Tag Archives: Don Bluth

The Swanpride Award: The Forgotten Movie

I know I promised to decide on a winner for Christmas, but before I do this, I do have to give a movie its due which I somehow managed to overlook. I am actually not sure how this happened. Between all the nomination lists I (or one of my readers) should have noticed its absence sooner, but I guess even though this movie was a huge success when it hit the theatres, it doesn’t really play in the big league after all. The movie in question is….

 

A Land Before Time, 1988, Don Bluth, Traditional

 

Now, I don’t think that it would have made it in the final selection, because it was released in a very strong year for Japanese Animation. And honestly, the very fact that I forgot about this movie despite it being one of my childhood memories shows that it is lacking something. Even though you can’t do an animated movies with dinosaurs without someone saying “this is a little bit like A Land Before Time”. Even though (or perhaps because) it had a number of direct-to-video sequels. And a terrible animated series.

Let’s do this a little bit different this time around. Here is what I don’t like about the movie:

The plot is very simply and the protagonists are mostly defined over one character trait. I also think that the religious undertones are a little bit odd. Not bad, just odd. And then there is the T-Rex, who is oddly interested in what it is barely a mouthful. Wouldn’t it make more sense to follow the bigger group of dinosaurs?

And here is what I like:

While the plot is simple and the characters could use some additional layers,  both work really well as a backdrop to address the themes like faith and the value of diversity. Unlike other Don Bluth movies, which are full of random characters, this one focusses on the main group. The animation is gorgeous and the T-Rex is as a result properly terrifying. And then there is the soundtrack. The score is very atmospheric (hard to go wrong with James Horner) and “If We Hold on Together” is one of those songs which are not exactly unforgettable, but which pop immediately back into your mind once you hear the tune.

All in all this is certainly a movie which is worth the watch.

 

Now, even though I didn’t narrow it down further this time around, you can. Pick three, leave the one you think should win.

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The Swanpride Award: Top Three

Here is the Top 5:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

This really isn’t getting any easier, especially since those are very different movies…with the exception of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which are kind of similar. Same song writers, a lot of the same animators and the same method to address a larger issue in the structure of a fairy tale. Looking at them side by side, though, I think the Beauty of the Beast does it a little bit better. It does have what I consider Alan Menken’s and Howard Ashman’s best soundtrack, perhaps the best soundtrack of all Disney movies, not just in terms of the music, but also in the terms of how the songs are used. It also doesn’t undermine the message of the movie at any point, and it doesn’t take the detours The Little Mermaid takes. I think only one those two should be in the top three, and while The Little Mermaid introduced a great concept for a Disney Princess movie, Beauty and the Beast improved on it on every turn and therefore deserves to be in the top three.

And I guess it is time for The Secret of Nimh to go. All the other movies on the list are highly influential. The Secret of Nimh isn’t. It is mostly retreating the familiar Disney paths, not the ones Disney was walking on in the 1980s, but the ones Disney used to frequent when Walt Disney was still active in the Studio and kept pushing it to new highs. It is a really good movie, easily Don Bluth best, but it doesn’t have the overall impact the other movies (including The Little Mermaid) had. And while it is good, there are some points one has to overlook to enjoy the movie, like the presence of a magical stone in a story about science. So the top three is:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

That is actually kind of disappointing because those are mostly the expected choices. But I guess, quality always finds its audience eventually.

So, let’s take a look at the readers choice. Lady and the Tramp, the Great Mouse Detective and The Iron Giant fall out of the competition. This is the list of movies left:

 

By the time I am posting this, the main Christmas Celebration in Germany is already over. I hope you all have a Christmas which is at least as much fun as mine was.


The Swanpride Award: The Top Five

The Top Ten:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Kicking off five movies from this list will be really hard. So, what should the best movie of the century have? It should have great music. Well, all of those movies have great soundtrack, with the possible exception of Grave of the Fireflies, which only has a good one. It should have fluid, top notch animation. Which brings me back to Watership Down, which is easily the cheapest looking in this line-up (not in general, but compared to what the other movies have to offer). And it should have memorable characters in a meaningful story.

Mmm….I already wrote that Grave of the Fireflies is meaningful, but not really in the way it was intended to be. That is an aspect which can’t be overlooked during the judgement. The Adventures of Prince Achmed made it so far because it is a really impressive and in its own way influential movie, but its one big weakness are the characters and the story. This is a fairy tale full of very simple characters and the fact that it is a silent movie can no longer be an excuse for this.

