The Animation of Don Bluth – Part I: Leaving Disney and Early Independence (1979 – 1984)

On September 13th, 1979 Disney animator Don Bluth turned 42 years old. He had worked as an animator on Disney feature films for the previous eight years, and was dissatisfied with the cost-cutting measures being employed there. Also, he felt that Disney had abandoned their roots of character-driven storytelling and meticulous animation in favor of churning out banal crowd-pleasers. This led Bluth, along with Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and nine fellow Disney animators to abandon Disney and form Don Bluth Productions, their very own animation studio. Through financial struggles, ever-changing partnerships, and industry-wide strikes, Bluth and his collaborators were able to produce their own animated masterpieces which continue to delight.

The works of Don Bluth can be divided into four distinct periods: Early Independence, Sullivan Bluth Studios and Amblimation, The Early ‘90s Descent, and the Fox Redemption (and Future?). For Part I, we will focus on his early split from Disney and his first independent projects.

Leaving Disney and Early Independence (1979 – 1984)

When Don Bluth first parted ways with Disney animation studios, it was largely due to his belief that the animation giant had forgotten its ways abandoned that which made it great. Through Don Bluth Productions, he endeavored to focus on well-crafted animation techniques without employing the cost-cutting methods that the Disney executives had implemented. He also wanted to get back to more character-driven stories, and relished the opportunity to create stories with a more independent voice than those churned out by the studio system. To accomplish these feats, Bluth needed to prove that he and his team were capable of creating quality animation, which they would do through the release of Banjo the Woodpile Cat.

Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979) and Xanadu (1980)

This animated short began its life while Bluth was still working as an animator for Disney. On nights and weekends Bluth would invite other Disney animators over to his home to “rediscover” the secrets of classical animation that he felt Disney had abandoned. Banjo the Woodpile Cat tells the story of a farmhouse kitten, Banjo, whose mischievous nature results in repeated punishment from his parents. Feeling unappreciated, Banjo runs away from home by hopping on a truck bound for “The Big City” (Salt Lake City, hilariously for anyone who has ever lived there). Obviously, he is unprepared for independent living, and misses his family dearly. The remainder of the story involves him making other animal friends in the city, effecting a return to the farmhouse, and celebrating with his family upon his return.

The film is a brisk 27 minutes long, and was released as an opening short before a Christmas season re-release of The Muppets Movie, and was not shown on network television until three years later. As an artistic endeavor, its narrative feel quite wanting and simplistic, but the animation style is undoubtedly Don Bluth. Banjo and his big city buddy Crazy Legs (voiced by Scatman Crothers!) are clear progenitors of the characters in An American Tale or All Dogs Go to Heaven, and the expertise behind the animation is apparent. Such skill led to Bluth working on a short animated segment of the 1980 film Xanadu, which further cemented the company’s capabilities. For fans of Bluth, these shorter pieces are entertaining microcosms of his aesthetic, but they pale in comparison to the feature-length project that Bluth was working on at the same time: The Secret of NIMH.

The Secret of NIHM (1982)

The source material for the wonderful The Secret of NIMH was a children’s book written by Robert C. O’Brien called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The book was brought to Bluth’s attention back in 1972 when he had just begun work at Disney. Apparently, the rights to the story were offered to Disney, but the powers-that-be balked, stating, “We already have a mouse”. Bluth mentally filed the story away, and his decision to set out on his own was largely a result of acquiring the rights to the book with his financiers at Aurora, who gave him a $7 million budget to produce the film – about one quarter of what Disney spent to create a feature.

Regardless, Bluth and his animators slaved away at the film, adapting it for the big screen with some keen changes to the story. O’Brien’s book was found a bit wanting to Bluth, who actually considered the story a little disjointed and confusing. In truth, the book really tells two inter-related stories: one focused on the family of Mrs. Frisby (changed for the film to “Brisby” because purveyors of a certain plastic disc toy would not grant Bluth permission to use the homonym for some confusing reason). The other aspect of the story detailed how the rats of NIMH acquired their intelligence as a result of biomedical experimentation. In the book, the synthesis of these stories felt incomplete, so Bluth set to meld them in a more convincing manner.

