Creator / Don Bluth

Donald Virgil Bluth (born September 13, 1937) is an animator and film director.

As much as many current computer-generated animated movies in the public mind either come from Pixar or DreamWorks Animation, in the late 70's through the 80's his works were considered one of the two main forces in traditional animation, between his studio and Disney.

His films are well-known for gorgeous character and effects animation and for a strong sense of fairy tale storytelling — and all that entails. His films tend to be darker (thematically and literally) than the standard Disney fare. They also overall tend to be much, much stranger. Even his not-so-good movies still maintain a cult audience, thanks to their crazy fever-dream logic and the fact that the animation is still really pretty.

Before he started directing, his first animation contribution was as an assistant on Sleeping Beauty. He would also assist on The Sword in the Stone, and would take a brief foray into TV projects (on such fare as Filmation's Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? and Sabrina and The Groovie Goolies (!)) before returning to Disney for Robin Hood in 1973. He also animated sequences in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (most notably, the scene where Rabbit is lost in the woods). But after working on things like Pete's Dragon, he became disillusioned with the direction in which Disney seemed to be going without Walt. He and a few animator friends struck out on their own to form their own independent studio.

Their goal was to remind Disney, and people in general, what painstakingly attentive hand-drawn animation could do. For a considerable amount of time, film-goers liked his films better than the movies Disney were releasing. He also produced the animation for two laserdisc-driven videogames, Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, still considered by many as classics.

However, towards the end of the 80's, miffed by Bluth's competition, Disney started treating their own animated films more seriously, and in doing so, is in a large part responsible for the Western Animation Renaissance. Though, sadly, he couldn't really enjoy it...

Ultimately, his films couldn't compete with Disney's juggernaut hits (which hit their stride with 1991's Beauty and the Beast), and became lost in the overcrowded "all the animation that isn't by Disney" market. For a while in the '90s, it looked like he was ready for a comeback, producing Anastasia and Titan A.E. for 20th Century Fox, but then, the rise of Pixar and Dreamworks became too much to compete with, creating a lull for traditional cel-drawn animated films that only in the past few years has abated. As of the fall of 2015, he is attempted to crowdsource an animated film based on Dragon's Lair; after failing on Kickstarter, he tried again and, after a shout out from The Nostalgia Critic, succeeded on Indiegogo that December. As of this writing, he also has seven other unknown film projects currently in development.

You can read his full biography (up to the early '90s) here. Reviews of his movies in chronological order can be read here.

Bluth's various productions include, in approximate chronological order:

  • Robin Hood: His first animation credit.
  • Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too: Animated the scene where Rabbit gets lost in the woods.
  • The Rescuers: His first animation directing credit for Disney.
  • Pete's Dragon (1977): Lead animator on Elliot. This is said to be the movie that made him disillusioned with Disney and he quit soon after.
  • The Small One: His last official project with Disney.
  • Banjo the Woodpile Cat: Started as a Christmas Special and was made sort of to prove Bluth's crew could create an animated film on their own. Mostly animated in Bluth's garage while he and his team were still at Disney, working on it on nights and weekends.
  • The Fox and the Hound: Left midway through production but animated several early scenes with Young Tod and Widow Tweed, he went uncredited.
  • The animated musical number in Xanadu.
  • The Secret Of NIMH: Based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. His first push for a return to the rich, classical style of the older Disney films, and his Breakthrough Hit. Many fans and critics still consider this his best film.
  • The Dragon's Lair game series, largely kicking off the Interactive Movie genre.
  • Space Ace, another Interactive Movie, being Dragon's Lair IN SPACE!
  • An American Tail: The first film he did alongside Steven Spielberg, and it was a huge financial success.
  • The Land Before Time: Also produced alongside Spielberg and George Lucas, making even more money than their previous collaboration.
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven: A film very loosely inspired by Beth Brown's 1943 book of the same name. Still highly regarded for the most part, but didn't do too well at the box office. To be fair, the other animated film released that day was The Little Mermaid...
  • Rock-A-Doodle: Considered a Jump the Shark film by most fans.
  • Thumbelina: It is Bluth's most stereotypically-Disney-like film prior to Anastasia.
  • A Troll in Central Park: A film which sadly alienated fans and non-fans alike due to it tasting like diabetes. It is considered Don Bluth's worst film by fans (Though it still sports a higher rating on Rotten Totatoes than his following film).
  • The Pebble and the Penguin: A film that was disowned by Bluth himself, because it suffered from abysmal animation, songs that do not advance the plot, lack of originality and lots of Executive Meddling during production. Also notably Don Bluth's lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Anastasia: Intended to be his big comeback and was marketed as such. To date, his last big hit.
  • Bartok the Magnificent: Direct-to-DVD, continuity-free sequel to the above and —this is important— the only sequel to one of his films he was ever actually involved with.
  • Titan A.E.: Failed at the box office but has since become a cult favorite.
  • An animated segment in the Scissor Sisters video for "Mary," loosely based on the story of Rapunzel.
  • He is credited as the director of a short animated film titled Gift of the Hoopoe, but in fact, he was only marginally involved with the film. He drew some of the storyboards for the film and was asked to direct, but turned down the request; the filmmakers credited him anyway, much to his annoyance.
  • He was in charge of the artistic design of the iPhone game Tapper World Tour.
  • He made two guest appearances on The Nostalgia Critic, first in one of the Critic's commercial reviews and again in a Dragon's Lair, where he plugged his Indiegogo campaign. Bluth and Gary Goldman were later interviewed for Doug Walker's other show, Shut Up and Talk.

