Two weeks ago, composer James Horner died after his private plane crashed in Southern California. He was 61, two decades younger than John Wiliams but with a resume not unlike the Maestro’s. A composer whose understated presence made his career more legend than legendary, Horner possessed an under-the-radar kind of genius that, short of two Oscar wins, seemed obvious only in hindsight. Braveheart, Glory, Titanic, Field of Dreams, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and The New World are all stunning examples of strong thematic composition, yet even Horner’s smaller ventures — in scores for Wolfen, Cocoon, or Battle Beyond the Stars — raised genre fare above B-movie status.
Horner could make the most out of the smallest things; he often had to, especially if that overnight deadline for Aliens is to be believed. He had deftness with nuance and complexity while always inviting the audience into those ideas, and nowhere is this more true than in The Land Before Time. Since 1988, the direct-to-video franchise has turned into sequelized cotton candy, however all 69 minutes of Don Bluth’s original dinosaur odyssey hold up remarkably well. The hand-drawn animations balance realistic musculature and models with inviting character designs, and its story — where five dinosaurs brave the aftermath of a earthquake to reunite with their parents — is rich with character and emotion.
The music follows accordingly. Beginning with “The Great Migration,” Horner’s music churns and bubbles with brass-driven passages both distressed and majestic as the title card rises from prehistoric waters teeming with life. Littlefoot the “longneck” and Cera the “three horn” will spend the next hour or so traversing craggy mountainsides and dank swamplands but the journey begins below the surface with turtles and plesiosaurs and crustaceans. This is a story of transition, of creatures familiar if not entirely known, and Horner will draw again and again on his primordial chromatic soup that makes the most out of uncertainty.
The “land” in The Land Before Time is already changing, and Horner telegraphs changes to come in this introduction, most personally, the death of Littlefoot’s mother. The relationship between Littlefoot and his mother is nestled inside an angelic chorus, with feather-weight singing that’s bouncy and vibrant like a Saint-Saëns B theme. When Littlefoot’s mother is killed fighting off the feral Tyrannosaurus Sharptooth, we’ve spent no more than 20 minutes with her onscreen and her death is still genuinely tragic. And it’s because of Horner’s cue that such a fleeting relationship carries such depth and tenderness. Bluth and Horner able to tap into a rich, efficient economy of emotion and unlike other instances of animated matricide (Bambi, The Fox and the Hound, etc.), the death of Littlefoot’s mother is played for reflection and development rather than shock value or a cheap plot device. That’s a rarity.
Enter Diana Ross. The lead singer of The Supremes co-wrote the score’s third theme with Horner to create a song that’s both A) the only one in the first The Land Before Time and B) the only one in any Land Before Time that isn’t eminently disposable. The result is “If We Hold On Together,” a somber, earnest ballad that’s constantly rising and falling. Ross’s singing lifts the lyrics, which otherwise read like fortune cookie aphorisms on paper. She stretches a final chorus of “dreams see us through to forever /as high as souls can fly /the clouds roll by /for you and I” with sadness and inevitability, an acceptance of both the grandeur and sorrow inherent in the circle of life. What separates Ross and Horner’s song from “It Takes All Sorts” is that it contains none of the happy-go-lucky myopia the franchise would adopt.
True to the thematic master he was, Horner repeats and varies his themes. “Discovery of the Great Valley” has a triumphant rendition of “The Great Migration” that’s tapered off with uneasy callbacks to Littlefoot’s mother, and “Whispering Wind” is a nine-minute master class on subtlety, an emotional seesaw held together by solo oboe and an exquisite children’s choir. The Land Before Time is as lean as they come, and “Whispering Wind” sticks out in length because of the heavy lifting it has to do. Birth precedes loss precedes friendship precedes danger, and all in a manner of minutes. Horner’s flexibility allowed him to adapt to whatever a project demanded but in The Land Before Time, he and Bluth are moving in step with one another, in tune with their respective mediums for an end product that’s bursting with life.
In her praise for James Horner’s music, Sophie Monks Kaufman observed that The Land Before Time is “the sound of an absence made present.” Indeed, this is a story about change, where orphaned children turn footprints into makeshift beds and fleeting visions of loved ones disappear into wisps of clouds. Pixar still garners praise for speaking to kids and their parents alike but Don Bluth and James Horner were doing that 30 years ago with talking dinosaurs and “tree stars,” all woven into the greater tapestry of life.