Monday, February 24, 2014

The Importance of Don Bluth

It is easy to forget that there are real artists who take enormous risks to create quality animation.  That is mainly because in good animation feels real, it envelops you in the world of the characters and you forget that someone created this.  Over the next few days I will be chronicling some important figures in animation who have contributed enormously to the art form.

Fans of animation have a love/hate relationship with the legendary Don Bluth.  Those that grew up with his early work hold a special place in their hearts for him, but those more critical minded who viewed his later work are less kind.  I have called Don Bluth the greatest tragedy in Hollywood, because he started out with incredible ambitions, but could not sustain them.  His reach eventually exceeded his grasp as the industry progressed.  However this is one of the most important figures in the history of animation and the man who brought it out of the dark ages. 

Start at Disney
Don Bluth was uncredited on features Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Sword in the Stone (1963) and worked on television animation until he got an enormous break at Disney as a directing animator on The Rescuers (1977).  Bluth held a position alongside Disney legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.  He followed this up as the animation director of Pete's Dragon (1977).  His career kept growing as he directed his own half hour short Small One (1978).  Bluth was the big name at Disney in the seventies, which was a rough time for the studio.  There was poor leadership since Walt's death, the veteran animators were agin and there was a lack of overall ambition and quality.  Bluth looked to be the next leader for Disney animation, but in 1979 he took 18 other animators (including Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy) to form his own studio.  This was well publicized and an embarrassment to the studio.  But Bluth grew frustrated with the corporate leadership and sought to return feature animation to its former glory.  Something he would soon do.

Setting Out on His Own
Bluth's first independent production was the fun short film Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979).  This lead to studio work in the animated portion of the live-action film Xanadu (1980).  Bluth then ushered in his first feature-length film, Secret of NIMH (1982).  This film is now considered to be his magnum opus. It certainly stood out at the time.  There was ambition in the artistry, quality animation, solid characterization, good storytelling and a lot of maturity.  This was different than the Disney films of the time and the public did not initially respond.  It was buried at the box-office by E.T. and too scary for some children.  However it quickly grew into a cult classic and more importantly the animation industry took notice.  To make ends meet after NIMH's failure, Bluth animated the arcade games Dragon's Lair (1983) and Space Ace (1984).  The games were enormously popular, Dragon's Lair even earned a sequel Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp (1992), a rarity for arcade games.  The animation in the games was well received.

Beating Disney at Their Own Game
Although Steven Spielberg's success with E.T. was the main reason for NIMH's failure, Spielberg loved Bluth's film.  Spielberg was a huge fan of classic animation and put his producing power behind Bluth's next project: An American Tail (1986).  Spielberg was involved in the story and production and helped to lead Bluth to his first success.  Notably Tail beat Disney's Great Mouse Detective at the box-office.  Never before had Disney had a true competitor in feature animation and Bluth beat his old studio.  His next film was produced with Spielberg and George Lucas: The Land Before Time (1988).  Once again this beat Disney on opening day, Oliver and Company technically only making more money because Disney kept it in theatres longer.  Both of these movies are considered classics and are easily some of the best non-Disney American animated features.  They still hold huge fan bases and are part of the nostalgia of many.  However Bluth had many disagreements with the powerful producers and decided to make movies on his own.

Struggles with Quality
Bluth's success began to wane when he set out on his own again.  Despite a strong cult following All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) features some serious problems and performed poorly at the box-office.  The next film Rock-a-Doodle (1992) fared worse and proved to be even more confusing.  This was followed in succession with Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994) and Pebble and the Penguin (1995), a film that Bluth left his own name off the credits.  All five of the features are full of creative designs and quality animation, but the storytelling is unfocused and convoluted.  None of these seemed to have stories that justified its feature length, nor even made much sense.  This also timed out with Disney's renaissance and several new competitors in feature animation.

Final Efforts at Fox
Bluth and his directing partner Gary Goldman were hired to head the new production company Fox Animation Studios, which was 20th Century Fox's attempt to compete with Disney.  Their initial film was marketed almost identically to a Disney animated musical.  Anastasia (1997) was a financial success due to its similarities to the Mouse House.  However that is not to say it is not its own film.  It features Bluth's signature designs, some fun wacky characters and exciting sequences.  This spawned a direct-to-video sequel Bartok the Magnificent (1999), featuring the scene-stealing villain sidekick from Anastasia.  This is the only sequel Bluth has ever been involved in (although four of his movies have inspired several) and many consider it to be more superior to Anastasia.  Then Fox got ambitious with the teen sci-fi feature Titan A.E. (2000).  This heavily utilized computer animation (an area where Bluth had little to no experience) and a lot of executive meddling.  It is a confused movie that tries to reach several disparate audiences and does not have a solid script or characters.  Like many sci-fi animated features of the time it failed at the box-office and caused the closing of Fox Animation Studios.  Bluth then retired for the most part, but remained an active voice on the internet and animating various small projects.

Bluth's end may be less ceremonious than his start, but that does not invalidate his earlier efforts nor his resilience in an unkind and unfair industry.  This was a man who aspired to bring animation to its former glory and he did.  He created the masterpiece The Secret of NIMH.  And he successfully competed with Disney with An American Tail, Land Before Time and Anastasia.  He proved that feature animation was an industry, and it is doubtful there would be so many studios today had Bluth not put so much effort into this medium.  He showed ambition when no one else did and captured the imagination of many.

No comments:

Post a Comment