In recent years, Bluth has slowed down quite a bit, though it may be premature to call him retired. He now resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he directs plays in his own theater, the Don Bluth Front Row Theater, and where he teaches animation classes from time to time. His website can be seen here, which includes animation tutorials and a forum in which you might even be able to talk to the man himself. You can also find his YouTube page here, and his Twitter page here.

A prequel film to Dragon's Lair has been floating around in Development Hell since the mid 2000s, with Bluth trying and failing to secure funding due to Hollywood's lack of faith in hand-drawn animation. He finally secured a budget through a successful Indiegogo campaign (which is still currently accepting donations) and began preliminary work in 2015.

Tropes associated with Don Bluth Productions Include:

  • Animated Adaptation: A few of this films are adaptations of (or at least very loosely inspired by) works from other mediums.
    • The Secret of NIMH, which is an adaptation of the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
    • All Dogs Go To Heaven, which is an In-Name-Only adaptation of the obscure 1943 book by Beth Brown.
    • Rock-A-Doodle is a very loose Adaptation Expansion of the tale of Chanticleer the Rooster, and is also an equally loose adaptation of the play Chanticler by the French writer Edmond Rostand.
    • Thumbelina, which is based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
    • Anastasia is a very loose adaptation of the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film Anastasia.
  • Auteur License: Went independent in an effort to gain one. Ironically, he got less control over his films with each success. Gary Goldman even said in an interview that after their company Sullivan-Bluth went bankrupt due to Rock-A-Doodle flopping, forcing them to sell the studio and reform into Don Bluth Productions in 1993, Don no longer owned his own company.
  • Author Appeal: Seems to really like Russian culture, as An American Tail opens up in Russia, and both Anastasia and its prequel Bartok the Magnificent are set in different periods of the country. (In fact, with the latter film, it started out because him and Gary Goldman wanted to do a film about Baba Yaga, a witch from Russian mythology, before the executives at Fox asked them to make a spinoff film involving Bartok. The two projects ended up being merged.)
  • Award-Bait Song: Occurs in almost all of his own animated features, and in fact Bluth codified it with "Somewhere Out There" in An American Tail.
  • Black and Gray Morality: All Dogs Go To Heaven (Charlie is an Anti-Hero who gradually grows to care for Anne-Marie, while Carface is unambiguously evil).
  • Black and White Morality: The Secret Of NIMH (Mrs. Brisby and her family are unambiguously good, while Jenner is unambiguously evil), An American Tail (Fievel, all the other mice and Tiger are unambiguously good, while Warren T. Rat and his cats are unambiguously evil) and Anastasia (Anastasia is unambiguously good, while Rasputin is unambiguously evil).
  • Break the Cutie: Anytime there's a cute, young protagonist, expect terrible things to happen to them before the end in most of Bluth's movies.
  • Carnivore Confusion
  • Cats Are Mean: Written in giant, neon letters. There are three notable exceptions: Banjo the Woodpile Cat, of course, and the nice cat characters in both An American Tail and Rock-A-Doodle.
    • That being said, dogs don't come off well in Bluth's work either (see Charlie and Carface - especially Carface - in All Dogs Go To Heaven and the vicious dogs who briefly chase the protagonists in Banjo The Woodpile Cat and A Troll In Central Park).
    • He's openly admitted that he likes dogs better than cats.
  • Cherubic Choir: Used in nearly every one of his films.
  • Covers Always Lie: The DVD covers to his films always use sub-par stock art and make the movie look far more cutesy than it really is. One of the worst victims, aside from the aforementioned "Family Fun Edition" of NIMH (perhaps better known for this because it has a more vocal fanbase), would have to be the cover of An American Tail, which shows Tanya as she appears in Fievel Goes West, a movie Bluth didn't even direct. And depending on which edition of the DVD it is, a lot of very minor background characters made it onto the cover, for whatever reason. Because the original VHS cover done by Drew Struzan apparently wasn't good enough anymore.
  • Creator Thumbprint: In addition to his distinct illustrative art style, nearly all of his movies include scene with a character moving (usually falling) across a background with a tight vanishing point on either end (the mice falling down the vent in The Secret of NIMH, Charlie ascending to heaven in All Dogs Go to Heaven, Bartok falling into the underworld in Anastasia).
