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THE LAND BEFORE TIME
Balletic masterpiece from Horner
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Song written by
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Album cover copyright (c) 1988 Universal City Studios, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
A popular animation about dinosaurs, The Land Before Time - produced by Steven Spielberg, directed by Don Bluth - was enormously popular. It was released in 1988, just before the great Alan Menken-fuelled Disney renaissance, and thus at a time when Disney were (probably uniquely in their history) a very long way behind others in the popularity stakes. Bluth had found success with both A Secret of NIMH and An American Tail, but The Land Before Time was probably a little more ambitious still - no character songs at all this time, just a pure animated drama. It has so far spawned ten sequels (!) which may have cheapened some folks' memories of it, but that's a shame. Musically, it is faultless, boasting one of James Horner's very finest scores. It's miraculous that his fondness of writing lengthy tracks should ever work in an animation, but the 55 minutes of score on this album are spread over just six tracks (plus one song). Writing this way allows him to develop his ideas musically in a way which is rare indeed for film composers, and the result sounds more like a ballet than a film score, with everything that happens building from what happened before and leading naturally into what follows.
The score opens with "The Great Migration", with the subtle main theme intelligently orchestrated, leading into a more grandiose theme, played by french horn over swirling strings and rumbling percussion in an expansive style which recalls Maurice Jarre at his finest. That horn theme then reappears in a more subtle, colourful guise with winds and strings. It's a wonderful way of opening the album, but things just get better and better as it goes on. "Sharptooth and the Earthquake" opens with a beautiful choral presentation of the main theme, truly inspired, and gradually develops into a wonderful action track highlighted by another grand theme, with the London Symphony Orchestra in particularly fine form, highlighted by Shawn Murphy's expansive recording style. The action music towards the end of the cue is cut from the same cloth as that in Willow, Krull or Aliens and represents amongst the best that Horner has to offer. "Whispering Winds" shows the music off at its most florid; it opens with the gorgeous romantic theme which is truly amongst the most affecting Horner has written (sadly it is ruined completely in the song - more of that, later). The extended set of variations on it in this piece - sometimes with heavenly choral accompaniment - are almost impossibly lovely. The fluttering flutes and piccolo create a beautiful atmosphere, perfectly evoking the title of the track itself in fact.
Unfortunately, after that comes "If We Hold On Together", the inevitable song version of the theme from "Whispering Winds", performed by Diana Ross. In most respects - the melody, the orchestral accompaniment, even the production and Ross's vocals - it's very pleasant - but in one key respect, it is such an abomination that it's scarcely believable. Even by the unique standards of banality set by lyricist Will Jennings over the years, it has truly the most indescribably bad words one can imagine any song has ever had. I said they're indescribable, and so they are - I'll let Mr Jennings's work speak for itself. "Live Your Story / Faith Hope and Glory." "Souls in the wind must learn how to bend / Seek out a star, hold on to the end." The pièce de resistance: "Valley, mountain / There is a fountain / Washes our tears all away / Words are saying / People are praying / Please let us come home to stay."
"Foraging for Food" opens with a string version of the expansive theme from the first cue, before a sweeping version of the romantic theme, and then some delightful comic music led by a lovely oboe theme. The longest track of all is "The Rescue / Discovery of the Great Valley", which opens in very dark style with some thunderously ominous music before a welcome reprise of the heavenly choral music which was such a highlight earlier in the score, a burst of the "If We Hold On Together" theme as sweeping as anything in the score, and then a sustained passage of darker music. Horner keeps it all melodic, but this is very effectively menacing, and contains some wonderful action music. The half-way point of the cue ushers in a musical emodiment of wonderment, with some soaring, searingly attractive music beautifully capturing a sense of adventure and a spirit of fun.
The score concludes with a great suite for the end credits, understandably dominated by the theme from the song, but also including nice arrangements of the majority of the score's other themes. The Land Before Time is one of James Horner's very finest achievements - all of his scores for animations are good, a couple are great, but this one is something else. It stands alongside his greatest contributions to film music and is an essential ingredient in any Horner fan's collection.