In 1985, Don Bluth, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman joined with Morris Sullivan and formed Sullivan Bluth Studios. The studio was initial founded in Van Nuys, California, but moved to Dublin, Ireland to take advantage of various financial incentives and escape union pressures. Their first two projects were collaborations with Steven Spielberg, but they eventually pursued independent projects as well. For this short period of time in the late ‘80s, Don Bluth animation reached its pinnacle of commercial and artistic success with three spectacular films: An American Tale, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven.
An American Tale (1986)
As previously mentioned, the first project from Sullivan Bluth Studios was a collaboration with Steven Spielberg: the story about a family of Russian mice emigrating to America, An American Tail. This was Spielberg’s first foray into the world of animation, and the support of his production studio Amblin and also Universal Pictures were critical to the marketing and commercial success of the film. But, Spielberg’s contribution went far beyond providing money and oversight, as he also had a great deal of input with regards to story, characters, and aesthetics. For example, Spielberg insisted on naming the young mouse, “Fievel” despite Bluth’s fear that the name was too foreign-sounding and would be hard for the audience to remember.
On the surface level, An American Tail is a story of a family seeking a better life in America. After being attacked by Cossacks in Russia, the Mouskewitz family (Papa, Mama, Tanya, and Fievel) decides to emigrate to America, a wonderful land without cats. This story alone would be compelling, and has often served as the opening act of numerous classic stories, from The Godfather Part II to The House of Sand and Fog. However, in route to the new world, Fievel is washed overboard and is separated from his parents (which is a recurring theme in Bluth’s best stories). Hi parents feel he is certainly drowned, but his sister Tanya nurtures a slim hope that he has survived.
Of course, Fievel has survived and washes up on the shore of New York City in a floating bottle. The rest of the narrative focuses on Fievel’s struggle to understand his way through this new world and reunite with his family. Along the way he meets and befriends other mice, but also runs into enemies like the conman Warren T. Rat who sells him to a sweatshop. He also often confronts a gang of cats called the Mott Street Maulers (so the “land without cats” promise proved to be untrue). Fievel eventually overcomes the conmen and bullies and is reunited with his family as they settle into their new lives in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
The film offers a great deal from a thematic standpoint. The standard “American Dream” concept is in full view here, as the Mousekewitz family struggles for a new, better life. At the same time, one of the major attractions to America is that it is “a land without cats”, which prove patently untrue. I doubt that this metaphor is meant to extend to “The American Dream” as a whole, as the Mousekewitz family is shown to thrive in the new land. More likely, it is a reminder not to get carried away with one’s dreams – things can most certainly get better, but they are not likely to be perfect. This is a mature view of self-improvement, goal-oriented action, and reality in general, and vaults the film above the standard “the power of hope” and “you can achieve your dreams” themes.
Don Bluth agreed to produce An American Tale for a mere $6.5 million, but production costs eventually grew to about $9 million (about 3/4th of the production cost of the average Disney animated feature at the time). Much of Bluth’s cost-cutting measured involved freezing the salaries of his employees (with their consent), which greatly angered the animators union at the time. This strife continued unabated throughout the production, and is often credited with the eventual re-location of Sullivan Bluth Studios overseas to Ireland. Regardless, the film was an amazing success at the box office, earning $150 million worldwide, beating out Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective which was released that year, and becoming the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time of its release. Critical reception was generally positive as well, with a 68% score on Rotten Tomatoes. As the first true financial success of Bluth’s, An American Tale undoubtedly brought Bluth animation to the attention of the public at large, and he was prepared to keep that attention with his next feature.
The Land Before Time (1988)
The best Dinosaur movie not named “Jurassic Park”, The Land Before Time is an absolute masterpiece of animation that is unafraid of challenging its viewer with complex themes and situations. Its story is far more harrowing than anything that Disney was producing at the time, the animation recreates a spectacular prehistoric world, and the characters are all flawed yet imminently loveable. Somehow, this brisk film is able to dramatize discrimination, mortality, friendship, and struggling against all odds to reunite with those whom you love.
The film opens with an underwater view as a narrator whisks the audience back to prehistory, long before humans, antelopes, or even the mammoth. This is the land of the dinosaurs. If these opening sequences remind of The Rite of Spring portion of Fantasia, you’ll be happy to know that producers Spielberg and George Lucas were heavily inspired by that piece, and had to be convinced to actually put dialogue in the film. They also forced Bluth to remove some 10 minutes of footage from the finished product, mostly in an effort to reduce the film from a PG rating to a G rating. We’re introduced to the flat-toothed plant-eaters and the sharptooths, which eat the plant-eaters. This is all described matter-of-factly, and though the sharptooths are given an air of terror, they are not categorized as malicious or evil, simply another part of the world. We meet the three-horns, the fliers, the big-mouths, the spike-tails, and the long-necks. Each group keeps to itself, but all are journeying towards The Great Valley in search of food and water, as the land has been scarred by drought. They stop only to hatch their young, which is where our story starts.
Foreshadowing the terror that we will soon experience, an egg thief steals the egg of our main protagonist from his mother and grandparents in a very dark and frightening sequence. Eventually, as the egg is saved and comes to a stop, it hatches to reveal Littlefoot, first so named by the narrator. If this film has a weakness, it is in its insistence to use the narrator as a means for providing exposition and often over-explaining the feelings of characters on screen (when, generally speaking, their emotions are perfectly defined by the voice-acting, animation, and plot points). Regardless, Littlefoot explores his world, learns of the journey to The Great Valley, and asks questions about why longnecks and three-horns can’t play together. “We stick to our own kind; it’s the way it’s always been”, his mother explains.
