The Small One was a 1978 Disney short (26 minutes) Animated Film directed by Don Bluth. It was a theatrical film released during the Christmas season rather than a televised Christmas Special, serving as the second feature with the 1978 re-release of Disney's Pinocchio. It was Bluth's last full effort for Disney before he left to start his own company.
Initially, it was announced that the director would be Dick Sebast, a live-action film maker. Sebast had joined Disney in 1973 and had been one of the storyboard artists on The Rescuers. However, after that film had been completed, Don was put in charge of The Small One. (Sebast, ironically, would go on to become Story Director for the Dragon's Lair television cartoon.) Besides directing, Bluth wrote two of the film's songs himself: "Small One" and "The Merchants' Song".
The film epitomizes the split that was running through the Disney studios at the time. Though nearly everyone felt that the studio was going through a troubled period, opinions differed as to how to correct the problems, Bluth and his adherents believing that there should be a conscious return to the style of the studio's glory days in the Forties and Fifties, while others suggested a move toward more modern, experimental styles of animation. This dichotomy of styles affects the film itself, with the earlier part of the film harking back to the style of the Phil Harris era of animation, while the latter part of the film takes on the darker tones associated with parts of Pinocchio and Fantasia.
The film is unusual among Disney films for its strong religious theme. It seems to have done respectably well at the Box Office, though not so outstandingly as to make a decisive impact on the direction of the studio over the next years. Nevertheless, it is well remembered for the beauty and grace of its handling, and is arguably one of the best handlings of its holiday theme in animation.
The Small One contains examples of:
- Beware the Nice Ones: Small One is the sweetest, most loving donkey...until the auctioneer pushes the boy to the ground.
- Bittersweet Ending: Mostly sweet, though. Small One gets sold and the boy will never see him again, but he survives and his new masters (Joseph and Mary) will probably be very nice to him.
- Bowdlerise: For the DVD release, a line in "The Merchant's Song" was altered to make it less offensive to Jews (the original version can be found here) and the final shot of the star's light was digitally altered to make it look less like a cross. (Although the lines that form the cross are still the most prominent.)
- Cool Old Guy: Small One might be old and stiff, but he can still work up the energy to play with the boy and send the Jerkass auctioneer flying.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Hey, it's Don Bluth, what did you expect?
- Foreshadowing: "He's good enough to be in a king's stable!"
- "Someone still needs you to brighten each day." It's not a stretch to imagine Small One being a loyal, loving friend to Him, just like he was to the boy.
- Foregone Conclusion: It's about a donkey in Judea. Jesus is bound to show up in the story at some point.
- For the Evulz: The Roman giving the boy directions to the tanner.
- Greedy Jew: The merchants fit the stereotype, as they sing about money and are always ready to make a deal, and are quite mean to the boy and Small One. If it helps any, with the exception of a single Roman guard, every character seen in the film is Jewish.
- Intellectual Animal: The animals don't talk, but Small One clearly understands everything the humans say, as well as the greater implications of being sold.
- Money Song: The Merchant's Song.
- No Name Given: Small One is the only character whose name is given. Even St. Joseph's name is never spoken.
- Nothing Personal:
- There was no malice in the father's decision to sell Small One. He simply couldn't earn his keep and the father could no longer afford to keep him.
- Same could be said of the tanner; sure, if he'd made the purchase Small One would have died, but only because it was part of his job.
- Reused Character Design: The Boy looks exactly like Mowgli with clothes on.
- Star of Bethlehem: Appears in the closing scene.
- Stubborn Mule: Averted; Small One is gentle, patient, and self-sacrificing, and keeps trying to work even when he's too weak.
- True Meaning of Christmas: "There's a place for each small one."