That is, until the 1980s, when a renegade director born in El Paso, Texas (*insert Clint Eastwood music here*) took the challenge to direct animation feature films and fight Dinsey on their own turf.
The first Don Bluth-directed movie was for MGM, a little movie called “Brisby and The Secret of Nimh“. It was adapted from a Robert O’Brien book, that may have its second coming on screen thanks to Paramount and Neil Burger (but this time, it would be live-action…with a little CGI enhancement, of course).
It was followed by two videogames: “Dragon’s Lair“, and “Space Ace“. But Don Bluth hit the jackpot when he associated with Steven Spielberg and Universal. The results were two of the better-remembered 80’s kids flicks: “An American Tail” in 1986, and “The Land Before Time” in 1988. It spawned two franchises built around the heroes, Fievel the Mouse from the West, and Littlefoot. Fievel had one theatrical sequel, and two direct-to-video sequels. Littlefoot returned in a staggering 12 video sequels (!!!), the most recent dating way back to 2007. Both also had animated shows, and proved worth a lot of money for Universal.
This is where I pause. You know the first time when I cried while watching a movie? Nope, it sure wasn’t “Bambi”. It was the earthquake scene of “The Land Before Time”, when Littlefoot loses his mother. It was disturbing as hell to me, and it was the first time where I realised my own mortality, as well as the ones around me. Needless to say, putting four orphan dinosaurs put into situations of danger, all while grieving, took a lot of balls. It made for a highly emotional movie, that disputed any of the Disney classics.
Shortly after that, Bluth reunited with MGM for his most daring movie yet, “All Dogs Go To Heaven“. And if you thought that “The Land Before Time” had dark subject matter, I present to you the IMDB pitch.
A dog returns from the dead looking for revenge on his killer using an orphan
girl who can talk to animals.
And a kind soul put the ending on YouTube, so to all of you that are not afraid of spoilers (right…like you cared about this movie until now), enjoy the imagery.
The movie was the first one produced under his new Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland. Right after the average box office scores, trouble began. Right after finding trouble in investments, and having a hard time distributing “Rock-A-Doodle“, his final movie for the Lion Firm, Bluth signed a deal with Warner Animation Studios, a newly founded wing destined to produce animation movies…and also compete with Disney. He produced two movies under the Warner banner: an adaptation of “Thumbelina“, one of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and “The Pebble and The Penguin“. The first one did good, the second one was a flop, critically and commercially.
Bluth had to wait until 1997 until luck found him again. 20th Century Fox appointed him and Gary Goldman to be chairmen of Fox Animation Studios, also a new division destined to compete with Disney and soon-to-be-open DreamWorks Animation. The success of “Anastasia“, with voices from Meg Ryan, John Cusack and Kelsey Grammer, led to a DTV sequel around Bartok the rat (again). But the phenomenal flop of “Titan A.E.” in 2000, scripted by three screenwriters well-known of us geeks, John August, Ben Edlund and Joss Whedon, led to an early retirement.
Now he’s opened his own website, donbluth.com, and his Don Bluth Films based in Phoenix, AZ, produces content for Web and IPhones alike.
OK, so…what’s my point?
Well, Bluth is a forgotten “artisan” that always stayed true to 2-D animation, and if you can see anything in his movies, it’s uncompromising (and yes, often dark) subject matter. But even if seeing it with very young kids is not a very good idea, it stays great to rediscover an alternative to rosy-colored, two-dimensional characters. I mean, for crissakes, the dogs in “Charlie” gamble, and it’s set in 1930s New Orleans, Vice City before Miami claimed that crown!!! But think about it: if there weren’t any Bluth movies, would Disney execs have accepted a pitch where an old man goes on a quest for adventure when his wife dies of illness?
(Well…they probably would have, since it’s Pixar. But you get my point.)
So, here’s my 2 cents to respect the artist. And I’ll leave you with a few in-depth links:
– Interview to IGN back when Titan A.E. was released