As a result, The Secret of NIMH is thoroughly engaging, mysterious, and wonderful. There are sequences of horrible tension, like when the tractor first starts up or basically anytime the cat Dragon is on screen. But there is also remarkable wonder, as we wander through Mrs. Brisby’s world and see things for the first time with her. As the world of the Rats of NIMH is slowly revealed to us, we are treated with an incredibly complex story detailing the power of compassion, the hideousness of political power struggles, and some great science fiction concepts. There is a great deal going on behind the scenes of The Secret of NIMH, and it is a truly fascinating story that will reward a re-watch if you haven’t seen in since you were young. And, for those of you out there who have never experienced it, get right on that. You’ll find a film more reminiscent of The Dark Crystal in both tone and the level of respect it affords its audience. This is not the cloying aesthetic of 1970s Disney, but something special – this is Don Bluth animation introducing itself to the world.

Some accounts of the early life of this film have Bluth attempting to convince the executives that NIMH was a worthwhile endeavor, but it was seen as “too dark”, which is a bizarre conclusion given Disney’s eventual foray into the similarly dark but much more awkward The Black Cauldron, which was release three years after The Secret of NIMH. One perhaps gets the feeling that NIMH’s artistic success enticed Disney to explore similar space, but the studio was in dire straits at the time and would not approach the success of NIHM, which was actually very modest. Bluth’s first feature underperformed at the box office, but was favorably received by critics. As the film grew older, appreciation for it increased to the point that it has achieved a cult status over three decades later. Through various home releases, the film is now in the black, and it enjoys a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rating of all of Bluth’s feature films.

Unfortunately, due to the modest financial success of the film, and coupled with an industry-wide animation strike, Don Bluth Productions filed for bankruptcy after the release of The Secret of NIMH. Without a project on the horizons, Bluth and his partners looked to a new medium: video games.

Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace (1983 and 1984)

After The Secret of NIMH and the bankruptcy of Don Bluth Productions, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy joined Don Bluth again and formed The Bluth Group, which entered into a collaboration with Advanced Microcomputer Systems and created the groundbreaking arcade game Dragon’s Lair. While most arcade games of the era displayed the player’s character as a simple pixilated sprite, by taking advantage of the large storage capacity of the laserdisc format Dragon’s Lair was able to produce much more detailed graphics, and they were provided by Bluth’s studio. The next year, the same technology was made to create the space adventure game Space Ace, which pushed the storytelling elements even further.

Both games were acclaimed, and a sequel to Dragon’s Lair was in the works when the video game industry suffered a crash of nearly 97% (from $3.2 billion in 1983 to around $100 million in 1985). Over-saturation of the market is often credited as the main reason for the crash, and at the time Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace were criticized for being overly expensive amid these tough financial times. The Bluth Group again filed for bankruptcy. Posterity would look back on Dragon’s Lair kindly, though, as Gamespy would rank it as #7 on a “Top 50 Arcade Games of All Time” list in 2001 and it would join Pong and Pac-man as the only three video games stored in the Smithsonian Institution.

Don Bluth and his partners had produced multiple wonderful pieces of art across disparate media and still found themselves without acclaim, fortune, or a new project. Fortunately, Don Bluth made the acquaintance of Morris Sullivan, a businessman who shared Bluth’s love of classical animation styles. The two would form Sullivan Bluth Studios and usher in a truly marvelous period in American animation by courting celebrated director Steven Spielberg for their next project.

Be sure to come back to Plot and Theme for Part II of The Animation of Don Bluth where we look at the period during the late ‘80s where Bluth finally hit his stride and produced more complex, emotional animated stories with sustained commercial success!  Be sure to comment and share these pieces if you find them worthwhile – and check out my Disney Animated Features pieces as well!

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