  • Creepy Shadowed Undereyes: Used on almost every villain in his movies.
  • Cute Little Fangs
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • His darker works from The '80s compared to Disney at the time, although they're nowhere as dark as the films of his fellow independent animator, Ralph Bakshi. Which is saying something, when you consider the movies Disney put out in the 80's (The Little Mermaid excluded).
      • Bakshi infamously held a low opinion of Bluth for this very reason: he believed that, by making Disneyesque movies, Bluth had wasted an opportunity to do something truly revolutionary in the world of animation.
    • Anastasia is his only dark movie of The '90s, from what you can tell where one scene has Big Bad Rasputin selling his soul and turning into a skeleton for a brief moment.
    • Titan A.E., which actually got a PG-rating, while all of the previous ones got a G.
    • His own storytelling philosophy is that it doesn't matter how dark a story is; if it has a happy ending, kids will be able to take it.
  • Disney Acid Sequence
  • Disney Death
  • Disney School of Acting and Mime
  • Disney Villain Death
  • Down on the Farm: In Banjo the Woodpile Cat, The Secret Of NIMH and Rock-A-Doodle. Possibly a case of Write What You Know because Bluth grew up on a farm; this is definitely the case with Banjo, which was based on a childhood pet who got lost and later found his way back.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: And then some. In a lot of his films, this is probably the only thing that keeps his audiences from walking away severely depressed.
  • Evil Is Hammy: The Grand Duke from Rock-A-Doodle and the beetles from Thumbelina. All Bluth films listed above from A Troll In Central Park to Bartok the Magnificent use this trope too.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Mordroc from Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, The Grand Duke from Rock-A-Doodle, Gnorga from A Troll In Central Park, and Rasputin from Anastasia
  • Follow the Leader: Thumbelina and Anastasia were pretty blatant attempts to copy the Disney formula.
  • Furries Are Easier to Draw: But then again, Titan A.E. and Anastasia both had very well-animated humans as main characters (humans were usually simply rotoscoped in his earlier films). Titan A.E. also used a significant amount of rotoscoping.
  • Gone Horribly Right: His attempt to get Disney to start putting more effort into their films like they did in their golden age worked a little too well, as not only did he lose a lot of his growing audience to Disney's animated musical masterpieces, but he also quickly lost his special status as the only other animated movie maker out there, as many other studios tried to cash in on Disney's success by trying to make Disney esque animated features (with little more success than Bluth though).
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: If a character smokes in one of his movies, expect them to be a villain.
  • Gray Rain of Depression:
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Titan A.E. (the Drej are acting in premptive self-defense, while Corso is a very sympathetic Anti-Villain).
  • Happily Ever After
  • Humans Are Bastards: The scientists at the eponymous institute in The Secret Of NIMH. It doesn't really crop up much elsewhere, most humans are usually just ignorant in his other movies with animal protagonists.
  • Instant Index, Just Add Water: Water and related tropes are featured extremely prominently in his five first movies; in each of these there is at least one rain sequence, one under water sequence (there is even a specific under water musical theme in The Land Before Time), scenery where water is featured profusely (a watermill, a rusting cargo, sewers, docks...), several dramatic sequences and/or a climax involving water more or less directly...
  • Lighter and Softer: Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll In Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin compared to the last four movies before them. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are considered his biggest flops.
  • Love at First Sight: A trait of some of Bluth's projects.
  • Nice Mice: Probably the only exception in any of his movies would be Ms. Field Mouse from Thumbelina, and even then she's just a bit of a Jerk Ass. Plenty of villainous rats in his work though
  • Obviously Evil: Most of his villains.
  • Parental Abandonment: Littlefoot's mother was fatally wounded by Sharptooth, Anne-Marie is an orphan, and Anastasia's whole family was murdered, except for her Grandma who she got separated from, getting amnesia in the process, and ended up in an orphanage for 10 years of her life.
    • With Banjo the Woodpile Cat and Fievel, these abandonments were self-inflicted. Banjo ran away from home after being sick of constant punishment for getting into trouble, and Fievel was just too curious about the fish that washed up on the boat.
