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Creator / Don Bluth

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The man who challenged the mouse.note 
In much the same way that Pixar and DreamWorks Animation are The Millennium Age of Animation's biggest names and toughest rivals, there was one animator in The Dark Age of Animation who took it upon himself when no one else would to challenge Disney as the reigning king in traditionally animated features. Remembered fondly by children of the 80s and 90s, his independent features laid the ground work for what would eventually be animation's return to its former glory in the waning years of the 20th century, an effort felt to this very day in DreamWorks, Pixar and, yes, even Disney.

That animator was one Donald Virgil "Don" Bluth (born September 13, 1937).

Bluth's films boasted some of the most lavish character and effects animation at the time and are notably darker in theme and content than even most animated features for families made to this day, usually having a high mortality rate or grim subject matter. His were also some of the weirdest animated features, many following a disjointed fever-dream kind of internal logic. Even his more poorly-received features have their fans for their bizarre plots and really pretty animation.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Bluth's career as an animator began at his future rival's studio, working as an assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone. He took a break for a few years to go to Argentina on a Mormon recruitment mission, briefly working for Filmation as a layout artist before eventually getting re-hired by Disney. Unfortunately by that point, the studio was going through major financial and creative turmoil in the wake of their founder's death, and he was put to work on some of their more economical films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (most notably, the scene where Rabbit is lost in the woods). Bluth nevertheless proved himself a skilled artist, working his way up to a directing animator on The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon (1977) and The Fox and the Hound.

However, deeply unhappy with the state of animation at the time and feeling that Disney was too concerned with saving money to produce a great film, Bluth wanted to remind both movie executives and the public at large what painstakingly attentive hand-drawn animation could do. He recruited colleagues Gary Goldman and John Pomoroy to start work on a pet project in his garage and for six years, the three of them met after work to teach themselves the kind of top-tier quality classical animation they felt they weren't getting at Disney, frequently consulting Disney's Nine Old Men for tips and techniques (Bluth even briefly dated Ward Kimball's daughter). Their research and development resulted in the half-hour TV special Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Reasonably successful, it was proof to the three men that they were capable of striking out on their own.

The following year, Bluth quit Disney, taking half the staff of Fox And The Hound with him to work at his new garage-based studio on an independent feature.

The new studio took its first job with the "Don't Walk Away" sequence in the Cult Classic Xanadu. Two years later was their first feature and Bluth's feature directorial debut, The Secret of NIMH. A massive, effects-heavy undertaking which forced Bluth and his two partners to mortgage their houses just to get more funding, it was a big hit with critics and fantasy fans alike, but only barely broke even (not helped by the fact that it was going up against the biggest film of the decade thus far). They produced the animation for two laserdisc-driven videogames, the cult hits Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, in order to recoup their losses.

NIMH managed to catch the eye of ET director and notable animation fan Steven Spielberg who was looking to turn the script for a proposed TV special into an animated feature. Under Spielberg's supervision, the studio created An American Tail, which was briefly the highest grossing animated feature at the time. They followed it up two years later with the prehistoric epic The Land Before Time, which became an even bigger hit. Both films were also hugely successful with critics and audiences and are still beloved to this day. By this point, Bluth's tiny garage business had expanded to a fully-operational studio in Dublin, Ireland. Feeling successful enough to once again work on his own (and getting annoyed that Spielberg was always getting the last word in creativity on their projects), he cut ties with Spielberg and resumed fully-independent production on his next film.

Back at Disney, the old guard sat up and took notice that Bluth was beating them at their own game. The financial success of American Tail raised concern (though the absolute nadir was their own lavish fantasy epic The Black Cauldron under-performing against The Care Bears Movie of all things), convincing the studio's new ultra-competitive head Jeffery Katzenberg to whip the animation unit of Disney back into shape to take down the competition. Spielberg, meanwhile, continued to produce animation: he was a major driving force between the groundbreaking live-action/animation hybrid feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit and introduced the kind of fluid, appealing animation Bluth had introduced him to in their partnership to TV audiences with Family Dog and Tiny Toon Adventures.

In short, Don Bluth near single-handedly kickstarted the renaissance of animation in the west. Sadly, it was not a victory he could share in.

1989 saw the release of Bluth's 4th feature, All Dogs Go to Heaven. It was released on the same day as Disney's mega-blockbuster musical smash The Little Mermaid, which blew Bluth's tiny little indie flick out of the water. With Disney heeding his word (and admittedly still salty about the mass exodus he led in 1980) and reclaiming their title as top dog in feature animation, Bluth's films from that point on became lost in the overcrowded "all the animation that isn't by Disney" market, and were burdened by demands from what few investors he had left to be less dark and more marketable.