The Nightmare before Christmas is another one which mainly made it that far due to its memorable soundtrack, weird designs and top-notch animation. The story is also quite good but where I kind of struggle is when I look at the characters. I still think that Jack is the only truly memorable one in the movie.

Okay, those are four movies….I still have to kick-off one.  And now I am REALLY in trouble. Because this will be the first time I will decide totally against my personal taste. I love Sleeping Beauty. I think it is a really underrated movie and deserves to be praised to the heavens because it is one of the most unusual pieces of animation out there. There simply is no other movie which has ever been animated like this. It is also a way more influential movie than most people realize (partly because it is always forgotten how old this movie is). More or less every fantasy movie which came after it copied some of the designs. The Swan Princess ripped off this movie left and right. Disney itself reused some of the best parts. The dance in the end turns up again at the end of Beauty and the Beast, Jafar in Aladdin is basically a less threatening copy of Maleficent, The Lion King reused the idea with the tree bridge (and made it more iconic in the process).

If this award session would be based only on personal taste, Sleeping Beauty would at the very least end up in the top three…it might even end up the overall winner. But I need to consider every angle and there is no denying that there are some pacing problems (mainly the scene with the kings being too long) and plot contrivances which I can’t overlook. It is a hard decision, but the top five animated movies of the 20th century are:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Well, in the readers choice selection, Sleeping Beauty also was just voted out, alongside with Charlotte’s Web, The Nightmare before Christmas, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Prince of Egypt. Tomorrow I’ll add picks to the list one last time, since I don’t think that there will be much of a change in the voting of the past articles. So, last chance to put any movie from the late 1980s forward. And another chance to kick up to five movies off the list.

 

 


The Swanpride Award: Final Selection

Time to see, which movies are still in the run:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Yellow Submarine (1968), Georg Dunning, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoro Oshii, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional

14 Movies and to my big surprise, only six of them are Disney productions, one of them not even done by the animation studio. But that is mostly because Disney tends to release their best movies in a row, so often outstanding Disney movies knocked other really great ones out of the competition.

I am not surprised, though, that most of the movies are traditionally animated. The 20th century was the century of traditional animation. I guess the 21th century will be the century of CGI.

Naturally my readers didn’t always agree with me. In some years, there simply were a number of good movies and sometimes I picked a fairly unknown movie over a very well-known one. I admit, though, that I am very happy that nobody so far has used the “other” option at my polls – well, someone did, but since he or she didn’t bother to comment what should have won instead, I guess at the very least I got the nomination lists right.

Now, tomorrow I will narrow down the list to ten, then to five, then to three and then I will decide on the final winner. I’ll deal with the movies my readers voted for a little bit different. Mostly because it would be premature to close the polls for the last movies I discussed. So here is what I’ll do: I’ll put every movie anyone has ever voted for on a list, but from those articles which have been up at least one week. Everyday you can vote out five which you don’t think deserve the overall win. And everyday I will add new movies which got votes later to the list. I guess this way we should be able to find a readers choice winner by new year.


The Swanpride Award: 1989 and 1990

Taken into consideration:

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

The Nutcracker Prince (1990), Paul Schibli, Traditional

Peter in Magicland (1990), Wolfgang Urchs, Traditional

I am actually not sure why I put The Nutcracker Prince and Peter in Magicland on the list in the first place. Perhaps because they are both Christmas movies, and I needed some cheering up after all the grimness I slogged through in the last week. I guess I have forgotten that I don’t like The Nutcracker Prince at all. Peter in Magicland is a surprisingly well-done German production based on a German children book (well, they did hire some Disney talent), and certainly a good watch the same way the Rankin/Bass holiday movies are a good watch. But let’s stick to the masters of the trade for now.

Nominees-1989-and-1990

Nominated:

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

So, one last time a big break-down of the movies in question. And look, nothing depressing in sight this time around!

  • The Story: I love the premise of Kiki’s Delivery Service. I don’t like the execution of it. Let me explain: The story is basically about Kiki having to learn to stand on her own feet. And she has to do so in the worst way possible, not step by step but she is practically on her own from one day to another. And then the movie does something which really angered me: It starts removing obstacles. In a way, the bakers take the place of her parents, providing her with a place to stay, the basics to start her business, they even find Kiki her first customer. The whole thing is not just utterly dishonest, it creates a giant plot problem. Because the actual challenges were moved out of the way by the writers, they now have to make up problems for Kiki. Some of them work, like her struggling with delivering a package (though I would have thrown that in after she already had a good start). Others don’t work at all. Especially not the part when she suddenly has trouble to fly. And the solution for it is just utterly predictable. Most boring climax ever!

