Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Refugees Teach the Artist: Remembering The Land Before Time.

Let's travel back in time, shall we....

The year is 1988.
     I am 8 years old and completely convinced that my grown up life will be spent in merriment among the colorful and diverse group of puppeteers at the Jim Henson Studios.  I never once thought in the slightest that I would have any other profession nor had I drew very many  pictures up to that point in my life. I didn't consider myself an artist. I considered myself an aspiring  puppeteer and fancied myself quite good at it.

     I had made a puppet stage out of a Whirlpool dishwasher box and had a small collection of  puppets that my parents had given to me among the very many puppets I had made from old socks.  I used to perform puppet shows from my family from plays I would get at the school library or plays that I had been a part of in my church that I still had copies of.  I can only imagine what they thought of all this, but I certainly thought my shows were AMAZING. :0)
Even that year for Christmas, I received a very very  cool gift from Santa. It was my very own ventriloquists dummy puppet.  He was modeled after the iconic Mortimer Snerd. His name was Corky and he was a farmer, at least he looked like a country farmer. I didn't name him. The puppet company that made him I think names the puppets. I suppose I could have changed the name if I wanted, but I was OK with Corky.  I was so very excited about it and I practiced all the time to become very good at "throwing my voice."  My second greatest role model at that time in my life was Sheri Lewis and I can remember watching her Christmas Specials growing up.  She was an amazingly talented performer and a brilliantly creative puppeteer.
I wanted to be just like her.  So I practiced and practiced ventriloquism and (in my very humble opinion) became pretty good at it.  So much so that aside from the countless family and friends performances, I performed in front of a large audience of strangers at 2 separate School Talent shows.  Not bad for a slightly ambitious 4th Grader, huh.

     I still posses this relic from my childhood and Corky lives on a bookshelf in my studio apartment.   He currently is wearing my Red Nose from Red Nose Day this year because he is currently feeling  clownish and humorous.  I suppose, if I wanted, I could train up those rusty ventriloquism skills of mine and  it might be a fun party trick to have up one's sleeve, but I digress.  We should return to the year 1988.

     There were 2 very good animated features that were being released that holiday season: Disney's Oliver and Company (a modernized Dickens's Classic Oliver Twist told from the point of view of Dogs and Cats in New York City) and Bluth Studios' The Land Before Time (a story of the journey of a motley crew of dinosaurs that get  separated from their families and their journey to find them.)  I was very excited about both and definitely wanted to see both, but when you are 8, you don't always get to see all of the films you would like to, so you have to order them in the order that you are most excited about them.  If having to choose, Oliver and Company was my number one choice.  (Keep in mind this was many many moons before I dreamed of being a Disney animator, animation geek, Disney Nerd or a visual artist in general.)

     I don't think my parents wanted to see either film, nor did any of my siblings, because they did something that year that was unprecedented:  they dropped me off at the Mall Cinema-Plex somewhere in Virginia and allowed me to go see the movie on my own.  I was so elated that I got to do this. It made me feel like I was a "Big Kid" and it was probably the planted seed that made me so excited to do things on my own.  It was certainly a defining moment that underwrote my high regard for personal Independence.  I still go to movies alone to this day and I thoroughly enjoy that experience.  It's almost like stolen time.  In any case, I had my ticket stub for Oliver and Company and headed down the movie theater hallway to my theater.  I remember being surrounded by so many people as they came and went. It wasn't overwhelming at all for me to be in that crowd of complete strangers hustling and bustling during the Holiday Season going to see whatever movie they had chosen that evening.  I remember when I came up to my theater that was playing Oliver and Company, it was directly across from the theater that was playing The Land Before Time and I had a small moment of shoulder angels and devils.  I had, for a moment, considered going to see Land Before Time instead.  I felt mischievous because I had a ticket for a different film, even though when I was older I understood that all the movie tickets cost the same.  However, when I was 8, I wasn't completely certain of that. I used to think that different films cost different based on their popularity. I have no idea why I thought this, but I had. So I was going to theater hop over to Land Before Time after watching Oliver and Company. I ultimately decided the adventure too risky so I just saw the movie I had come there to see.  I ultimately was very glad I decided on Oliver and Company because it was decades before the film was allowed to be released for Home Video. It was apparently held up in disputes over copyright issues.  So I was glad to have seen it when I did, because otherwise I would have been an adult when I would have seen it first.

