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3:AM Cult Hero: Don Bluth


“Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it’s there.”

Disney made it’s name by making high-quality animation – their films were not just well drawn, but they had unforgettable characters and unforgettable scenes. Disney had its golden age between 1937 and 1942 when it released animated masterpieces like Snow White, Pinnochio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. By the 1970s, much of the magic had gone out of their films. Walt died in 1966 and took much of the magic with him, and the animation team was smaller and resorted to cheaper processes and shortcuts to make their animated features.

Don Bluth was one animator at Disney who wanted to bring some of the magic and artistry back to animated films. He ended up leaving Disney in 1979 along with several others to form his own studio. Bluth and the others started work on an animated film that showed how artistic animated films could be. The result was Bluth’s underrated masterpiece The Secret of Nimh (pictured above)

Nimh, like Disney’s The Rescuers that Bluth had been an animator for, portrayed mice as living in a civilized world of their own unknown to humans. While Nimh made a profit at the box-office it was mostly overlooked by the public. It was released a month after Stephen Spielberg’s E. T., which became the top-grossing film up to that time.

Spielberg was shown Nimh by his friend Jerry Goldsmith, who composed the music for the film, and was greatly impressed. Spielberg got in touch with Bluth and they collaborated on another civilized mice film – An American Tail. It ended up being the most successful non-Disney animated film at the time – even outperforming Disney’s attempt at a civilized mice Great Mouse Detective that was released five months before Tail.

Bluth’s next film, done in collaboration with George Lucas, did even better. The Land Before Time outdid Disney’s Oliver and Company – released the same day, oddly enough. By this time, Disney was putting more and more money into it’s animation studio thanks to changes in management and the great success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit which they co-produced with Spielberg. Bluth’s next film All Dogs Go To Heaven would come out the same day as Disney’s The Little Mermaid – and the latter became one of the most successful animated films of all time and began the “Disney Renaissance” that lasted through the 1990s.

During this time, Bluth’s films suffered under both a reduced staff and raised expectations set by Disney. All of the films he made through the 90s: Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble in the Penguin were critical and box-office failures, with much of the criticisms being that the films were cheap and lacking especially compared to the high-quality work Disney was putting out.

Bluth had resisted the Disney formula of a princess in despair until he was offered a saving grace from Fox Animated Studios which wanted to be a Disney competitor. Bluth directed Anastasia which use many of the common tropes of the Disney-renaissance films – a sassy princess, a great villain and good songs.

Anastasia turned a profit, but Bluth’s next project for Fox, Titan A. E. was a financial failure, despite good reviews. Titan made so little that Fox was forced to close its animated studio, although it’s been started up again recently. Bluth hasn’t returned to making films and rarely gives interviews, although he does give animation tutorials on his website.

Bluth’s good films are emotional and visually striking. The main characters in them are heroic and brave, but they’re also afraid and lonely, making their successes all the more triumphant. The heroes (or heroine in Nimh) are separated from their loved ones and end up reunited with them, and in trying to reunite with them, they become stronger and discover abilities within them they didn’t know they had.

Don Bluth loved Snow White and Pinnochio. He felt Disney had abandoned the great artistry of old and he wanted to make films as good as them. He succeeded, although he wasn’t prepared for the Disney renaissance that was to come.

(note: Bluth did not keep the sequel rights for any of his films and the studios that owned his first films have produced direct-to-video sequels without his involvement. The Land Before Time is infamous for having twelve direct-to-video sequels produced by Universal. None of them have received the praise the original films received and are not worth watching)

MORE: Don Bluth’s website, YouTube page // Secret of Nimh: Interview with Bluth about NIMH, Excerpt, Excerpt // American Tail: ‘Somewhere Out There’, Excerpt // Land Before Time: Exerpt // Siskel and Ebert review Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, Pebble and the Penguin // Anastasia: “In the Dark of the Night” // Ebert and Roeper review Titan A. E

By Day, Robert O’Connor is a mild-mannered reporter for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He’s a journalist, musician, adventurer and a dozen other things. He’s from St. Paul, Minnesota – a city that knows how to keep its secrets. His work has appeared in Hot Press, Time Out Chicago, The New Indian Express, KFAI, the Chi-Town Daily News and a few other places.

First posted: Tuesday, November 30th, 2010.

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