    There is nothing boring about All Dogs Go to Heaven though. Of all the Don Bluth’s movies, this is the bravest one, because it is so gritty. There are criminals which actually act like criminals, there is even a depiction of hell in it. Nothing I would necessarily show smaller children, but then the redemption story-arc isn’t suited for them either. Some of the themes and references in this movie would go over their head either way, you need to be at least old enough to have seen some gangster movies to see this movie as more as just the story of a dog and an orphan.

    I have talked a lot about The Little Mermaid the last two months. To summon it up, I don’t think that the movie is a good adaptation of the source text, but it is a great movie in its own right. It is a very layered story about the relationship between parents and teenagers, an allegorical tale about growing up.

    I consider The Rescuers Down Under as the first sequel to an animated movie which can be considered at least as good as the first one.  Nowadays we have gotten used to good sequels, but back then, not only were sequels to animated movies a rarity, the few which existed were frankly awful (and they only got worse in the 1990s). It does have one problem though that a lot of sequels have: It is the same basic story the first one had. The big difference is, though, that the first one was a detective story with adventure elements thrown in. This one is action adventure pure. It doesn’t have the layers something like The Little Mermaid has, but in terms of danger and suspense, it delivers in spades. My only real gripe with it is the ending. There are too many plot points left open (like the fact that Cody’s mother believes him dead and that a number of animals are still imprisoned in McLeach’s cave).

  • The Characters: Kiki is a very likable character. Even if she is sometimes foolish in her enthusiasm, her determination to do the right and not the easy thing but always the right thing is very endearing. Even if her morals are a little bit over the top at times. There is nothing wrong with allowing someone to pay for a delivery he ordered, even when he has to cancel it in the last minute. But she means well, and that she is a genuinely nice person makes it easy to forgive her when she is acting unfair for foolish reasons.
    Everyone else is just there. None of the characters left a lasting impact on me.

    Anne Marie could have used some of those flaws. She is a little bit too nice and naïve for an orphan. But her character nevertheless works well, because it contrasts with Charlie’s opportunism. Who in turn mostly comes off as likable, because Carface is so much worse. Charlie might be a scoundrel, but there are lines he would never cross. There really aren’t that many anti-heroes in animation, and Charlie is one of the most memorable.

    Well, as I said yesterday, Ariel is great. But what about the other characters? Triton and Sebastian have both their own little arc, which ties in perfectly with main story. They are both flawed, but their flaws are understandable and easily to relate to. Eric has just enough character to be not totally boring. Ursula is exactly the mix of flamboyance and sneakiness I want in a Disney Villain. All the other characters are okay. They work in the story but I can take or leave them.

    When I wrote my article about Miss Bianca, I went into great detail why she gets kind of short-shifted in Rescuers Down Under. But I like all the new characters. Jack might have the role to be Bernard’s rival, but Disney avoided making him a bad person. He is therefore still sympathetic and way less annoying than those kind of characters usually are. Percival C. McLeach is one of the most brutal Disney villains around, but some really good voice-acting turns him into a very personable character.  In the end, though, the movie hinges on the audience liking Cody. What can I say, somehow Disney has managed to make the notion of a heroic child who spends his time rescuing animals in the outback believable. But they also know when it is time for Cody to loose his defiance, at which point even a brave child would be terrified.

    Side note: I always wanted to read a crossover in which all those animated children who speak with animals in a world no-one else can (Penny, Anne-Marie, Cody) meet each other.

  • The Music: I would describe the Soundtrack of Kiki’s Delivery service as serviceable. It’s a nice tune which does exactly what it is supposed to do, but I won’t be humming it anytime soon.

    I love the jazzy tunes in All Dog’s Go to Heaven. But while I like the melody of the songs, I am sometimes not sure about the way they are sung. But they are well placed and usually have a point somewhere in the text. The exception are “What mine is yours” and “Let’s make music together”. Those are only there to fill some time.

    I already wrote a very detailed analysis of the music in The Little Mermaid last month. To summon it up, it can’t get better than Alan Menken and Howard Ashman working together. The songs are perfectly placed, the texts are clever, this is just a nearly perfect soundtrack.

