Universal comes through with a not-too-bad installment in yet another direct-to-video children's series. Like they always say, I guess the eighth time is the charm…
Facts of the Case
This installment in the unending Land Before Time series focuses mostly on the relationship between Ducky (voice of Aria Noelle Curzon) and Spike (voice of Rob Paulsen). For those who missed the first seven installments, Ducky is a baby duckbill dinosaur, and Spike is a baby stegosaurus who lives with Ducky's family since his parents were killed long ago. That being the case, some sibling rivalry has erupted between Ducky and Spike. Ducky is goaded on by Cera (voice of Anndi McAfee), who in typical triceratops fashion teaches Ducky the joys of being very angry for no apparent reason. When a traveling herd of stegosauruses (stegosauri? Whatever.) pass through the Great Valley, Spike feels for the first time that he is not just an oddball, that he has friends just like him. (Or at least that's what I think he feels—it's hard to tell, because Spike alone amongst all these dinosaurs cannot talk. I've never figured that out…)
Anyway, about this time it starts to snow in the Great Valley. None of the dinosaurs has ever seen snow before, and they are caught unawares—soon all of their food is covered up and inaccessible. Stegosaur…er, those visiting dinosaurs eat too much, and since they are just guests in the valley they move along. Spike goes with them, just on a temporary basis.
After a while, Ducky begins to miss Spike, and sets out to find him. The rest of the dinosaur kids follow to try to rescue her. (Him? It? Whatever.) They are aided by Mr. Thicknose (Robert Guillaume—Benson—I'm not making this up), their teacher and a dinosaur widely recognized as the oldest and wisest in the valley—or at least he was, until he was exposed as a hyperbolic bloviator, teller of tall tales, and general BSer.
Will the kids save Ducky and find Spike? Will they find food to feed their families until the snow melts? Will Mr. Thicknose redeem himself? Will we have numerous opportunities to explore the true meaning of family and friendship? I think you know the answers already.
As far as direct-to-video animated dinosaur kiddie flicks go, this one is actually not too bad. The storyline, while not terribly original and laden with clichès, is interesting and far more believable than the last outing in the series. Along the way there are some songs that kids will find memorable. There are also some good lessons for kids about how they view and treat their families and friends.
The voice acting in this installment is quite good. The cast is pretty much the same as in the previous installment, including the dependable Anndi McAfee as Cera the triceratops. Robert Guillaume is good in his role as Mr. Thicknose, although the character as written is a bit too whiny and doesn't make good use of him. The rest of the cast turn in solid performances as well. The voice acting is not overdone, but is definitely pitched to the younger audience.
The video quality of this Universal release is excellent. Colors are sharp and vivid, and there are almost no discernible defects. There is the occasional bit of aliasing, jagged lines instead of smooth curves, but even this is not severe or terribly detrimental. Overall, this is a very good transfer that will allow you to appreciate the work that went into the animation. Backgrounds are richly detailed and colorful, and the characters themselves seem to be a lot more detailed and three-dimensional than they were in The Land Before Time VII. A lot of attention is paid to lighting and shadowing effects for various characters at various times of day. The animation as a whole seems to be significantly better than it was in that dismal flick.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is not a "show-off" disc to demonstrate the capabilities of your surround system for your pals. However, the audio mix is very adequate for this movie. Dialogue comes through sharp and clear, there is no soundtrack hiss or other defects, and there is even a little bit of activity from the surround channels. They are most often used for light ambient jungle sounds and the cheerful songs that these dinosaurs are prone to sing, but they are also put to good use during a blizzard scene.
Again unlike the previous chapter in the saga, there is a respectable collection of extra content on this disc. There is the "How Do I Find Things" feature which is becoming standard on Universal children's titles. This feature may be useful in teaching your kids how to run the DVD player, but on the other hand it may be more information than you want them to have. There is a section entitled "Littlefoot's Puzzles," where kids can assemble a simple six-piece jigsaw puzzle of a scene from the movie. This might have been more challenging for them if the pieces weren't provided in order, but other than that it's not a bad try. "Seek and Find" is a little trickier, and asks kids to find various shapes or objects in a still image from the movie. There are two "Sing-Along Songs," essentially karaoke versions of two of the original songs from the feature presentation. There is another instructional segment, telling kids that they can put the DVD in their computer and access even more fun stuff. Again, this may be more information than you want your kids to have, especially if you will then need to explain to them that you don't have a DVD-ROM drive and that they can't see all the fun stuff after all. As you might guess, there is also DVD-ROM content provided. Finally, among the useful special features there is a Characters and Filmmaker section.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In addition to the special features listed above, there are two "special features" that I found quite annoying. The first is Universal's habitual "Recommendations" section. As usual, this is nothing but a showcase of thumbnails of boxes for other DVDs. As I have stated in the past, Universal needs to either give us actual trailers, or do away with this feature entirely; as it is, these sections are usually totally worthless. This case is a slight exception to the rule, as we do get one trailer, for the original The Land Before Time.
The other "special" feature that chapped my hide was entitled "Jump Start." This is nothing but a commercial for Jump Start educational software. It may be an excellent product that achieves a worthy goal, but I maintain my strong objection to any non-DVD or non-movie related advertising on a DVD.
It's not great art, but it's a reasonably entertaining movie for your kids with a reasonably good message. If you have kids, this may be worth a look.
Universal, the disc, and movie are all acquitted.
We stand adjourned.
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