Though it’s been diluted by umpteen sequels (none of which featured any input from James Horner or reprises of his themes) The Land Before Time was one of the stronger non-Disney animated films of the 1980’s, telling a surprisingly dark story of baby dinosaurs struggling to survive in a desolate world.
James Horner had forged a successful partnership with animator Don Bluth with An American Tail, and it was therefore no surprise to see his name on the marquee. What was surprising was the end result: Horner bestowed the film with one of the most powerful, magical, and complex scores he ever penned. There are at least four themes and even more subthemes and motifs that run throughout the 50-minute album, and Horner weaves them in and out of the music with a deft hand, resulting in a richly layered musical experience that rewards repeat listens.
Unlike many animated films, the score is not chopped up into tiny tracks, nor is there any real mickey-mousing, save for a brief comedic interlude in track three. Instead, Horner designed the music as a set of lengthy suites, giving it space to breathe and grow. The results are stunning: “The Great Migration,” for example, builds from a quiet intimate opening to a magnificent statement of one of the themes, before ending on an intimate note. “The Rescue/Disocvery of the Great Valley” moves from menace to all-out action to triumphant resolution in its thirteen minutes, and always the score’s themes are in dialogue with one another, building and changing.
The Diana Ross song “If We Hold On Together” turns one of the score’s more melancholy themes into an uplifting pop ballad; the instrumental portion of the tune is a bit dated, but it holds up well otherwise. The magnificent “End Credits” suite follows it in the movie, but is expanded on album to its full length (only the last two minutes are heard during the film) and features marvellous reprises of the major themes before ending on a solumn, melancholy note.
The Land Before Time has become a minor collectible since the end of its print run, and prices of $30 and up are common on eBay. Yet it’s well worth seeking out for anyone interested in a powerful and complex orchestral listening experience, and comes with the highest of recommendations. A sweeping and magical work of magnificent power and scope, it remains James Horner’s finest animation score and one of his greatest works.