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 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.
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, later, 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."
Bluth now 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.
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:
- 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: First independent project. An experiment made by Bluth's crew to see if they could make the kind of animated film they wanted 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, for which he was uncredited.
- The "Don't Walk Away" sequence in Xanadu.
- The Secret of NIMH: First feature. Loosely based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Established his efforts to revive 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: First collaboration with Steven Spielberg. The highest-grossing animated film of 1986, briefly also held the highest-grossing non-Disney feature and highest-grossing animated feature of all time.
- The Land Before Time: Second and final collaboration with Steven Spielberg, this time with George Lucas in tow. Was even more successful than the previous film.
- All Dogs Go to Heaven: A film very loosely inspired by Beth Brown's 1943 book of the same name. Got some good reviews, but was financially curb-stomped by The Little Mermaid.
- The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera: His studio provided the hand-drawn character animation.
- Rock-A-Doodle: First film to bomb both critically and financially, also alienated a lot of his fans, forcing him to close his studio in Ireland.
- Thumbelina: A rather notorious attempt to ape all the films of the Disney Renaissance up to that point.
- A Troll in Central Park: Widely considered to be his worst movie largely due to its DEFCON level 4 cutsiness. One of the biggest animated bombs of all time.
- The Pebble and the Penguin: A film so plagued with Executive Meddling, terrible animation and unnecessary songs that Bluth gave up on it halfway through and took his name off the credits to move to 20th Century Fox. To date, his last independent feature. Amazingly, it managed to get even worse reviews than Troll.
- Anastasia: His other attempt to ape the Disney Renaissance style. This time, it was successful.
- Bartok the Magnificent: Direct-to-DVD, continuity-free sequel to Anastasia and —this is important— the only sequel to one of his films he was ever actually involved with.
- Titan A.E.: Final feature to date.
- An animated segment in the Scissor Sisters video for "Mary," loosely based on the story of Rapunzel.
- Did some storyboards for the Arabic show Gift of the Hoopoe. Despite turning down the offer to direct, he and Gary Goldman were credited as directors, much to his annoyance.
- Designed 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.
- A pitch reel for the Dragon's Lair prequel movie.
- An animated segment in the independent festival film Circus Sam, directed by Rayner Wang.
He's also U.S. senator Mitt Romney's second cousin.
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.
- Animated Music Video: His studio's first gig was the animated segment for Electric Light Orchestra's "Don't Walk Away" in Xanadu. His video for Scissor Sisters' "Mary," itself an homage to the former segment, is a more straight example.
- Auteur License: Went independent in an effort to gain one. Ironically, he got less control over his films with each success. He eventually had to sell the rights to all of his films after Rock-A-Doodle bombed and the rest of his career languished in Executive Meddling hell. That said, he still remains one of the few animation filmmakers to brand himself by his name rather than by a studio or team.
- Author Appeal: Reuniting with family and loved ones is a common theme in his films (Fievel with his parents, Littlefoot with his grandparents, Charlie with Anne Marie). Bluth claims that this is because he rarely if ever sees his own family any more.
- 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-White Morality: Most of his films usually follow the typical hero vs villain story. Theres no debate who is good and who is bad.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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: 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
- 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.
- Gray Rain of Depression:
- 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.
- 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 to some fans calling it the "ultimate Don Bluth parental abandonment movie".
- Production Posse: Dom De Luise and Charles Nelson Reilly both voice prominent characters in multiple Bluth films. DeLuise would bring along Burt Reynolds for All Dogs Go to Heaven.
- 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, Jenner to Drake and Zozi, Mrs. Shrew to Comrade Phleminkoff, Prince Cornelius to Dimitri and Cale, and Rooter to Tek.
- 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 CG 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.
- Shades of Conflict: Most of his films could focus on Black-and-White Morality, many of his films can differentiate.
- 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.
- Sidekick Creature Nuisance: 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.
- 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.
- 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 its 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 (with the possible exception of Gune) 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 rock 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.