     It's ironic that the film that was my second choice had far more of an impact on me as an artist today.

     The Land Before Time was eventually released on Home Video the following year and my parents I believe rented the movie then eventually bought me the film for a Christmas or a Birthday.  I still have the same VHS copy and it still plays pretty well in the VCR. I kept it over the years because not only was it a wonderful film that I still enjoy to this very day, but also it's kind of a sentimental treasure that I can't seem
to let myself part with, so it's still around.

     So I watched/listened to the Land Before Time last week as I was cooking in the kitchen and I had an intriguing epiphany.  I think the reason I love the film so much is that it's story is so visceral, still culturally relevant, and told in a way that makes it's message something that everyone of every culture and age can understand completely.

     For those of you out there that have never seen the original film (I'm not talking about it's 20 million money suckering sequels. I'm talking about the very first film,) it is the emotional story about a group of unlikely young dinosaurs that are separated form their families by a predator, The "Sharptooth" (a T-Rex) and an Earthquake that splits the land in half leaving the young dinosaurs on one side of the divide and their
families on the other.
The young dinosaurs are then forced to go on what is seemingly a perilous journey to not only find their families again, but also to find "The Great Valley," a land rich with green food that is a stark contrast to the barren landscapes they are now doomed to tread upon to find their way there.  It's a very emotional and heartbreaking film, very powerful animation that speaks to the entirety of the human race.  I remember being so very upset when Littlefoot, the young Brontosaurus protagonist, looses his mother in the beginning of the film.
I was traumatized and I can remember crying when it happened. I couldn't imagine anyone having to  grow up without their parents.  I admit, even still, when I watch the  film, even though I know what is going to happen, it still grabs at my heartstrings and can move me to tears when Littlefoot hears his mother's voice in reflections or in the clouds in the sky or even in the long cast shadow of his own body. His heartache is felt universally and it still gets to me when I watch it.

     When you read between the lines, The Land Before Time is a Refugee's story.  It  tells the story of a War-torn country from the perspective on a young child that lives in such a dangerous environment.  The young dinosaurs are essentially orphaned by War which, in the film, is represented by predators, like the Sharptooth, and natural disasters, like the earthquake and the volcano.  In a world where none of the dinosaurs intermingle with any other dinosaur that is not of their own kind, these young dinosaurs who have no one else are quite literally thrown together with each other and they have to work through their differences to survive and find a way back to their families.  Its a very powerful analogy that tells of the vigilance of young spirits and the Strength in diversity, and the power of determination and perseverance in the face of the something quite daunting and the seeming impossibility that they would survive.

      What impacts me most about watching this film recently is that it has reminded me of the reasons I chose to work in Children's media to begin with.  The opportunity to tell stories with rich and powerful messages on a level that EVERYONE absolutely EVERYONE in every part of the World can understand, appreciate and be enriched, touched or impacted by in some way.  It's not an easy task to do and any children's or young adult author will tell you it's much easier to write a novel for adults than it is to write for younger audiences.  The reason is your limitation on words.  You have to tell you story with fewer words and still make it interesting, impact-full and powerful.  It's quite a challenge and there are several crazy folks out there, such as myself, that get excited about taking up that particular challenge.

     Standing in my kitchen and listening to that powerful story again reminded about why I chose to work in this field and refreshed my fervor to do it.  It reminded me of my love for the chance to tell something  universally; something that ANYONE could understand.  It was a reminder from my past as to why I  have chosen this journey I am on, sometimes seeming impossible and daunting.

     It was like a voice form the sky saying,"Remember who you are." Lol.  However that is from a different animated film all together.

     But, like Little foot and his companions, I continue through the barren wastelands and onward with hope to the Great Valley, or in my case New York, to see where the next "leg" of my journey takes me. It's a refreshing breath of crisp cool air to watch this film again and makes me very excited about my move this year.

     As Littlefoot's mother says in the film,"Somethings you see with your eyes, others you see with your heart."

     To all my friends out there that have not as of yet seen this charming gem, I encourage you to watch it.
The Land Before Time is a wonderful piece of animated cinema that everyone should see and enjoy.
I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I have over the years.

until next time, friends...
Keep sketching, keep thinking, keep laughing and most important of all, 
keep making art.