    There is another aspect which is different about “The Rescuers Down Under” compared to the first movie: there are no songs. At all. Even Disney movies which aren’t musicals have usually at least one song in it. But nope, not this one. It is all score, and from the very first minute, it catches your attention. I can’t describe it, I have to show it off:

    That is the perfect combination of music and animation. Just breath-taking!

  • The Animation: As is the animation in itself! The Rescuers Down Under was the first movie for which Disney used CAPS and the result is gorgeous. It pains me that The Rescuers Down Under is one of the overlooked movies in the Disney line-up, because this is the kind animation you should have seen on the big screen at least once.

    Consequently The Little Mermaid is the last Disney movie which was done “old style”. Which is an achievement in itself. The character animation is spot on, the movements under water are convincing and I don’t even want to know how much time was spend on the big battle in the end.

    Not that All Dogs Go to Heaven has to hide. I especially dig the dark colour palette and the detailed backgrounds. That is Don Bluth in his most successful period, and it shows  in the quality of the animation.

    Compared to those three, Kiki’s Delivery Service is just okay. There is nothing wrong with its animation, but there is also nothing about it which impresses me.

Well, I guess it is clear that I consider Kiki’s Delivery Service as the weakest of those movies. The Rescuers Down Under might actually the best when it comes to music and animation, but as a whole, it sadly falls short due to some story-telling problems. All Dogs Go to Heaven is really good. The Little Mermaid is even better. Yeah, I go with the obvious choice this time around.

Since I already covered the 1990s, we are now through with the 20th century. Here is what I’ll do next: Tomorrow, I’ll post a list of the movies still in the competition and then I’ll start to narrow it down step by step by going really nit-picky on the movies, so that I’ll hopefully have an overall winner by Christmas. I will also constantly compare my choices with my readers choices (and comments), so don’t stop voting and commenting.

 

 


The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of 1985 and 1986

Taken into consideration:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

When the Wind Blows (1986), Jimmy Murakami, Traditional/Stop motion

Valhalla (1986), Peter Madson, Traditional

Honestly, what is the deal with animated movies during that period? Why are so many of them designed to depress the audience? Especially the English ones. I thought that Plague Dogs is bleak, but that is nothing against When the Wind Blows. Which I mostly put on the consideration list because it mixes different animation techniques, and I am always interested in movies which do that. This one doesn’t do it well at all, btw. I like neither the animation nor the voice acting nor the pacing. The story…well, if you ever really wanted to watch the consequences a Third World War would have, here is your chance. But I certainly won’t discuss this one in detail.

Valhalla is a Danish movie about Norse Mythology. It is one of those middling productions. There is nothing really bad about it, but also nothing really good either. It made me hope, though, that someone else will decide to tackle Norse Mythology at one point. Perhaps now might be the right time for it. Everyone is watching the comic book version of it, Vikings is a reasonable successful show, I think an animated movies based on some of the better myths might resonate with the audience.

In any case, I ended up with four movies.

Nominees-1985-and-1986

 

Nominated:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

The Adventures of Mark Twain is kind of the wild card in this line-up. The movie isn’t that well known, but it was for a long time (until Laika entered the frame) considered the best claymation movie. The other three, well, they are from three masters of animation. But I will discuss The Great Mouse Detective only very briefly. Mostly because I already did. If you want a detailed analysis of every aspect of the movie, you can read that article. Here I will only mention it briefly in relation to the other movies.

  • The Story: I would describe most of those movies as an adventure, with the exception of the one which has actually the word in its title. The Adventures of Mark Twain is more an experience. It’s a homage to the famous author. And as such, it only works if you already know about him and his works. Otherwise you will feel totally lost in the countless references. Actually, even if you do know it is better to not try to think too much about it. It’s the kind of story-telling you either get immersed in or you wonder why you are wasting time with this nonsense.

    Laputa on the other hand is adventure pure. The movie starts in medias res and moves from one action scene to the next. Perhaps it is a little bit too much adventure. There is a point at which the constant pattern of Sheeta escapes/is nearly captured/ escapes/ is captured by Musca/ escapes again/ is captured again/ escapes again becomes a little bit too repetitive. But otherwise it is a fun watch.