Later, when playing with one of the three-horns named Cera, Littlefoot is caught in an earthquake and attacked by a sharptooth, and only escapes because his mother battles it back and knocks it into a newly-formed chasm. This separates Cera and Littlefoot from their guardians. Unfortunately, Littlefoot’s mother struggles to regain her footing during a dour downpour, and instead tells him to remember the way to the Great Valley as she succumbs to her wounds. A brilliant but sad sequence follows as Littlefoot rages and cries to an old spike-tail named Rooter that, “She should’ve known better – that was a sharptooth!”. The old dinosaur’s, “Oh, I see. I see” is a fantastic bit of voice acting and animation, and his supportive advice to Littlefoot is wonderful as well: it is no one’s fault, it’s just the way of things. Rooter’s appearance was suggested by Spielberg as a way to “soften the blow” of the mother’s death, and it does a reasonable job of that. Still, this is a harrowing and remarkable thing to include in a story for children. It is no surprise that Spielberg’s original vision was, “Bambi with dinosaurs”.
Alone now, Littlefoot has to travel to the Great Valley on his own now by walking towards where the sun touches the ground, as his mother instructed him. Along the way he meets Ducky (a big-mouth), Petri (a flier), Spike (a newly-hatched spike-tail) and reunites with Cera (who insists that the sharptooth is still alive). Through their travels, they fight over the proper way to go, struggle to find food and water, and must escape sharptooth attacks. Eventually, they each learn a specific valuable lesson which allows them to kill the sharptooth once-and-for-all, and their journey culminates in the discovery of The Great Valley as they reunite with their respective families.
The Land Before Time is unique among Don Bluth’s animated features for the blunt and tragic nature of its story. While other films of his threaten and intimate that danger is possible, Littlefoot actually watches his mother die, leaving him completely alone to face a terribly hostile world. Still, Bluth offers us the antidote of determination and friendship as a means for overcoming even the greatest hardships, and each member of the group manages to have his or her own important arc (except maybe for Spike, who doesn’t really do much here). This is a wonderful film that never minces its words nor patronizes the viewer.
Audiences certainly would agree. The film was another commercial success, grossing nearly $85 million worldwide on a $12.5 million budget and once again besting Disney’s offering of the year (Oliver and Company). The critical reaction was similar to An American Tail, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70%. The film is fondly remembered, and has birthed an entire franchise of direct-to-home-video musical sequels (none of which contain any involvement from Bluth or Spielberg). Despite its short length, it is a fully-developed exploration of loss, friendship, and determination. It should continue to delight and educate children for generations to come.
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
The final film included in this era is the bizarre All Dogs Go to Heaven, which is undoubtedly the least compelling of the three films. Don Bluth originally conceived of an anthology of detective stories starring Burt Reynolds as a German shepherd around the release of The Secret of NIMH, but the financial struggles of the time led him to abandon the idea. Now, upon the success of the previous two films under partnership with Spielberg and Amblin, he re-worked the script into the gambling, heaven-and-hell focused nightmare fuel that we know today. Finally free from any control of Spielberg or Lucas, Bluth was able to present his untarnished treatise on trust, exploitation, and love.
The basic story involves a pair of dogs: Charlie Barkin (a German shepherd, voiced by Burt Reynolds) and Itchie Ichaford (a dachshund voiced by Dom Deluise, rejoining the Bluth team after taking The Land Before Time off). Charlie just got out of jail, and the two have a mutal bulldog friend Carface who owns a casino. Charlie did Carface a solid in the past by not turning him in, and now upon his release he is owed half the proceeds from the casino. But instead, Carface decides to just kill Charlie by getting him drunk, putting him in a car, and driving it off the pier. Charlie dies, goes to heaven, and learns that if he rewinds the watch which symbolizes the length of his life, he gets to return to Earth. He does so, but condemns himself to Hell in the process – but at least he can get even with Carface.
Charlie and Itchie discover that Carface’s success is due to Anne Marie, a young girl who can talk to animals and determine which rats will win the race. The two kidnap Anne Marie and open their own casino, but heavily exploit the girl along the way. The girl falls for her “rescuers” on the promise that they will find her a forever family, but Charlie accidentally reveals his manipulations to her, and she escapes, only to be re-captured by Carface. The third act involves Charlie rescuing her, sacrificing himself, and earning his place back in Heaven.
The peculiar and noteworthy thing about All Dogs Go to Heaven is just how unapologetic it is about its filth. This is a children’s movie that involves drinking, gambling, murder, sin, exploitation of children, and multiple depictions of eternal damnation. That being said, for all its strangeness, it does offer a reasonable view into the delicate nature of trust and friendship. The musical number sung by Anne Marie (a hauntingly sad Judith Barsi – far sadder when you know the true story) is the highlight of the film, and lends a lot of emotion to an otherwise confusing film.
Unfortunately for Dogs, it was released in direct competition with Disney’s new movie about a young mermaid – so it never had a chance. It performed reasonably well at the box office, doubling its $13.8 million budget, but it was truly lost in the shadows of The Little Mermaid. It had something interesting to offer, but the dour and seedy subject matter scared a lot of viewers and critics away. As a result, All Dogs Go to Heaven would be the last success of Don Bluth’s successes for quite a long time. Instead, he would struggle to equal the heights of the Disney Renaissance (as would basically every production company during the first half of the 1990s). It would be nearly a decade before he would enjoy the success of An American Tail or The Land Before Time.
It would seem that I have timed my Don Bluth retrospective well, as Don Bluth and Gary Goldman currently have a kickstarter underway for funding a Dragon’s Lair movie. So, if you’re into Bluth, kickstarters, and etc , give a look at their project here.