You Can Thank Steven Spielberg For One Of Animation's Most Heartbreaking Moments

Amidst Disney Animation's creative and financial struggles in the years leading up to the Disney Renaissance in the 1980s, former Disney animator Don Bluth emerged as an exciting voice in the world of American animated storytelling. His directorial efforts in that decade were not just pleasing to the eye; they were willing to be scary and heartbreaking in a way that the Mouse House had shied away from since Walt Disney's death in 1966.

Bluth's 1988 animated film, "The Land Before Time," perfectly illustrates the way his movies balanced light and darkness during this period. Its prehistoric story begins with a herd of Apatosauruses, or "Longnecks," seeking to escape a terrible famine by traveling to a mythical fertile land known as the Great Valley. However, tragedy strikes when the group's youngest member, Littlefoot, is separated from the others after an earthquake hits, and his mother sacrifices her life to save him from a Tyrannosaurus rex, or "Sharptooth." It's a scene that ranks up there with Mufasa's death in "The Lion King" among animation's saddest moments.

And speaking of the "Circle of Life"...

"The Great Circle of Life"

As Bluth explained to Vulture in 2020, this scene might've been dropped from the film, had it not been for the intervention of one of the movie's executive producers — a fellow by the name of Steven Spielberg:

"I remember we came to that moment in 'The Land Before Time,' and everyone said, 'Oh, this is too hard — no, no, we don't want kids to see this.' It was Steven Spielberg who said, 'Wait a minute.' We all are born, we all live to a certain age, and then we all go. And someday we come back again. Everyone has to go through it. [I recall Spielberg saying] 'This is a moment called the great circle of life.'

"In all of our lives, there's danger, whether it's danger to your health or danger by driving a car or by anything else at all — there's always danger. So your cleverness, and how you face that danger, plays a really important part in each of our lives."

"The Land Before Time" doesn't soft-pedal the emotional arc of this turn-of-events, either. It starts with the clash between the Sharptooth and Littlefoot's mother, which is intense and brutal. At one point, you can even see their silhouettes as the former tears a chunk of flesh out of the latter's back. Later, as it rains and the day fades to night, Littlefoot watches his mother pass away right before his very eyes, as opposed to her dying off-screen. "The Land Before Time" then goes on to devote a significant amount of its short 69-minute runtime to showing Littlefoot in mourning as he grieves her death (to make sure the audience feels the full weight of this loss).

Let Kids Movies Be Sad

Bluth went on to explain why it's necessary for family-friendly animated films to include elements like this, citing his own experience watching the scene where the titular character's mother dies in "Bambi" as a kid:

"I saw it sitting in a theater next to my own mother. What that scene did was prepare me for the moment when that would happen to my mother. She wouldn't be shot by a hunter, but she would depart. And when we were making 'The Land Before Time,' we knew the mother was going to depart, and had to, for Littlefoot to grow up. Mothers have to leave their children, or they won't grow up. That is a human thing."

While recent animated films of the Disney and Pixar variety can sometimes feel calculated in the way they aspire to reduce viewers to tears (and, to be fair, some of them are guilty of doing just that), Bluth's right about it being important for them to keep going to those dark and sad places all the same. Much like it's good for animated kids movies to be spooky and weird enough to challenge their youngest audience members, it's vital that they do their part to prepare children for how to deal with future hardships in their lives (and, in the case of adults, perhaps bring them some closure for their own real-life losses). It's why "The Land Before Time" continues to resonate with me and so many others who grew up watching it years later.