    Speaking of repetitiveness, ever noticed how often Feivel just misses encountering his family? An American Tail really goes out of its way to play with the emotion of the audience. When Feivel finally finds his family, it is really difficult not to bawl with them. But the emotional aspect  is just one side of the movie. You can watch it like a child and just enjoy the journey. But once you have acquired some knowledge about the history of America, you develop a new understanding for the movie. It shows a glimpse of the process of immigration without being too into the face about it. The reasons why a family might risk it, the hopes which get dashed by reality, how the plight of the needy is used by scrupulous people and the struggle to find a place in the new society. If I have one point of criticism, it is the way characters phase in and out of the movie. Take Tony. He encounters Feivel in one scene, turns totally randomly up again a few scenes later for a short romantic subplot and then more or less phases into the background.

    I think I like the story of The Great Mouse Detective the best, even though it does require to ignore some oddities.  But it has the most variety, offering a number of different settings and scenarios. And the best climax.

 

  • The Characters: Mark Twain is a fascinating personality, even when he is made out of clay. All the other characters in this movie are just there. They are just references to Mark Twain stories, otherwise they are as interesting as, well, a clump of clay. Whatever potential those characters have, it was never formed.

    Sheeta is a surprisingly engaging main character, considering that she mainly gets kidnapped. As is Pazu. But my favourite is Captain Dora. I just love the idea to turn a pirate captain into an old woman. Though she might be the nicest pirate ever put on screen. Honestly, she doesn’t even care that all her efforts are nearly for nothing in the end because she likes Sheeta and Pazu so much. This alliance is kind of odd, but since I enjoy every moment the movie spends on Captain Dora, and don’t mind too much.

    As much as I complained about the mass of characters in Feivel, none of them are forgettable. Even Bridget is kind of interesting in her engagement against the cats. But the heart of the movie is the relationship between Feivel and his father. If those character don’t work, the whole movie fails. Spoiler alert: they do. Feivel is exactly the right mixture of the wide-eyed innocence you would expect in a child, cleverness and determination. It is mostly the optimism which makes his father likable in the beginning. Seeing him sad and broken when he believes that Feivel died, breaks my heart every time.

    The Great Mouse Detective has it really easy in this regard. You really have to try to make Sherlock Holmes a boring character. But Basil is one of the most entertaining depiction of him and Rattigan is one of the best versions of Moriarty.

 

  • The Music: Usually I am listening to the soundtrack of the various movies while I write this segment. This proofed to be difficult for The Adventures of Mark Twain, though. Apparently the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack? Well, it naturally has a score, but it was never released independent form the movie. And trying to remember the score, I can neither say that I particularly liked or disliked it.

    The score of Laputa makes me want to fly, though. And I have a slight fear out of highs. But just listening to it I feel the wind on my face and a sense of freedom.

    But the true earworm in this selection is “Somewhere out there”. While I hate the was it is sung in the movie itself, it is a wonderful tune in general. So wonderful that I tend to forget that there are actually a number of other songs, too. Or maybe I don’t want to remember. There was a time when I could hum them all, but this is a rare case of me falling out of love with a soundtrack with each passing year. Not the score though, just the majority of the songs.

    The Great Mouse Detective on the other hand shows that Disney has recovered from its lapse in judgement in the previous movies. This is an expertly scored movie, which uses the few songs in it very deliberately.

 

  • The Animation: Claymation isn’t exactly my favourite method of animation, especially not when it is still very visible what material was used. And frankly, some of the designs in The Adventures of Mark Twain are really disturbing, and not always intentionally so. The level of skill displayed here is impressive, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a pleasing to watch.

    I guess you know what will come now: I have to discuss a Studio Ghibli movie, so it is time to praise the creativity and the quality of the world-building. Consider it done. Great animations, great designs, nothing to complain about and a lot to love.

    An American Tail is Don Bluth at his finest. I especially like it whenever the movie allows us a glimpse of the human world showing the mouse equivalent. That is really cleverly done.

    The animation of the Great Mouse Detective on the other hand is good, but it is not the best Disney can do.

 

I admit freely: Whenever I make one of those consideration list, there is usually one movie which is the “expected winner” in the back of my mind. A movie which is so well known and so beloved, that it is hard to imagine that it will be knocked from the top spot, unless it encounters another movie which is just as beloved. But I also always try to keep an open mind when I examine the strength and weaknesses of said movies, and sometimes the result surprises myself. For example, I did expect The Lion King to make it to the final round.

