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.


14 responses to “The History of Don Bluth

  • The Animation Commendation

    As you know I’m not a huge fan of the guy professionally nor of his films, but I do see your point about ‘Rock-a-Doodle’. I too actually dislike the film a lot less than most people seem to as well.

  • Josh W

    I’ve been revisiting Bluth recently, and his career kinda fascinates me.

    From an interview I saw of him, he seems to attribute the dip in quality his films experienced to the increased meddling of marketing execs.

  • Cartoon19

    I think one of the reasons why Don Bluth declined in quality was due to executive meddling. I recently watched all of his films for the first time, and one thing I noticed about his 90s films is that they all reek of executive meddling. You can tell that he got a lot of notes from each studio he worked for and they pretty much forced him to do stuff that he would never have done in his 80s films. I think him leaving Steven Spielberg was a big mistake, since even Don Bluth hassle admitted that Steven Spielberg gave him so much creative freedom.

    • swanpride

      Honestly, with all funding and refunding and whatever he did with his studio, it is nearly impossible to tell. And there is another aspect: Towards the end of the 1980s, a lot of animators left Don Bluth again and went back to Disney. Those animators later worked on – wait for it – Beauty and the Beast. So I think it was a combination of different factors. Partly it might have been executive meddling, but I think loosing a lot of talent in the staff was also a factor. After all, movies are always a group project.

      • Cartoon19

        The reason why the animators went back to Disney was because when they were working on A Troll in Central Park in 1990, Don Bluth said this to them.

        ” You should put your best into this film, and if you don’t, then you can go and plant yourselves in another garden.

        Now the only reason why I think he would say that is because at the time, All Dogs Go to Heaven was released in theatres and it was a critical and financial flop. And the worst thing about that, is that all the critics who criticized that film did it by comparing it to The Little Mermaid. Since both of those films were released on the same day.

      • swanpride

        Yeah, I know, but it might have been a factor.

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