What was left of his studio after Mermaid was leveled two years later when his next film, Rock-A-Doodle, went up against Disney's Beauty and the Beast. There was no competition any more: the Bluth film was such a massive Box Office Bomb that he was forced to close his studio and sell the right to his previous film in order to form a new studio a couple years later. But the message was made clear at that point that animated features in the 1990s belonged to Disney, and Bluth's next three films were meddled with, rushed and underfunded, each failing harder than the last. After A Troll in Central Park became the lowest grossing animated feature of all time, John Pomoroy left his partnership with Bluth and Goldman to return to Disney.

Things looked up for Bluth in 1995 when 20th Century Fox offered him the director's chair for the first film of their new animation arm in Phoenix, Arizona. Desperate, Bluth abandoned his floundering indie project The Pebble and the Penguin and took the reigns of Fox's Animated Musical, Anastasia. It was Bluth's only financially successful project of the 90s and his first financial success since Land Before Time. However, by that point, the animation landscape had changed significantly for everyone.

The arrival of Pixar and the first fully computer-animated feature Toy Story signaled the dawn of a new age. During production of Fox's second animated feature, the sci-fi epic Titan A.E., more CGI animated films were released and outdid even Disney's most high-profile hand-drawn features both financially and critically. The major studios all took the hint and began dismantling their 2D animation units with Fox being one of the first as soon as Titan was released in 2000.

This was the final straw for Bluth, who was not only burned out from years of struggling to stay afloat but also wasn't willing to give up on his trusty paper and pencil in favor of the computer. One year later, he announced his retirement from filmmaking saying, "Never again will I draw a character and hand the rights over to someone else, which pretty much puts me out of the animation business."

As of 2021, Bluth resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he directs plays in his own theater, the Don Bluth Front Row Theater, and gives online animation tutorials from time to time. He's released two books, The Art Of Animation Drawing and The Art of Storyboard, through an independent publisher, as well as a handful of educational DVDs. His last major animation project to date as been the Scissor Sisters music video for "Mary."

A prequel film to Dragon's Lair has been floating around in Development Hell since the mid 2000s, with Bluth and his partner Goldman trying and failing to secure funding due to Hollywood's lack of faith in hand-drawn animation. A successful Indiegogo campaign secured them the budget for a pitch reel, which was completed in 2017. In a strange case of coming full circle, when Disney purchased 20th Century Fox in 2019, they assumed ownership of several of Bluth's films, in particular Thumbelina, Anastasia and Titan AE.

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

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.

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

He's also U.S. senator Mitt Romney's second cousin.

Tropes associated with Don Bluth Productions Include:

  • Cats Are Mean: His first feature depicts one cat as a literal monster! There are exceptions, like Banjo the Woodpile Cat and Edmund in Rock-A-Doodle, and even a mix of both good and bad cats in An American Tail. He says this is because he prefers dogs to cats, but dogs don't always come off well in his movies either (Carface in All Dogs Go To Heaven, the vicious dogs in Banjo and A Troll In Central Park).
  • Central Theme: Family and The Power of Love tend to show up in a lot of his movies. An American Tail and NIMH are all about the protagonist acting for their family's sake, and The Land Before Time is about a Family of Choice.
  • 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.
  • Darker and Edgier: In more ways than one. His first four movies are considered to be some of the darkest family films in all of Western animation, let alone of the 1980s, with higher death tolls and more down-to-earth drama than even the darkest stuff Disney was making at the time or since. His own storytelling philosophy is that kids can handle dark stuff as long as it has a happy ending (even All Dogs Go to Heaven, one of the few American animated films to kill off its main character, had a cathartic ending). Executive Meddling forced him to cheer up in the 90s until he was allowed to go back to darker stuff with Anastasia and eventually direct exactly one PG-rated film with Titan A.E..
  • Direct to Video: Second only to Disney, his first four films are notorious for their glut of cheap direct-to-video sequels, The Land Before Time being the worst offender with almost fifteen released between 1993 and 2016. Bluth has no involvement with any of them, save for maybe being offered to direct which he always turned down because he was busy with his own projects. Bartok the Magnificent is the only DTV sequel to one of his films that he oversaw.
  • Down on the Farm: In Banjo the Woodpile Cat, The Secret of NIMH and Rock-A-Doodle. This is 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: One of the kings of this trope, indeed. In a lot of his films, this is probably the only thing that keeps his audiences from walking away severely depressed. After all, Bluth does think kids can handle dark stuff as long as if it was worth something.
  • 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
  • Gone Horribly Right: Great news, Don! Everyone likes your movies so much that Disney's decided to start putting more effort into theirs and now animation is popular again! Bad news, now you have to compete with Disney's multi-million dollar hype-machine blockbusters and a handful of other features with better funding and advertisement than yours.
  • Hate at First Sight: Anya and Dmitri in Anastasia and the leads in Titan A.E., who both detest each other at the start, but fall in love later on.
  • 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.
  • Ink-Suit Actor: Not entirely, but one of Bluth's signatures is that when creating the characters, he likes to take physical features from their voice actors and incorporate them into the design.
  • 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...
  • Love at First Sight: A trait of some of Bluth's projects. In The Secret of NIMH, there is an implied attraction between Mrs. Brisby and Justin, but it doesn't go much further than that. Played more straight with Tony Toponi and Bridget in An American Tail, Goldie and Chanticleer in Rock-A-Doodle, Thumbelina and Prince Cornelius, as well as Hubie and Marina in The Pebble and the Penguin.
  • Nice Mice: An American Tail and NIMH have mice as protagonists, with cats as the villains. 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 Jerkass. Plenty of villainous rats in his work are there too, but mice themselves are portrayed as good people or heroes.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: His films are typically optimistic, but the characters go through hell and back, and in one case literally, to get their happy ending.
  • Start My Own: Bluth's animation studios after he left Disney but before he joined Fox Animation.
  • Technician Versus 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.
  • What Could Have Been: Don Bluth had a ton of ideas for projects that never took off, including:
    • Piper, an animated short film based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin story.
    • Other arcade games similar to Dragon's Lair, such as The Sea Beast, where a 1940s sailor named Barnacle Bill tries to rescue a mermaid princess from a nasty sea beast; Jason and the Golden Fleece, based on the famous Greek legend Jason; Devil's Island, where a shipwreck passenger tries to find treasure, rescue a jungle princess and take down a corrupt civilization; Haywire, where a Charlie Chaplin-like character tries to survive and escape a huge factory run by an evil business man; Drac, where Van Helsing has to save his girlfriend from Dracula and his monster minions of evil before she becomes one of his brides; Cro Magnon, where a Cro Magnon caveman battles vicious dinosaurs, scary creatures and an evil warlord; and Sorceress, where a sorceress protects her island from temple-robbers and poachers.
    • Star Baby, an outer space adventure movie.
    • An Animated Adaptation Of East of the Sun and West of the Moon was planned but the project was scrapped as his company went bankrupt after the box-office failure of The Secret of NIMH. In his version of the story, which took place in the year 2500, the hero would have been a fugitive from another world who is discovered because of the heroine - he would have been taken away to be put to death, and she would have set out to rescue him.
    • An Animated Adaptation of the The Velveteen Rabbit.
    • Strawberry Fields Forever, a Beatles movie made with help from Michael Jackson, done entirely in CGI. The film would have had animated Fantasia-style vignettes featuring Beatles songs, similar to Yellow Submarine, and characters from Beatles songs (like Mr. Mustard and the Walrus) would act as New York City gangsters. However, the surviving Beatles denied permission for their likenesses to be used in the film, so production was cancelled.
    • Canine Mysteries, an animated film involving a shaggy German Shepherd as a private eye solving a kidnapping case. Some aspects of this project— most notably the design of the main character— would eventually be re-worked into All Dogs Go to Heaven.
    • Satyrday, an animated adaptation of the book of the same name.
    • The Little Blue Whale, an animated film about a little girl and her animal friends trying to protect a little whale from evil whalers.
    • Kandu: Song of the Ice Whale, an animated feature film detailing a discovery experience through a whale's eye.
    • Jawbreaker, an animated TV mini-series about a boy who finds a magical tooth.
    • The Magic Pencils, an animated short film about a magical talking pencil.
    • Deep Wizardry, an Animated Adaptation of the book of the same name.
    • Quintaglio Ascension, an Animated Adaptation of the Quintaglio Ascension trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer.
    • The Belgariad, an Animated Adaptation (noticing a pattern?) of The Belgariad series.
    • A video game adaptation of Titan A.E, to be released for the PlayStation and PC.
    • A sequel to the 2003 game I-Ninja.
    • A video game called Pac-Man Adventures. Not much is known about the game other than what can be gathered from concept artwork and storyboards drawn by Bluth, although some say the project eventually became Pac-Man World 3.
    • Bluth was going to do his own adaptation of Beauty and the Beast which would have characters like Nan, the clairvoyant dog, Max, a bird detective, and Otto, an escape artist lizard, the King Bats, the Wee Beasties and Queen Livia, probably the antagonist of the film who would have been based on the evil fairy from the original tale. However, when Bluth got wind that Disney was doing their own adaptation he canceled it so there wouldn't be a case of Dueling Works.
    • Bluth was also set to be the original director of the first Ice Age film, alongside Gary Goldman, with the film itself originally going to be a traditionally animated drama. The failure of Titan A.E unfortunately caused Fox Animation Studios to be disbanded and the film's rights being given to Blue Sky Studios.