score tracks are lengthy – there are only six of them on the hour-long album, plus a song.  The song melody is introduced by choir at the start of the second cue, “Sharptooth and the Earthquake”, having been only subtly hinted at towards the end of the previous one.  As far as I know (I’m sure it won’t be long until someone corrects me if I’m wrong), this melody is the true Horner original creation in the score, and it’s a wonderful theme.  Before long, there’s some semi-comic action music, low brass and percussion signifying giant footsteps.  After a reprise of the majestic theme which opened the score, and some tentative noodling, the piece then explodes into one of the most sustained periods of action in the score, trumpets and horns frantically blasting about, various thematic content interspersing the moments of bombast.  It’s a kind of “organised chaos” which Horner favoured in quite a lot of action music he wrote around this time, and very effective.

“Whispering Winds” is an extended exploration of the song melody, put through all sorts of variations, all genuinely lovely and just when you think it can’t get any sweeter, it does with an angelic choral performance near the end of the nine-minute cue.  After this it’s time for the song itself – Horner was a fine songwriter and “If We Hold On Together”, belted out by Diana Ross, is a very decent ballad rather let down by its unbelievably trite lyrics (courtesy of Will Jennings) – such couplets as “Live your story, faith hope and glory”, “Valley, mountain – there is a fountain!” and “Words are swaying, someone is praying” are not really ones for the ages, if truth be told.

The score gets going again with the lighthearted “Foraging for Food”, with much of the thematic content from the opening couple of cues heard again, only in a more comical setting.  The film’s finale is underscored by the gargantuan “The Rescue / Discovery of the Great Valley”.  Much of the piece is surprisingly dark – indeed, it opens with the four notes I was surprised not to hear earlier – with some thunderous, even oppressive, action material serving to accentuate the beauty of the moments of light when they do come.  And come, they do – a welcome reprise of the choral material from early in the score sandwiching a nice little rendition of the song theme, which itself then gets an amazing rousing fully orchestral arrangement for the first time.  The boisterous action material which follows includes a little nod to Krull which always brings a smile to my face – and later you can hear a little passage that clearly presages The Rocketeer, still to come in the composer’s career.

The album ends with an end credits piece that summarises the sweeter themes of the score.  It’s actually similar in tone to the end of An American Tail, which prompts me to comment that all of Horner’s animated scores are worthy of attention.  But this one really is something else: regardless of how the melodies were sourced, they are applied intelligently to the film (one reason I’m not bothered by it is that it’s obviously done with great care – the use of “Peter and the Wolf” in the finale makes perfect sense when you watch the film) and as ever Horner turns everything into a remarkably coherent whole.  This is a gem of a film score which ranks alongside the great man’s very best – a timeless work that’s endlessly replayable.

Rating:
*****
Florid, beautiful animated ballet

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  1. Jordan Gagne (Reply) on Thursday 22 June, 2017 at 21:21

    One of the best scores of all time!!

  2. Benjamin Paric (Reply) on Thursday 29 June, 2017 at 19:57

    One of my absolute favorite soundtracks ever.