    • And then there's Titan A.E., where the entire planet Earth is blown up within the first fifteen minutes, leading some fans to call it the "ultimate Don Bluth parental abandonment movie".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Killer in All Dogs Go to Heaven, Hunch in Rock-A-Doodle, and Llort in A Troll in Central Park. And they're all voiced by Charles Nelson Reilly.
  • Random Events Plot: In addition to the inherent weirdness of his films, most of them tend to have rather bizarre, disjointed story structures. He has made some that have more straightforward stories, such as Dragon's Lair, Space Ace and The Land Before Time.
  • Reused Character Design: While his films aren't too bad about this, if you really pay attention a lot of his characters have similar facial features, body types and mannerisms. For example, compare Fievel to Edmond, Banjo the Woodpile Cat to Martin Brisby, Jacquimo to Henri, The Great Owl to The Grand Duke of Owls, one of the Duke's owl henchmen in the chorus (the one with the green cape, NOT Hunch!) to Rocko, Warren T. Rat to Carface or Ms. Shrew, Carface to Gnorga and Jenner to Drake.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Nearly all the animal character designs.
  • Rotoscoping: Bluth likes to do this a lot, but he usually sticks with using it to animate difficult vehicles and such. The effect is very appropriate, as the giant rotoscoped machines in NIMH and American Tail look terrifying. In more recent movies, this effect was largely replaced by Conspicuous CGI and the impact is... less good. Human background characters in The Secret Of NIMH and An American Tail were also rotoscoped, though non-rotoscoped humans appear in later movies.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Another common motif is characters unwillingly sliding, tumbling down or being washed away by water or wind. This is never played for the comedic effect; these sequences are always dramatic, as they emphasize the loss of control of the characters.
    • Most of Bluth's films involve a metaphorical or literal journey down to hell. Keep in mind that Bluth is a life-long Mormon, and it's far easier to read Christian themes into his films than it is with comparable Disney films.note 
  • Scenery Porn: Often inverted — Bluth's backgrounds can seem watery and washed-out to non-fans.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Averted in a vast majority of his works, even A Troll in Central Park. For instance, look at the demon cat Dragon compared to the size of Brisby in The Secret Of NIMH.
  • Shown Their Work: For its time (hard emphasis on the "for its time" part), The Land Before Time was one of the most accurate dinosaur movies, at least in the sense that the dinosaurs in question were treated more or less like ordinary animals rather than sci-fi monsters.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: An interesting example in that his films are typically optimistic, but the characters go through hell to get their happy ending.
  • Small, Annoying Creature: A stock character that shows up in his works to lighten the mood. Examples include Digit in An American Tail, Ducky and Petrie in The Land Before Time, Hunch from Rock-A-Doodle and Bartok from Anastasia. The fact that one gets blown to pieces on-screen in his final film shows that even he started to get sick of them after a while.
  • Something Completely Different: Titan A.E. is very different from his other films for a variety of reasons. First, it didn't even start off with Bluth—it spend a while in Development Hell before 20th Century Fox gave Bluth, fresh off the success of Anastasia, the directors chair and 19 months to slam the film out. It also completely eschews the fairy tale aesthetic and tone of his previous films and, unlike his previous work Space Ace, plays its Sci-Fi art and tone completely straight. And while Don's work is known for it's dark elements already, this film throws in more cynical elements to go with it, which are sometimes played for laughs, and there are also no kid friendly characters or sidekicks sandwiched in—in fact, the film takes a potshot at the trope when a Drej trooper unceremoniously (and comically) kills one such character who tried to tag along with Cale and Korso. The soundtrack also consists of pop music instead of an orchestral score. On top of that, it's also very heavy on CGI, far more than any of Bluth's previous work.
  • Start My Own: Bluth's animation studios after he left Disney but before he joined Fox Animation.
  • Technician vs. Performer: The performer to Gary Goldman's technician. Bluth claims that he's better at coming up with broad ideas while Goldman is better at production. That said, it's clear that both their strengths lay more in technique than in story. The stories are there, but there's clearly more attention given to the animation.