In this case, An American Tail seemed to be the obvious pick for the win, unless there was a surprise gem between the movies I hadn’t watched before. It was, after all, the highest grossing animated movie not made by Disney during the time of its release – and one of those movies I obsessed over after I saw it. I must have watched it dozens of times in the first year I owned it. And yet, it wasn’t my choice in the end. First Laputa turned out to be a very positive surprise. And then I re-examine The Great Mouse Detective and realized how strong this movie truly is. So I ended up with another of those “I might pick something else on another day” situations. The deciding factor was the script of The Great Mouse Detective. This is a really well-written movie with equally well-written characters which never moves in circles like the other two movie do. Therefore it is my pick for today.

 


The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of the early 1980s

 

Okay, time to cover the period I initially skipped, starting with the first half of the 1980s (meaning 1980 to 1984). All in all a quite exciting period. Not only was Don Bluth challenging Disney, Mayazaki was also involved in his first movie production. It is the start of what I dubbed the Multi-Age. And it did start with a bang.

Up for Consideration:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Plague Dogs (1982), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Les Maîtres du temps (1982), René Laloux, Traditional

Barefoot Gen (1983), Madhouse, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Yep, that is quite an impressive list, which I have to shorten a little bit. Let’s stat with Les Maîtres du temps. Remember what I said about the last Laloux movie? That it had an interesting concept but a wonky execution? Well, I need to repeat the assessment. I love the idea of a science fiction movie about a crew trying to reach a little boy who is alone on a foreign planet, trying to keep him from danger by communicating with him. But the movie isn’t focussed, the characters change constantly based on what is needed for the story and a very stupid twist is thrown into the mix at the very end.

The second is The Plague Dogs. I have a lot of respect for this movie, especially since it is one of the few cases in which the movie version actually has the more challenging ending compared to the book version. But it lacks the more poetic aspects Watership Down had, the animation as well as the voice acting are worse and the story as a whole is so relentlessly bleak that it kills every bit of investment I might have had in the characters. I don’t mind depressing when it is done well, but an overload it only causes a feeling of numbness in me. I would say that it is even more bleak than Barefoot Gen, and that movie is about the nuclear attack on Hiroshima!

Though I scratched Barefoot Gen off the list, too, not because of its subject matter. I actually think that the movie tells a great story. But I like neither the animation nor the character designs. It is just so odd to see a story like this told with characters in it which might come from a random sport anime. Both aspects really drag this movie down. In another playing field it as well as The Plague Dogs would have made the list, but in thise one, there are four movies which are definitely stronger.Nominees-1980th-early

Nominated:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Disney and Miyazaki made the list mostly based on their animation, Don Bluth and Rankin/Bass mostly based on offering strong characters. But what about the stories of those movies?

  • The Story:  So, we have three movies based on books and one based on a Manga – though as far as I understand the Manga was mostly written to make the movie a possibility. The funny thing is that I have read neither of those books, though I do know that The Last Unicorn is the only adaptation which bothers to stick somewhat close to the source text. As far as I know, it basically only cuts out some subplots and leaves out some (arguably important) explanations. But let’s forget the books as well as the Manga and focus on the question if those movies work.The Fox and the Hound is problematic. It starts well and it has a great finale, but some of the steps taken to reach this finale are a little bit wonky. The main problem is that Copper’s turn to suddenly hating Tod doesn’t really make that much sense, especially if you consider that Chief survives. Even if he had died it would have been a hard sell, since Tod isn’t directly responsible for his injury in the first place. Copper swearing to kill him is a really extreme reaction. Also, there is a whole subplot which has nothing to do with anything. As much fun as hunt for caterpillar is occasionally, it is just a giant filler.

    The Secret of Nimh shows Don Bluth’s tendency to episodic storytelling, but in this movie, it works, since everything ties back to the one big goal, rescuing Timothy’s life. It also never looses sight of the main theme of the movie which is not, as one might suspect, questions of humanity or the moral behind experiences on animals but the true nature of bravery. This in mind it is even forgivable that the movie throws in magic into the mix out of nowhere. It doesn’t really fit the story of rats which obtained human intelligence, but it does provide the key (see what I did there?) to the true centre of the story.

    The Last Unicorn is telling a very traditional story while cleverly subverting a lot of fantasy tropes. Here the wizard is not all-powerful, one of the main heroes is a middle-aged woman and the heroic knight doesn’t impress anyone with the killing of a dragon. It is an interesting discussion of myths and the roles they play in our lives.

    Nausicaä (no, I don’t intend to write the whole title every time) feels a little bit overwrought. There are so many characters and storylines compressed in that movie, it feels overly long and rushed at the same time. Granted, the running time of 117 minutes is longer than usual. Most animated movies keep it somewhere around the 90 minutes mark. But this one either needed around 20 minutes more or one turn in the story less. Thematically it is about the relationship between humans and nature. Miyazaki is a little bit obsessed with the theme. Sometimes he handles it exceptionally well, but in this case he falls more on the preachy side of things. Not annoyingly so, but the moral is a little bit too much in your face for my taste.

 

  • The Characters: Well, I already mentioned that the strength of The Secret of Nimh and The Last Unicorn lies in the characters. In fact, Mrs Brisby was the first female character I ever discussed in my other blog, Honoring the Heroine. But I appreciate the other characters, too. Well, with the possible exception of Jeremy. He doesn’t annoy me, but other than bringing Mrs. Brisby to the owl, he is a really useless and distracting character. Also, I think the voice acting in the English version could be better. But the writing for those characters, especially Mrs Brisby, is so strong, that it is only a minor point.I haven’t gotten around yet to write an article about Molly Grue, but she is certainly on the list. I just love the scene in which she asks the Unicorn why she didn’t appear when Molly was still young and innocent. Schmendrick is a  very sympathetic character in his eagerness to please. Everyone else works just fine. Mama Fortuna stands out, I think mostly because she is voiced by Angela Lansbury. But what I like the most is that the movie manages to portray the Unicorn as compassionate but foreign.

    Nausicaä is a little bit of a controversial character. Since she is practically portrayed as the messiah of her people (and the movie is really not subtle in this regard), she is sometimes seen as a Mary Sue. I disagree with the notion. Now, I do think that she would be a little bit more interesting if she were a little bit more flawed. The one scene in which she does something questionable is when she kills the soldiers who murdered her father in a fit of rage. It is a little bit odd how she suddenly feels guilty and after that the moment is never mentioned again. The other characters, well, let’s put it this way: I think I would really like all of them if the movie would spend more time on them. It feels like they all are getting established and then immediately showed aside until the final confrontation.

    The Fox and the Hound has two strong protagonists in Tod and Copper, two equally strong antagonists in Slade and Chief (plus a terrifying bear) and a lot of characters which only seem to be there to fill time. But then, the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tod and Copper, so the focus is exactly where it should be.

 

  • The Soundtrack: Excuse me while I gush a little bit. I love, love, love the Soundtrack form The Secret of Nimh. That is Jerry Goldsmith at his finest (even though it was the first time he scored an animated feature). It’s magical, scary, oppressive, heart-wrenching, whatever is needed in any given scene. And the main theme (and song) is one of those relentless earworms which I will most likely hum the rest of the week now that I listened to it again.Speaking of earworms: I never really thought about it beforehand, but the soundtrack of Nausicaä might be my favourite of all the Studio Ghibli ones. It is as if it is drawing the world of Nausicaä in music. And the vocal theme song is yet another of  those hard to forget tunes.

    As is the main theme of The Last Unicorn. “I’m alive…I’m aliiiiiiiiive!”  The style might be an strange choice for a fantasy movie, but for this more oddball approach to the genre it is a good fit. Mostly. Here is a fun fact: For the German version of the movie, “Now that I am a woman” was kept in the original language, but it was played more as a background music with a voice-over added which translated the lyrics of the song. The result sounds like a poem, which fits the melancholic mood of the scene perfectly. But in the English version, sung like a pop song, it is a little bit grating.

    The worst one out in this selection is clearly The Fox and the Hound. The only song which really works is “Goodbye  may seem forever”. Otherwise the soundtrack falls somewhere between okay and cringeworthy.  Normally you can trust that even in the worst Disney movies, at least the soundtrack is good. I am not sure what went wrong here. Perhaps Buddy Baker had trouble with the medium?

 

  • The Animation: I feel like a kid in a candy shop! The Fox and the Hound can be considered the first movie in which Disney struggled out of their slump and started to put some real effort (and money) into the animation. The landscapes are beautiful and then there is the bear. Pixar really should take notes. That’s how a truly terrifying bear looks like.The Secret of Nimh is Don Bluth showing off what he can do, and the result is gorgeous, especially when Mrs. Brisby visits the rats. But in a way, I like the dark scenes even better than the colourful and flashy ones. The use of colour to set a certain mood is just spot on in this movie.

