For the occasion of this, Don Bluth’s 80th birthday, I decided to do something a little different. I am a huge fan of Mr. Bluth, even making maybe ridiculous claims, like saying that Bluth movies outshine all other animated properties, including the vaunted vault of Disney. Despite this, there were a few films in his filmography that I had not seen. So, before writing this, I decided to watch, in order, every one of his films to see what I would learn.
Now, I could sit here and write about every one of Don Bluth’s movies in separate sections. But that would probably be tedious for you to read. And, secondly, I would have to try to find nice things to write about A Troll in Central Park, and I’m simply not that good of a liar. Even Don Bluth is afforded one catastrophic mistake. Instead,I’d like to take a look at his career as a whole and hopefully look forward to a future film from Don Bluth.
The comparison I already made to Disney is a natural one to make, and I am certainly not the first to bring it up. Bluth, after all, began his career with Disney, working there off and on from 1959-1977, beginning as an uncredited assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty and finishing as the animation director of Pete’s Dragon. When he finally left Disney, which was in trouble financially, he started his own production company and made his first film as a director, The Secret of Nimh. Despite its standing as a cult classic, the film did not do well financially, and the company filed for bankruptcy. This inevitably led to Bluth working with a number of different companies, such as his affiliation with Steven Spielberg (An American Tail; The Land Before Time) and Fox Animation Studios (Anastasia, Titan A.E.).
Don Bluth films, regardless of studio connection, stand out from the pack. It is possible that the same things that make them stand out are the very things that have stopped his films from being as beloved as more standard children’s fare. With precious few exceptions, children’s films follow a tried and true formula. Bluth’s films hit some of those notes, but are certainly not limited by them.
Most importantly, his films do not pull punches. Although many kids movies deal with tragedy, most are afraid to truly delve into the trauma inherent to their plots. It has become a running joke that Disney seems obsessed with protagonists losing parents. But, in this writer’s opinion, they tend to brush over this fact. Bluth movies refuse to hide the darkness. Examples of this run rampant through his work. Fievel, the hero of An American Tail, is separated from his family and his journey nearly ends in despair as he screams that his family has forgotten him. The protagonist of All Dogs Go To Heaven is a degenerate gambler who, in order to learn his lesson, must sacrifice himself and die. Viewers who are used to softer animation expect Charlie to be revived for his change in character. But it is not to be, Bluth is more concerned with the character arc making sense, as opposed to making a film that is easy to explain to young viewers.
Bluth also chooses, repeatedly, to tackle themes that most parents would not dare to broach with their children without the excuse of film. As I was making my way through this Bluth marathon, I was able to come across movies I had never seen, including Thumbelina and Rock-A-Doodle. In each of these films, I found some very adult themes, but handled in a way that is palatable for children. This is truly a hallmark of his films, and what makes Don Bluth worth celebrating. Thumbelina, on its surface, is a romance, about a girl who wants to fall in love and get married. But on her journey, she is constantly waylaid by suitors that are just not for her. These moments are not all played for comedy. Our main character repeatedly fights against the urge to settle for someone that she does not love, but more importantly, she will not allow for pet names and infantilizing from these suitors. She constantly stands up for herself and will not allow others to belittle her. This is one of a series of wonderful messages children and adults alike can learn from his films. On the other hand, Rock-A-Doodle deals with themes of responsibility and the cost of fame. This is the wonderful thing about animated films in general, a story about a magical rooster that causes the sun to rise can hide deep thoughts about life and relationships.
Don Bluth is also willing to push boundaries, technically speaking. In Rock-A-Doodle one of our main characters is a human child who gets transformed into a cat. It would be easy enough to animate the human characters. Instead, in order to separate the real world from the magical world, there is a mixing of live action and animation. It does not always work seamlessly, but it is engaging nonetheless. In his most recent film, Titan A.E., Bluth combines computer generated animation with traditional animation to great effect in the science fiction genre. Audiences did not agree, as the film was not a rousing success at the box office or on home video. This willingness to push boundaries may have cost Don Bluth money, opportunities, and comfort, but it has also made for memorable animated films.
Another thing to love about his films is the lack of sequels. Now, I realize that The Land Before Time has numerous sequels, Fievel Goes West exists, and All Dogs Go To Heaven has a sequel and a television series. However, you will not see Don Bluth’s name listed as a director. I believe that this tells us something about him as an artist. He is constantly searching for something new to create, instead of working on projects that rehash his past. This is something that endears me to Don Bluth even more. In a world screaming for nostalgia, he is always pushing forward.
One last thing that is easily noticed in his films is the placement of human beings. In many children’s films, animals are funny sidekicks, and sometimes fulfilling a need for noble sacrifice. But they are often placed in service to the human characters. Think of Pocahontas and her many animal friends or Cinderella and her mice, for examples. With few exceptions, humans are not the focus of Bluth movies. Usually, we are stumbling around, ignorantly making trouble for the heroes and heroines, if we appear at all. Humans are the bumbling evil of The Secret of Nimh, doing lawn maintenance at the wrong time and unwittingly causing trouble for Mrs. Brisby and her children. We are easy marks to be taken advantage of by Charlie and Mr. Itchy at the racetrack. One of the few stories that features humans is Anastasia. This is relatively late in his career and may be his best work overall. Favoritism aside for movies that I grew up with, Anastasia is deeper, more disturbing, and features more beautiful animation than anything previous or since. Aside from the main character though, it does not paint a pretty picture of humankind, at least until the conclusion of the story. In general, humans tend to get in the way, and are sadly, blissfully unaware of the impact they have on the world around them.
Luckily for us, Don Bluth is not finished creating quite yet. One area of his career that I have not mentioned is his video game creation. He helped create two video games, Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, in the early 1980’s. Dragon’s Lair was easily the more popular of the two and has a large fan following. Via crowdfunding, he has managed to obtain nearly $700,000 to make a feature film based on the video game. This is an extremely small amount of money. For comparison, his last film, Titan A.E., made in 2000, was rumored to cost at least $75 million. But I, for one, am looking forward to his next project. When Don Bluth is at his best, which has been for the majority of his career, there is no other animation creator I would rather watch. Happy Birthday, Mr. Bluth.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox