The Original Version Of The Land Before Time Was Way Too Scary For Kids

As a child of the '90s, I experienced my first heartbreak the way countless other kids of a certain generation did: bawling my eyes out at the beginning of "The Land Before Time." Don Bluth's classic 1988 film is a lot of fun, but it's utterly poignant and terrifying too. Early on, the dinosaurs face down a Sharptooth, aka a Tyrannosaurus rex, in a harrowing scene. As if that's not enough, the herd is then separated by a massive earthquake, which grievously injures our hero Littlefoot's (Gabriel Damon) poor mama.

"The Land Before Time" kicks off its 14-film franchise with a parental death scene that rivals anything Disney ever pulled off during its prime mom-killing years. Littlefoot finds his mom in her last moments during a dark and rainy night. As James Horner's somber score drifts in, she whispers to him, telling him she'll always be with him, even if he can't see her. The scene is utterly heartbreaking, made all the more emotional by Damon's cries of "Mother!" as she stops moving.

The final version cut 11 frightening minutes

Once you've dried your eyes, strap in for some truly upsetting news. Apparently, the original version of "The Land Before Time" was even more traumatizing than this. Rumors about a longer cut of the movie have been floating around the internet for ages, with Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson reportedly seeing an 80-minute-long cut of the film before the general public witnessed the 69-minute version we know and love today.

Apparently, "The Land Before Time" lost an eighth of its runtime because some of its original sequences were simply deemed too frightening for children. John Cawley's book "The Animated Films of Don Bluth" features an excerpt from an old issue of ANIMATION Magazine that details the exact changes made. The excerpted article says that 19 scenes were cut in total, "including front-on scenes portraying the children in severe jeopardy and distress." Some characters' screams were also apparently re-recorded with less emotionally intense audio, though it's unclear how much that last part helped: Cera's (Candace Hutson) exclamations during the earthquake scene are still ringing in my ears all these years later.

In an interview with Alternative Magazine Online, Sullivan Bluth Studios (later Don Bluth Entertainment) co-founder Gary Goldman admitted that the movie went through some major alterations before release, saying:

"We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time. Cuts were made while we were in production and even more were made after we delivered the film to make it a kid friendly G-rated film."

Since the cuts were made at different times throughout the making of the movie, it's possible that different versions of "The Land Before Time" exist in storyboard, script, and animated form. That means there are some deleted scenes we'll probably never see, since they may have been changed before the movie reached the visual stages of production.

Even the script was scary

The ANIMATION Magazine article cited in Cawley's book confirms as much, saying that executive producers Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas both had concerns about the "psychological damage" the T-rex attack sequence could have on small kids. Some hints about the original vision for the film can be found in a May 1987 draft of the script itself, which was apparently purchased from ScriptFly by a fan of the franchise and shared for public use on the "Land Before Time" fan forum and wiki. The script does not initially credit Stu Krieger, who is the film's credited writer, but instead has pages labeled "Don, John, Gary rewrite." Presumably, these refer to the film's producers, Bluth, Goldman, and John Pomeroy.

The script is a wholly engrossing read that claims on its first page that it incorporates revisions per meetings with Spielberg and Lucas. Though it's not the earliest draft of the film, it does feature both moments that didn't make the film's final cut and expansive descriptions of the most terrifying moments of "The Land Before Time." Much of the screenplay reads as a thriller, less like a kids' movie and more like "Jurassic Park."

"The eye, that horrible eye, is peering down from above," the screenplay describes on page 13 as Cera and Littlefoot (then named Thunderfoot) hide from the T-rex. Later, on page 17, the villain himself is described as "spilled to the very edge of the precipice-heading for certain death." The full traumatic sequence featuring the T-Rex attack, earthquake, and Littlefoot's mother's death is 10 pages in this script, taking up a large chunk of the overall document. Oddly, though, the death scene is more discreet on the page than in the final production. In this draft, the scene titled "Death of Mother" simply ends as "Mother disappears into the rain" and Littlefoot sees her footsteps wash away in the storm.

The end result is a good type of traumatizing

In the end, "The Land Before Time" was a beloved standard in so many homes not despite its sad and scary bits, but because of them. Don Bluth's heartfelt and somber animation style rang true in a way that other, candy-colored and ultra-chipper animated worlds sometimes didn't. No matter how much the team behind the film worked to make it kid-friendly, some pain and fear worked its way into the story, and I think that's okay. In the age of ubiquitous visual media, we all learn about the world through the ways we see it on screen. "The Land Before Time" taught us that it's okay to feel scared or lonely, but also curious and joyful and silly. It also taught its young fans that dinosaurs are cool as heck, and that's one non-traumatizing takeaway I for one will never forget.