Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Swanpride Award: Searching for the Best Animated Movie of the 20th Century

I have to apologize. I had a really busy year and as a result, I neglected this blog a little bit. I therefore decided to do something special for this December: Some sort of virtual Advent calendar, in which I will post a substantial article every day up to Christmas Day. And by searching for a good theme for it, something occurred me: That there are a lot of animated movies which never had the chance to win any Academy Award or Annie for best picture. Simply because it took so long to establish any kind of award.

Not that I complain about this. Before the start of what I dubbed the “Multi-Age” in my article about the different eras of movie animation, there simply weren’t enough animated movies to warrant such an award. It would have been boiled down to “this one movie which was actually produced this year gets the prize” more often than not. Still, I think all those movies deserve some consideration. So I will do the following: I will take a look at movies released during a time-span which gives me a reasonable number of movies which are award-worthy in one way or another. For starters a decade but I’ll narrow it down later on, when there are enough high quality movies released in a shorter time span. I will pick three to five movies (depending on how many movies I deal with) and put them on a list of nominees. I will then discuss the merits of the movies in question, and pick one winner. Then I will do the next decade/time period up the last movie which was released in 1999. And finally, I will pit all the winners against each other, and whatever movie wins will be my pick for the best animated movie of the 20th century.

This is naturally mostly based on my opinion (hence the name Swanpride Award). But that doesn’t automatically mean that I will simply pick the movie with which I have the most fun with. I will try to be as objective as possible. And yes, objectivity in movie criticism is a thing.

I recently noted that a lot of people seem to think that judging movies is solely a matter of taste. That is not the case. If that were true, than there wouldn’t be movies which are more popular than others. There are certain rules of storytelling and certain standards of quality a movie has to meet to be successful, rules which experts have figured out by observing the reaction of the audience to certain elements for centuries (yes, I am aware that movies haven’t been around that long, but literature and the theatre have and the basic rules are not that different, no matter what medium is used). They are not arbitrary, as some people like to claim.

The truth is, though, that there is no such thing as a perfect movie. Every movie has flaws. But (and that’s the point at which subjectivity comes into play) how much those flaws are bothering a particular viewer differs. Take a movie like Avatar (I picked it because of his position as highest grossing movie of all time): Is the story generic and full of plot holes? You can bet it is, which is exactly the reason why I personally don’t like this movie. But it is also a visually impressive and full of creative designs. Someone who loves those elements so much that they would be willing to overlook those flaws, and having this opinion is not automatically wrong.

Another aspect which has to be considered judging movies is that sometimes a director deliberately breaks the rules of story-telling. There are instances in which one can easily argue that what is perceived to be a flaw, actually works to the advantage of the movie as a whole in one way or another. You could for example argue that Avatar deliberately tells a generic story because a familiar tale makes it easier to relate to this foreign world.

My point in all this is that I will try my very best to look at the flaws of the movies and their strengths as objectively as possible, maybe even argue against my own opinion. My final decision will most likely be based on my personal taste to a certain degree, but the point of the exercise is to put a lot of movies into the spotlight which you would normally don’t find on any top ten lists. And hopefully I don’t have to do it alone. I want my readers to participate.

The truth is that while I have seen a lot of animated movies, I certainly haven’t seen all of them. Therefore it is entirely possible that I might have missed out on some gems. I therefore ask you all to submit your picks for attention-worthy animated movies for consideration. That is easy. You simply have to drop a comment, telling me which movie (or movies) you think should be on the nomination list. Please submit the name of the movie and the year in which was released. For more obscure ones, the name of the studio would be helpful, too. If you want to heighten the chance that it makes the nomination list, feel free to write a short explanation why this movie deserves to get nominated (I might even incorporate it into the article). Feel also free to nominate movies which are famous and therefore expected nominees. They are most likely already on my list, but a good argument in advance might sway my final judgement in one way or another.

To be eligible for the award, the movie has to be:

  1. Predominantly Animated (Meaning Fantasia counts as an animated movie because it is animated with live-action segments in-between while Mary Poppins doesn’t because it is mostly live-action with one animated segment thrown in)
  2. Theatrical (so no direct-to-video or TV releases)
  3. A movie length feature (I mention that point because there are some shorts which actually got a theatrical release in tandem with a bigger movie)

That is all. It doesn’t matter if it is stop-motion, traditionally animated or CGI, in which country it was first released, or which studio made it, not even if it is geared towards kids, families or adults. It doesn’t even matter if you think that it has a chance to win as long as you think that it is worthy of the attention. But don’t wait too long. After all, I will have to watch and rewatch a lot of movies. If you submit a movie one day before the article is due, I might not have the time take it properly into consideration.

