Don Bluth offered a dark alternative to Disney animation

Don Bluth offered a dark alternative to Disney animation

With films like The Secret Of NIMH and The Land Before Time


It’s impossible to talk about Don Bluth without talking about Walt Disney. Bluth started as an animator and director at Walt Disney Animation Studios before founding a rival company that became Disney’s main competitor in the 1980s. During his roller coaster of a career, Bluth produced commercial hits (An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Anastasia), cult classics (The Secret Of NIMH, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Titan A.E.), and bizarre missteps (Rock-A-Doodle, A Troll In Central Park). He’s a magnetic but polarizing figure whose impact on the animation world is understood through conflicting narratives. What is clear, however, is that for two decades, Bluth’s films offered a dark alternative to Disney.

In 1994, Bluth’s once-bright career was beginning its decline, but his biggest commercial success was still ahead of him. Two Bluth-directed films hit theaters in that year: the Disney-esque Thumbelina and A Troll In Central Park, widely considered to be his worst film. Disney, meanwhile, released The Lion King, which remains the third highest grossing animated film of all time. Yet considering that Bluth’s career was marked by box office failures, mixed artistic successes, and a firm underdog mentality, perhaps 1994 is the perfect entry point.

If there’s one thing that unites Thumbelina and A Troll In Central Park with the rest of Bluth’s oeuvre, it’s an unabashed love for the bizarre. Bluth’s films place plucky, optimistic leads in darkly surreal landscapes where a bunch of trippy stuff happens before the movie reaches its inevitable happy ending. A Troll In Central Park centers on a vegetation-loving troll and the campy evil queen who turns Central Park into a smoldering pile of rubble in order to destroy him. One of the protagonists is a toddler who can’t speak in full sentences, and anything that resembles a plot is replaced with tedious action sequences and forgettable songs. Thumbelina fares better by comparison, but basically plays out like a knock-off Disney princess story with a dark sense of humor. In one scene, a sexy toad (voiced by Charo) performs a Conga number about show business. In another, a Gilbert Gottfried-voiced beetle dresses Thumbelina as a butterfly and makes her perform at his nightclub. When her costume falls off the audience laughs and calls her “ugly.”

At his worst, Bluth produced beautifully animated nonsense. In All Dogs Go To Heaven, the Runyon-esque tale of gambling dogs is interrupted by a Cajun alligator who inexplicably sings a duet with the protagonist. The so-called “Big Lipped Alligator Moment” is now a trope in its own right, one that highlights Bluth’s tendency to favor imaginative imagery over character development or plot. At his best, however, Bluth grounded his unique visual style with an emotional story. When the emotions work, as they do in The Secret Of NIMH and The Land Before Time, Bluth’s films push the limits of what animation can do.

Bluth started a full time job with Disney Animation in 1971, and by all accounts the atmosphere was a charged one. Walt had died in 1966, leaving the studio without a charismatic leader to drive things forward. As the company devoted more time and money to live action films, the animation department was hit with budget cuts. Over the next few years, Bluth worked on Robin Hood, Winnie The Pooh, The Rescuers , a short called The Small One, and the animated sequences
of Pete’s Dragon, putting in long overtime hours to create animation on a shoestring budget. While some of the younger animators didn’t think to question the environment they were hired into, Bluth had a different perspective. He had previously worked for Disney Animation in its heyday of 1955. Just one year out of high school, Bluth was hired as an assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty and worked directly under John Lounsbery, one of the legendary “Nine Old Men.” Those nine animators shaped the aesthetic of Disney’s Golden Age of animation, working on everything from Snow White and Pinocchio in the ’30s and ’40s to Cinderella and Peter Pan in the ’50s. A devout Mormon, Bluth left Disney after two years to fulfill his church-mandated mission in Argentina and attend Brigham Young University. By the time he returned, the company ethos had shifted to a more corporate one.

By 1971, the Nine Old Men were beginning to retire and Bluth and his friend and future business partner Gary Goldman were expected to step into leadership positions within the next six years. Unfortunately, Disney Animation had yet to create any kind of institutionalized mentorship program to train future leaders. Head animators tended to delegate specific tasks rather than tutor their protégés on the full movie-making process. Plenty of trade secrets were lost as the Nine Old Men left or simply forgot what they had done to achieve particular effects. To gain the experience they would need for directing and producing, Bluth and Goldman started work on an animated short in Bluth’s garage. The project became the charming but slightly aimless Banjo The Woodpile Cat. Here the historical details become more subjective: Some claim Bluth, a charismatic leader much like Walt himself, played favorites with animators willing to work on his garage project, thereby creating division and tension within the company. Bluth, meanwhile, maintains that the corporate Disney environment was hostile and despite his best efforts to bring the heart back into the studio’s animation style, the corporate bigwigs only cared about making movies cheaply.

In either case, on September 13, 1979—Bluth’s 42nd birthday—he and Goldman officially resigned from Disney. They had secured a connection with the new animation company Aurora and took 16 fellow animators with them. Disney Animation was left in shambles and The Fox And The Hound was delayed half a year. Those who stayed with Disney saw the move as an exercise in egotism. Bluth’s devotees—or “Bluthies”—saw it as a David-versus-Goliath attempt to stand up for the art of animation. According to Goldman, when the duo handed in their resignations Bluth said, “We couldn’t make a change here, so maybe if we go out there and compete with you, it’ll make you work harder.” When recounting the story at a 2011 animation expo, a now middle-aged Goldman added, “How arrogant and naïve is that?”

Yet just how naïve the move was is unclear. Over the next 10 years Bluth and Goldman did produce films that rivaled Disney creatively and commercially. After releasing Banjo as a theatrical short and completing the animated sequences of Xanadu, Don Bluth Productions released its first full-length animated film, The Secret Of NIMH, in 1982. For the animation community the film was a revelation. The story of a widowed mouse seeking help from a hyper-intelligent rat community was darker—both visually and tonally—than anything Disney had produced. But its lushly drawn world and attention to detail felt like a throwback to a classic style Disney had abandoned in favor of cost-cutting techniques. To many, NIMH remains the high-water mark for Bluth animation.

Despite its critical success, The Secret Of NIMH failed at the box office. At least part of the blame lies with distributor MGM, which did little to promote the film—another trend in Bluth’s career. For the next few years Bluth and Goldman devoted their time to non-cinematic efforts. They teamed up with video game company Cinematronics to produce the animated arcade games Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp, but the decline in the arcade business left Don Bluth Productions bankrupt. In 1985 they partnered with businessman Morris Sullivan to form Sullivan Bluth Studios, which would later set up shop in the more cost-effective Ireland. As Bluth was reestablishing his company, Disney Animation reached an all-time low with the universally panned The Black Cauldron. Many thought that film marked the end of Disney’s animation domination.

To make matters even worse for Disney, Steven Spielberg soon came knocking on the Sullivan Bluth door. A big fan of NIMH, Spielberg was eager to work with the company on producing his first animated project. That film, An American Tail, became the highest-grossing non-Disney animated feature and beat out Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective at the 1986 box office. The next Spielberg partnership, 1988’s The Land Before Time, opened in theaters on the same day as Disney’s Oliver & Company. Bluth’s film nabbed the No. 1 slot that weekend while Oliver came in fourth. Although Oliver eventually beat The Land Before Time domestically, the latter film made more than $84 million worldwide.

Until Anastasia in the late ’90s, An American Tail and The Land Before Time were far and away Bluth’s most commercially successful films. Remarkably, they found a mass audience despite (or perhaps because of) their darker tenor. An American Tail focuses on the Jewish immigrant experience at the turn of the century and gave the world the endearing ballad “Somewhere Out There” (which would later cement Troy and Abed’s friendship on Community). The Land Before Time, arguably Bluth’s best film, perfectly blends his love of dark themes, child protagonists, and odd friendships into an imaginative story of a dinosaur migration. The movie is mostly a whimsical examination of inter-species friendships (and a metaphor for fighting racism to boot!), but it starts with the devastating death of Littlefoot’s mother. “It is nobody’s fault,” an adult dinosaur explains to him, “The great circle of life has begun… You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you, as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Four years later The Lion King would teach kids the same lesson almost verbatim.

For a brief moment, Bluth looked set to inherit the animation throne, but the events of 1989 changed all that. In November of that year Disney released The Little Mermaid, kicking off the “Disney renaissance,” an era of unprecedented critical and commercial success for the studio that produced beloved films like Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. It’s difficult to say exactly how Bluth influenced this renaissance, if at all. Some claim the absence of his domineering personality in Disney Animation allowed new voices to rise up and lead the rebirth. Others feel Bluth’s challenge to Disney—both artistically and at the box office—forced the company to change its complacent attitude. Either way, the renaissance re-established Disney as an animation powerhouse. In contrast, Bluth released All Dogs Go To Heaven. Spielberg wasn’t involved and the project fell short of box office expectations. Compared to the revolutionary Little Mermaid, All Dogs felt narratively disjointed. Like most of Bluth’s work, however, it would later go on to find success on home video.

With Disney’s re-emergence, Bluth’s time in the spotlight was over. Rock-A-Doodle from 1992 is a truly bizarre (even by Bluth standards) story about an Elvis-like rooster, a flood of Biblical proportions, and a live-action boy who is transformed into an animated kitten. In 1994 came A Troll In Central Park and Thumbelina. Bluth and Goldman next began work on The Pebble And The Penguin but were so dissatisfied with the process (MGM demanded changes, which were made with lowered production values) they left the project and asked not be credited.

As Spielberg had done back in the ’80s, a new force swooped in to rescue Bluth from financial and artistic disaster. Hoping to beat Disney at its own game, 20th Century Fox hired Bluth and Goldman to run its brand new Fox Animation Studios. In their new home, Bluth and Goldman created Anastasia, a fairy tale reimagining of a dark chapter of Russian history.

The film was a relative critical success and a huge commercial hit, making over $138 million worldwide. Hardcore Bluth fans declared the filmmaker a sell-out for embracing Disney’s spunky princess style and Broadway-ready score. But while the film is a stylistic departure, its con men, feisty relationships, and lush animation are still recognizably Bluth. Anastasia may have a tighter narrative drive and a heavier dose of schmaltz than Bluth’s earlier films, but the antagonist is also a rotting corpse who drops body parts left and right. That balance of sinister and sweet connected with audiences in a big way, and Bluth seemed poised for a later career resurgence. (Interestingly, of the many sequels to his films, Anastasia’s direct-to-video follow-up, Bartok The Magnificent, is the only one Bluth actually worked on.)

With a bonafide hit under his belt, Bluth took arguably the biggest risk of his career with a space epic called Titan A.E. He hoped to shake up the animation world the way he had once done with The Secret Of NIMH. Instead he produced a massive flop that drove Fox Animation into the ground.

To write off Titan A.E. as just a flop, however, would be unfair. Poor marketing was once again at least partially to blame. Unclear exactly who the film was aimed at—kids, teens, or adults—hardly anyone went to see it. Bluth was trying to import the Japanese tradition of all-ages animation to the U.S.; with a script partially written by Joss Whedon, the futuristic film follows a hero named Cale (voiced by Matt Damon), who is one of the few humans to survive Earth’s destruction. With the help of a ragtag crew, he sets off to find a secret genesis project and come to terms with his father’s death. While Titan A.E. leans too heavily on sci-fi tropes to fully satisfy an adult audience, it could have served as a great intro to the genre for the pre-teen crowd it should have been marketed toward. It’s an imperfect film, but one that admirably breaks from tradition and often succeeds at telling an innovative, emotional story with spectacular visuals.

By the time Titan A.E. was released in 2000, the Disney renaissance was coming to an end. If Titan A.E. had been successful it could have pushed U.S. animation in a whole new direction. In fact, that’s largely what happened—except the company doing the innovating was Pixar, not Bluth. Proving that the animation world is cyclical, Disney is once again finding success, this time with Pixar-inspired CGI films like Tangled and Frozen.

Bluth, meanwhile, is happily running a theater in Arizona called The Don Bluth Front Row Theatre. In 2009 he produced a series of video tutorials on animation, hoping to pass on his craft to future animators in a way the Nine Old Men never did with him. While he’ll occasionally mention a future project in interviews, in all likelihood the 76-year-old creator has retired. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, one marked as much by failure as by success. If there’s a lesson to be taken from it, perhaps it’s the idea that complacency destroys creativity. Bluth challenged Disney in a way no one had really done before and proved that even if an artistic risk doesn’t succeed, sometimes it’s enough to fail with originality.