    Nausicaä is creativity pure. I guess one of the reasons I wanted this movie to be longer is that I would have loved to just watch this incredible world a little bit more. The character animations are sometimes a little bit too cartoony, but that is really the only (nit-picky) criticism I have.

    I guess The Last Unicorn is the weakest in this category. The smaller budget shows. But I like the basic art and the animation does have its stand-out moments. Especially whenever the Red Bull turns up.

Well, Disney had easily the weakest offering of those four. The Last Unicorn cold have been an impressive movie, if there had been a bigger budget and perhaps one last rewrite of the script to smooth out some minor points. Nausicäa is a very strong movie, especially when it comes to its animation. But in the end, I think The Secret of Nimh beats them all. It has a strong story, an outstanding well-written main character, an unbelievable moving soundtrack and impressive animation. It certainly deserves the title as the best animated movie made in the early 1980s.


A not so small reminder…

My article series for the Swanpride Award starts soon. You have still time to put your own nominations forward. Until then, here a list of the 85 movies I took into consideration. That doesn’t mean that those movies ended up on the nomination list, it only means that those movies got my attention. Feel free to add to the list and/or nominate movies from the list to ensure that I’ll discuss them at least briefly.

Up for consideration (sorted by release date):

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

The Tale of the Fox (1930) by Ladislas Starevich, Stop-Motion

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney, Traditional

Gulliver’s Travels (1939) by Fleischer Studios, Traditional

Pinocchio (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Dumbo (1941), Walt Disney, Traditional

Mr. Bug goes to Town (1941), Fleischer Studios, Traditional

Princess Iron Fan (1941), The Wan Brothers, Traditional

Bambi (1942), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Singing Princess/La Rosa Di Bagdad (1949), Anton Gino Domeghini, Traditional

Cinderella (1950), Walt Disney, Traditional

Alice in Wonderland (1952), Walt Disney, Traditional

Peter Pan (1953), Walt Disney, Traditional

Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (1954), RKO Radio Pictures, Stop Motion

Animal Farm (1954), Halas and Batchelor, Traditional

Lady and the Tramp (1955), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Walt Disney, Traditional

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), Harry Everett Smith, Cut-out

The Sword in the Stone (1963), Walt Disney Traditional

The Jungle Book (1967), Walt Disney, Traditional

Yellow Submarine (1968), Georg Dunning, Traditional

Fritz the Cat (1972), Ralph Bakshi, Traditional

Charlotte’s Web (1973), Hanna-Barbera, Traditional

Fantastic Planet (1973), René Laloux/ Jiří Trnka Studio, Cutout

Robin Hood (1973), Disney, Traditional

Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1974), Karel Zeman, Traditional

Mattie the Goose Boy (1976), Pannonia Film Studio, Traditional

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers (1977), Disney, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martine Rosen, Traditional

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Plague Dogs (1982), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Les Maîtres du temps (1982), René Laloux, Traditional

Barefoot Gen (1983), Madhouse, Traditional

Nausicaa (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

When the Wind Blows (1986), Jimmy Murakami, Traditional/Stop motion

Valhalla (1986), Peter Madson, Traditional

The Brave little Toaster (1987), Jerry Rees, Traditional

Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Gandahar (1988), René Laloux, Traditional

All Dogs to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

The Nutcracker Prince (1990), Paul Schibli, Traditional

Peter in Magicland (1990), Wolfgang Urchs, Traditional

An American Tail: Feivel goes West (1991), Amblin, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Only Yesterday (1991), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Aladdin (1992), Disney, Traditional

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Kroyer/Fox, Traditional

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Warner Bros, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Once Upon a Forrest (1993), Hanna-Barbera, Traditional

The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), Richard Williams, Traditional

Felidae (1994), Michael Schaack, Traditional

The Swan Princess (1994), Richard Rich, Traditional

The Lion King (1994), Disney, Traditional

Balto (1995), Amblimation, Traditional

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoro Oshii, Traditional

Toy Story (1995), Pixar, CGI

Pocahontas (1995), Disney, Traditional

Whisper of the Heart (1995), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Disney, Traditional

Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth/Fox, Traditional

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Antz (1998), DreamWorks, Traditional

A Bugs Live (1998), Pixar, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), Dream Works

Toy Story 2 (1999), Pixar, CGI

Tarzan (1999), Disney, Traditional

Fantasia 2000 (1999), Disney, Traditional

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), Trey Parker, CGI/Cut-out

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional


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.

Don-Bluth-Dark-Era

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.

Don-Bluth-Golden-Era