The Animation of Don Bluth, Part IV: A Last Hurrah and a Look Forward (1997-Present)

Previous Parts

Part I

Part II

Part III

The Seven Ages of Disney Animation


After an abysmal series of failures in the early 1990s, Bluth and Goldman were able to rebound from the terrible offerings and produce Anastasia (1997) and Titan A.E (2000) with Fox Animation Studios. These would be the last feature films to be produced by Bluth, as much of the time since then has been spent providing the animation for various videogames. However, there are plans from the team to continue producing animated features, but funding remains an issue to this day. Regardless, this period should be viewed not as a petered-out ending, but as a brief return-to-form for Bluth’s particular style of animation.

Anastasia (1997)

Based on the story of the Russian princess of the same name, this film indulges in the possibility that the young Romanov princess survived the revolution early in the twentieth century and grew up without knowledge of her royal beginnings. Anastasia’s grandmother, also a survivor, has offered a reward for anyone who can reunite the two, and a pair of conmen plan on exploiting her loneliness. Drawing characters from historical sources and including some great musical numbers, this is undoubtedly Bluth’s most “Disney-feeling” film, complete with the slightly saccharine ending. If there is a weakness to the film, it is to be found in its rather simplistic theme of discovering your place in the world and the importance of love. Still, Anastasia is a far grander film than anything else Bluth was involved with since the 1980s.

The plot for Anastasia is actually incredibly simplistic, and that may be one of its strengths. The film begins with a sort of preamble where we see a young Anastasia living with her royal family. As the Red Revolution erupts around her, she escapes from the palace but suffers a head injury, forgetting who she is. The film picks up years later when Anastasia, as a teenager, looks for her place in the world. Anastasia is alternately voiced by Kirsten Dunst (young), Lacy Chabert (young singing), Meg Ryan (adult) and Liz Callaway (adult singing) – talent which certainly speaks for itself. As her grandmother the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury) has offered 10 million rubles for her safe return, Dmitri (John Cusack) and Vlad (Kelsey Grammar) are holding auditions to find the “best” Anastasia in hopes of earning the reward. They are smitten with Anastasia (who goes by “Anya”), and decide to train her to be the “real” princess.

Concurrently, the evil priest Rasputin pursues the Romanov Princess, as he sold his soul for demonic powers to revenge himself on the royal family before the Revolution. Rasputin sends demons after Anastasia and eventually confronts her himself, though he is defeated by Dmitri. And though Anastasia is eventually reunited with her grandmother, she decides that she prefers exploring the possibility of a life with Dmitri to a royal existence. Hence, she finds her place in the world and finally feels as though she belongs somewhere, even if it wasn’t where she thought it would be.

The simplicity of the story aids in constructing characters which are more complex than anything seen in a Don Bluth film since the eighties. Anastasia isn’t just a damsel in distress. Though her problems are numerous, they also feel genuine and relatable, and we celebrate her struggle to overcome them. Dmitri and Vlad seem like shysters, but there is good within them, almost as though they are merely doing what it takes to survive in Communist Russia. And while their plan began as a ruse, when they discover that their little Anya really is Anastasia, they go to great lengths on her behalf.

Even the villain, Rasputin, is three-dimensional. Though much of his characterization is provided via narration, it is clear that he felt slighted by the Romanovs. Hence, his descent into madness and his lust for power is firmly rooted in vengeance for his wounded ego and the presumed betrayal of his trust by the Romanovs. Upon the beginning of our story, Rasputin is rather cartoonish in his evilness, even so much as falling apart as he rots ten years after his death. Still, his motivations are real and relatable even if he isn’t quite up to the quality of the best Disney villains (or Hell, even early Bluth villains).

Anastasia was well-received by the critics at the time largely on the back of its beautiful animation, charming songs, and adept cast. There is certainly an awkwardness around the events depicted in the story, as it white-washes much of the turbulent history of both the Tsarist Romanovs and the Communist Revolution in favor of a brightly-colored love story. But, this is not meant to be Dr. Zhivago, so some liberties should be awarded to the adaptation of the historical sources. In addition, as we now know that Anastasia Romanov perished in the Revolution with the rest of her family, in hindsight the film can be looked at as a kind of historical fantasy – which adds to its mystique and splendor. The film’s 85% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes remains the highest offering from Bluth since the inaugural Secret of N.I.M.H. (96%), though the film just barely recouped its budget at the worldwide box office.

That financial struggle would eventually strike the final deathblow in the production of Bluth’s animated features. Though Anastasia did make money, it did not make much after accounting for marketing and other expenses. As a result, Fox Animation Studios was not equipped to survive even a single commercial failure. And, unfortunately, the studio’s very next feature – Bluth’s final feature film – certainly qualifies.

Titan A.E. (2000)

Sadly, this high-concept sci-fi refugee flick just didn’t hit the right notes with moviegoers, but it does much fairly well. The story feels a little derivative, as though stitched together from various other science fiction stories, but it offers enough of interest to be worth watching. It is a little difficult to keep the various made-up words for aliens, ships, and technologies straight, but that is a minor grievance in the grand scheme of the film. The deep-space visuals are often spectacular, and take full advantage of Bluth’s habit for using a bright palette with intricate detail. It may be a flawed in the abstract, but it is light years better than everything else that came before it during Bluth’s last decade (excepting Anastasia).

Titan A.E. (for “After Earth”) starts off by erasing the planet Earth from existence in the first five minutes. Before the cataclysm, a ship called Titan escaped the destruction and was hidden in deep space. The ship was rumored to contain a great weapon which could turn the tide against the attacking Drej. Our story picks up 15 years later as Cale, the son of the scientist who created the Titan, learns that his ring contains a map to the derelict spaceship. Cale and a rag-tag crew of aliens embark on an adventure to re-discover the Titan and uncover its true nature, which is essentially a cleaned-up version of 2010: The Year We Make Contact. There are some great character moments, and the science fiction concepts are well-developed.

Essentially, the amount you enjoy Titan A.E. is related to your taste for the tropes of space opera. There’s not much in this film that won’t remind you of some other science fiction story that you heard once in your life. That being said, this is certainly a better film than Bluth’s disasters in the early nineties. Some of the characters may be a little broad, but at least their motivations are well-defined and you don’t instantly hate the protagonists for being whiny idiots. This film also wisely eschews a musical structure, so it feels as though it exists in a more serious reality. Finally, there is some top-notch voice acting in this one, with the likes of Matt Damon (that guy has been getting lost in space for a long time!), Drew Barrymore, and Bill Pullman voicing the main roles, and great character actors such as John Leguizamo, Nathan Lane, Janeane Garofalo, and Ron Perlman in supporting roles and even weirdos like Tone Loc and Jim Breuer contributing an odd voice here and there.

Even when Bluth chose to work from scripts rescued from the garbage, his films still managed to look full of magic and wonder, and Titan A.E. is no exception. Indeed, there are a number of sequences in the film which directly lend themselves to an animated interpretation, and it would be difficult to conceive of a way to place them in a live-action setting without just throwing CGI at the problem. The depths of space are a great place for Bluth to show off his particular style of animation, and in that context, Titan A.E. may be the prettiest of Bluth’s films (though I think that honor goes to N.I.M.H or Anastasia).

As previously mentioned, though, Fox Animation Studios was not capable of surviving a commercial flop. For all its strengths, Titan A.E. earned only $36.8 million at the box office on a production budget reported to be somewhere between $75 and $90 million. Coupled with marketing and other expenses, the film was said to have lot Fox Animation Studios over $100 million, which promptly resulted in the closure of the studio. Critics at the time were very mixed on Titan A.E., and they remain so, with most review aggregators ending up split right down the middle. Count me among those that enjoy Titan A.E. despite its flaws, as it offers some quality sci-fi entertainment with gorgeous visuals.

More Games, and Dragon’s Lair: The Movie Kickstarter Indiegogo Campaign

Since 2000, Bluth and Goldman have abandoned the world of animated features and have worked on more videogame animation and other projects, including Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair (2002), Namco’s I-Ninja (2003), and the Apple iOS game Tapper World Tour (2011). In 2004, Bluth did the animation for the music video “Mary”, by the Scissor Sisters. All these projects are immediately recognizable as Bluth’s aesthetic, and most have been well-enjoyed for what they are. But, in the immediate future, it is possible that Bluth and Goldman will return to animated features – if they can get some funding for Dragon’s Lair: The Movie!

As mentioned in previous portions of this piece, Bluth and Goldman have taken to crowd funding to generate a short “Pitch Presentation” of the film’s story which Bluth and Goldman will use to acquire studio backing for the remainder of the production budget (which is predicted to be near $70 million). They first attempted to reach $550,000 over at Kickstarter.com, but they pulled the project when they were barely halfway to the goal with only a few days to go. The project has been revived at Indiegogo.com with a new goal of only $250,000 and the campaign is over 135% funded with 10 days left. If you’re interested, the project can be found here: Dragon’s Lair Indiegogo (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/dragon-s-lair-returns#/)

Final Remarks and Conclusions

The animation style of Don Bluth was a conscious choice to return to the fabled magic of Disney’s heyday, but it wholly his own. Feeling that Disney had departed from their fantastical storytelling roots in favor of more real-world stories, Bluth set out on his own to produce the kinds of stories he loved. His success was not monetary, as multiple production companies and endeavors brought financial ruin to the animator. His success was in establishing a universally recognized aesthetic, what one might term “Bluthian Animation”. A single frame from Bluth is undoubtedly his own. Even the reviled or forgotten films contain the mark of his wonderful hand, almost in spite of everything else they do wrong. And when Bluth was able to string a great story and characters together with his gorgeous animation, he produced absolute masterpieces. The world is better for his efforts.

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