Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Spirituality of Dinosaurs?

My son loves dinosaurs. So much so that we've been watching The Land Before Time daily for the past week. It was one of my favorites when I was young and I hope it becomes one of his. The Land Before Time is a 1988 animated film about a group of dinosaurs, led by Littlefoot (an Apatosaurus), fleeing famine in search of the Great Valley, a Utopian dinosaur paradise.

[Though odd, comical, and completely unrelated, as far as I've researched this was a serious picture that was posted on the Dinosaur entry on Conservpedia and has since been taken down. Read more about Dinosaur riding Jesus here. There is another picture floating around the internet of Jesus riding a Dinosaur that is fake and meant to mock creationists.]

The Land Before Time is a moving film and has always been a favorite of mine and my sister while we were growing up. It is an inspiring film which teaches young children the value of courage during hardship, the importance of friendship, and tackles the issue of prejudices.

While trekking towards the Great Valley, Littlefoot's mother is fatally injured by a Sharptooth (T-Rex) attack. Littlefoot, distraught at the loss of his mother, encounters Rooter, an aging Sauropelta, who appears briefly in the film to comfort him over his loss. Here is the film script.
Rooter: Hey! What's going on here?
[Littlefoot cries]
Rooter: What's your problem? You're not hurt.
Littlefoot: It's not fair! She should have known better! That Sharptooth... It's all her fault!...
Rooter: All who's fault?
Littlefoot: Mother's!
Rooter: Oh... I see. I see.
Littlefoot: Why'd I wander so far from home...?
Rooter: Oh, it's not your fault. It's not your mother's fault. Now, you pay attention to old Rooter: it is nobody's fault. The Great Circle of Life has begun, but, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.
Littlefoot: What am I gonna do? I miss her so much.
Rooter: And you'll always miss her. But she'll always be with you, as long as you remember the things she taught you. You'll never really be apart, for you're still a part of each other.
Littlefoot: My tummy hurts.
Rooter: Well, that, too, will go in time, little fella. Only in time.
To most, this may seem as a routine Hollywood comfort scene meant to lighten the mood while avoiding mention of the Big 'G' or even 'G' junior (a.k.a. Jesus Christ). It's short, sweet and, to a child with a short attention span, quickly forgotten. But after taking a course in Religion in Popular Media by the inspiring Rabbi Rami, I can't watch a movie without analyzing it for its religious and spiritual symbolism.

Rooter: It is nobody's fault.

No one (not even higher powers) caused Littlefoot to lose his mother. It is nobody's fault. This is one of the most powerful lines in the film which addresses the loss of a loved one to young children who often seek to blame themselves (or others) for deaths, divorce, or parental abandonment. In a tender period in their lives it is comforting to know that when someone close dies, it is nobody's fault, not even God's. These things just happen.

Rooter: The Great Circle of Life has begun, but, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.

Here is where we get into the nitty gritty. This can be interpreted as a water down explanation of the Monotheistic afterlife but the phrase Circle of Life implies that those who pass on will return maybe even in a different form, but return none the less as if caught in a circle. The Circle of Life was popularized by the 1994 Disney animated film, The Lion King. In essence, the Circle of Life describes the interconnectedness of all life and that the Spirit shared by all living beings stays intact even after the death of the physical body. This is a Pantheistic (and even Panentheistic) concept which I have found best described in Hindu terminology: there is but one spirit/reality (Brahman), and all that exists has this spirit deep within themselves. Conscious creatures like ourselves can seek out and uncover this universal, cosmic spirit by peeling back the layers of our ego to reveal our Atman, our True Self. Our individual bodies may die away but our core is still intact. Eventually, when we fully realize our true state (according to this belief) we break free from the circle, moksha. There is no 'end' in a circle so one could say that Rooter is describing Pantheism (or Panentheism, although I have yet to fully study the differences between the two). You can even go so far to say that Rooter is a Pantheist, but of course I'm sure the film makers were trying for more of a comfort instead of a spiritual scene.

Rooter: You'll never really be apart, for you're still a part of each other.

Another line that restates that they share the same source (Brahman) but their egos keep them from fully realizing that they are a part of each other. Of course this could all be rubbish and I'm probably making a big deal of out of nothing but I love analyzing religion in film and tv.

The theme of life from death (the circle of Life) is best illustrated in my favorite film of all time, The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's 2006 sci-fi film about one man's quest to save the woman he loves. I wrote a paper analyzing the spiritual and religious symbolism on the film for my Religion in Popular Media class. It can be found in three parts, here. I plan on writing a new updated version that correlates with my current views.

Although poor old Rooter had a tiny part in the Land Before Time, his comforting words echo throughout the film. No matter what Littlefoot and his friends had to endure they never had to endure alone. This I believe is the heart of the film: though life may be tough at times, there will always be someone there to guide and comfort you.

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