I also would like to include polls, allowing you to vote for your favourite nominee yourself in order to counterbalance my opinion. But I am not sure if I should do so because, well, let’s be honest here the number of subscribers is not high enough that the result would be even remotely representative. Therefore I will start with a little test-poll, just to see how many of you would like to participate this way. What do you think about my plans?

The History of Don Bluth

After writing about the different eras of Animation in general and Disney Animation specifically, I think I should write about some other studios too. Now, technically the history of Don Bluth’s own studio is a rocky one, so it would be kind of wrong to call this “The History of Don Bluth Animation”. Therefore I decided to make this about his body of work, about the movies which are exist because of him and not about the studio.

Which, I think, can be roughly cut in two phases:

The 1980th: The Decade of Defiance

It is impossible to discuss Don Bluth without discussing Disney. To understand what Don Bluth was trying to do in his early movies, we have to take a look at the state of Western Animation during this time. In short, we have to take a look at the Dark Age of Animation, a period in which Disney is the only animation company left which produces regularly big feature films. And let’s be honest here, even they mucked it up. Disney during that time was holding onto old tropes which didn’t really work anymore while at the same time trying to redefine itself without a clue in which direction they should go. At the same time Disney was not really in a hurry to do better because, well, there was no-one else in the market anyway, right?

Wrong! Whatever one might think about Don Bluth bailing on Disney during the production of “The Fox and the Hound” and taking a bunch of animators with him, he did set up a rival for the big studio. He challenged Disney by making movies which had the edginess which was missing from their own work for roughly two decades. Instead of focussing on romance, he made movies about the meaning of family. Instead of creating some sort of clean fairy tale world, he allowed his movies to be scary, to feature smoking and drinking and whatever else he could came up with. For a while, he was outdoing Disney, not necessarily in box office, not even in aniamtion quality (in this the two studios were pretty even during that period), but in story-telling.

I think most people would make the cut after “All Dogs go to heaven” because after it started a era of decline for Don Bluth, while Disney was on the rise again. But that is actually not the reason why I made the cut there. I seriously considered if “Rock-a-Doodle” shouldn’t be counted between his early works, even though it doesn’t have the same level of success. The reason is the subject matter. The focus is still more on family than on romance.  Plus, the early Don Bluth movies were pretty much about experimenting with new storylines, he was trying to do something which Disney wouldn’t do. And “Rock-a-Doodle” still has this experimental spirit (unlike “Thumbelina”).

But when I think of Don Bluth early works, the first thing which comes in mind is “dark” – and I mean that literally. Those movies preferred muted shades and often somewhat gritty scenes. There is still something of this darkness in “Rock-a-Doodle”, but the movie mostly pops off the screen with it’s loud colour scheme.

In addition, Don Bluth’s early movies had really adult subject matters. The Secret of Nimh is in its core the story about a mother who would do everything to protect her dying child. The rats, the magic, all this is just problems thrown in her way. An American Tail is not just the story of Feivel, it also a comment on history. It features how difficult travelling to America truly was, and in which traps immigrants could run in search for a “better life”. The Land before Time is not just about dinosaurs, it is also a discussion of faith. All Dogs Go to Heaven delves into the world of crime, telling the story about a low-life who redeems himself. Rock-a Doodle is about a child who ends up in a fantasy world? If there is some deeper meaning in the story, I don’t see it.

This in mind, I stuck with the popular cut. Don Bluth had one decade in which he broadened the view on animated movies. But it was followed by one decade in which he lost his edge and was speeding towards self-destruction.


The 1990th: The Decade of Decay

In the 1990th, the situation had changed. First Disney rose to greater highs than ever during the Disney Renaissance. And then a lot of other studios recognized that animation could actually make money. A lot of money. So most of them started to produce their only version of the Disney Princess Formula.

As I already mentioned. Rock-a-Doodle is pretty much a transitional movie between two eras. But Thumbelina? That is Don Bluth selling out!. You can put it between a ton of other animated movie like “The Swan Princess”, “Quest for Camelot” and “The King and I” which came out around the time and were very transparent attempts to cash in on Disney’s success. And between all of them, Thumbelina is the most obvious one. Not only did they hire the voice actor of Ariel, it also practically copies the carpet scene from Aladdin.

The problem when a studio follows the lead of another one is that the curse of action makes it difficult to distinguish itself. If you want to get away with it, you still have to bring your own flavour into the movie. And Don Bluth really didn’t…unless you count the stale taste of suck. But the many levels in which Thumbelina fails is an article in itself. In short, it’s main crime is that it creates exactly the kind of helpless heroine Disney movies are always (wrongly) accused to have.

A Troll in Central Park is yet another attempt to cash on a trend, though one not set by Disney. For some reason movies about the environment were really popular during this time, too. Well, I guess Ferngully was moderately successful, but Once upon a Forrest was a box office bomb, so I don’t really get why Don Bluth jumped on the train, but fact is that he went from being the trend-setter in animation to producing knock-off after knock-off. Not only that, but the quality slipped, too. The Pebble and the Penguin is the result of a troubled and rushed production, and it really shows in the animation.

Now, the studio saw success again with Anastasia, which is why some people might be more inclined to say that Don Bluth had three eras, one of good movies, one of bad movies and one of okay movies. And I wouldn’t disagree. If I had to rate his movies, it would look this way:

  • Outstanding: The Secret of Nimh

This is easily his best movie. It has the most to offer visually, plays expertly with the emotions of the audience but above all, it features one of the best and most memorable heroines in film. Not just in animation, but in film in general.

  • Impressive: A Land before Time and An American Tail

Two movies which managed to address overreaching theme in a way which really touched the heart of the audience. Personally I think An American Tail is slightly stronger, but you could make a case for both of them

  • Good: All Dogs go to heaven and  Anastasia

Those are two really good movies, each in a different way though. While All Dogs Go to Heaven is the more challenging of those two, Anastasia has a great soundtrack and top notch animation.

  • Failed: Titan AE and Thumbelina

Titan AE has it’s fans but I think that the story needed some tweaking to really work. Especially the actions of the villain are very muddled. And it might be surprising why I rate Thumbelina so high even though I just came down very hard on it, but honestly, this movie does have a lot of potential. With a better written main character and some tweaks, this could have been a really good movie.

  • Just Plain Awful: Rock-A-Doodle, A Troll in Central Park and The Pebble and the Penguin

Confusing stories, annoying characters, there is really no reason at all to watch any of those movies. It would be a waste of time.

So, yes, I pretty much agree that Don Bluth was getting better after a string of bad movies. But I don’t judge by quality, I judge by content. And even though Anastasia is a very well-done movie which is certainly worth a watch, it is still a Disney knock-off. The only time Don Bluth showed the willingness to follow his own path again is arguably when he created Titan A.E. But since this was his last movie, it never had the chance to start a new era.

So why did Don Bluth’s movie decline that badly after a decade of impressive work? Part of the reason might be that a lot of animators went back to Disney eventually. But there are also certain questionable elements in Don Bluth’s movies which are easy to overlook in the early movies because the themes are so strong, but become more annoying in the later ones because there is nothing which would balance out the problems. One is the voice acting. I always watch Don Bluth movies in the German dubbing, because the English one tends to be fairly mediocre, due to an overreliance on the same set of voice actors. The other is a really episodic story-telling. This is especially obvious in An American Tail, in which Feivel is constantly thrown into new situations, meeting new people which are then just vanish from the story, just to turn up again at random (or not at all). But since it is easy to get emotionally invested in those situations, the audience is inclined to overlook it. In later movies, though, Don Bluth didn’t manage to create that level of investment, which immediately causes annoyance with the way how movies like Rock-a-Doodle or Thumbelina jump from one event to another with no rhyme or reason behind it.

I guess the truth is that Don Bluth is a great animator, but in terms of story he is kind of hit and miss. He most likely needed someone at his side with a sense for plot structure and a layered narrative. And he should have never strayed from his own path. Because the early Don Bluth created some of the greatest animated movies of all time. Movies, which will remain unforgotten.