There may be no one in the animation industry more polarizing than Don Bluth. I only ever see people either hate or love him. He famously used to work for Disney but he quit due to creative differences and went independent. His goal was to make animated films that were better than the ones Disney was making in the seventies and eighties. However the Disney Renaissance ended up largely overshadowing his films in the nineties and he struggled to compete, as did many other animation studios. Seen by some as the next Walt Disney, he ended up being seen as more of a Disney wannabe. I have watched all of his animated films and his efforts were mostly noble but many were just fine at best. I don’t think Bluth was the greatest storyteller. The kindest thing I can say about him is that he was a great animator, which is why Disney hired him and even promoted him. But his ambition took him down a career path that I felt was less suitable for his skills.
Donald Virgil Bluth was born in El Paso, Texas in 1937 and was a huge lover of Disney films as a child. He was inspired to pursue art in college, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the LDS Church-sponsored private school Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah by 1954 and being hired by Disney a year later as an assistant to animator John Lounsbery on Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Before that movie was even released, Don Bluth left Disney out of boredom, choosing instead to focus on his Mormon Missionary work abroad, musical theater production in California and later a return to Brigham Young where he earned an English literature degree, but he returned to animation in the late sixties as a layout artist for Filmation and then back to Disney in 1971 as an animation trainee, his first project being animating scenes in Robin Hood (1973), including Robin Hood and Maid Marian’s romantic stroll through the forest, Robin Hood robbing Prince John while Prince John sleeps, and Robin saving a baby rabbit. He followed that up with some great animation in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) in the scene where Rabbit is alone and scared in the woods. Bluth’s talents were recognized and he was eventually promoted to directing animator of Bernard and Bianca in The Rescuers (1977) and animation director on Pete’s Dragon (1977).
Bluth’s directorial debut was also at Disney, a 1978 Christmas featurette that was released in front of a theatrical re-release of Disney’s Pinocchio called The Small One, based on Charles Tazewell’s 1947 children’s book about a boy and his donkey, and helmed by a team of up-and-coming animators that included Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, Lorna Cook, Jerry Rees, John Musker, Ron Husband and Randy Cartwright.
Bluth was a fantastic animator but he was never really satisfied at Disney because he felt that the studio was losing its artistic touch in the seventies and was not valuing creativity the way it used to. To anyone who was alive in the seventies who had seen Disney’s work in previous decades, it was hard to argue with this point and in fact Bluth was absolutely correct. That was how he convinced a large group of animators to leave Disney in the middle of production on The Fox and the Hound, causing the release of that film to be delayed from Christmas 1980 to summer 1981. The arguments that the younger animators were having with the older animators over the creative direction of Fox and the Hound seemed to be the final straw for Bluth, who quit Disney in 1979 along with Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, followed soon by many others. That was the year that Bluth founded Don Bluth Productions.
Bluth’s first film at the new animation studio was the short film Banjo the Woodpile Cat, which Bluth and a few Disney animators were working on in Bluth’s garage on the weekends as an independent side project before Bluth quit Disney, deciding to finish the film after leaving Disney. The 26-minute film, partially based on an experience from Bluth’s own life on a farm with his family cat, was first released in theaters in 1979 and at the USA Film Festival the following year, leading to work on feature films, first being an animated segment in the live-action film Xanadu (1980) and second being his first full-length animated feature film The Secret of NIMH (1982).
NIMH was the film that first earned Bluth wide recognition. The sci-fi fantasy film based on the 1971 children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH written by Robert C. O’Brien and illustrated by Zena Bernstein told the story of a field mouse (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) who gets caught in a conflict among genetically altered lab rats. The movie received critical acclaim and was praised by many for being a lot more interesting than the animated films Disney was making at the time, although some people did find the plot too complicated and the cast of characters lacking. Still it was different enough to feel like a breath of fresh air for many animation fans. It didn’t make a ton of money at the box office but it has a cult following. However the enthusiasm for the film was not enough to save Don Bluth Productions from going bankrupt.
In 1983, Bluth teamed up with writer and video game designer Rick Dyer to produce, design and direct the LaserDisc video game Dragon’s Lair, developed by Dyer’s Advanced Microcomputer Systems for the arcade and featuring film-quality animation of the heroic knight Dirk the Daring, who gamers had to guide through a castle to save Princess Daphne from Singe the evil dragon.
The interactive film featured animation from Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy as well as people like Lorna Cook, Will Finn, David Molina, Chris Wahl and a young Bruce Timm. This game impressed many at a time where video games were losing their popularity, and it led to further Don Bluth-animated video games like Space Ace (1984) and eventually Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp (1991), but these were not as popular. The LaserDisc thing was quickly seen as a fad and the technology was not perfected in the eighties so the game was marred by slow loading times and unreliable machinery. Bluth would later return to the world of Dragon’s Lair by producing the cutscenes for the cel shaded remake Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair (2002) released by UbiSoft for Microsoft Windows, Xbox, Nintendo GameCube and PlayStation 2, and Bluth also currently plans to produce a live-action Dragon’s Lair film for Netflix starring Ryan Reynolds.
In 1985, Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy teamed up with businessman Morris Sullivan to found Sullivan Bluth Studios which operated out of Ireland, to try their hand once more at animated feature film production. Things were especially looking up in the late eighties when Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg and Amblin. The two films they made were An American Tail (1986) about a Russian mouse immigrant who gets lost in America and The Land Before Time (1988) about a group of young dinosaurs who seek a land called the Great Valley after an earthquake destroys their home. Both were box office successes, with An American Tail becoming the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film and The Land Before Time opening on the same day as Disney’s Oliver & Company coming out ahead on opening weekend and kicking off a steady line of straight-to-video sequels. The success of those films along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit eventually led to the creation of Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation, but Spielberg’s partnership with Bluth ended by then.
Don Bluth would next team up with Gary Goldman to direct All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) starring Burt Reynolds as the voice of a German Shepherd who is killed by his former friend Carface the bulldog and sent to Heaven, but decides to leave the afterlife to get revenge on Carface – only instead he befriends an orphan girl and learns to embrace friendship over revenge. Not as popular as Bluth’s last two films and the strategy of releasing it against a Disney film (The Little Mermaid) didn’t work as well this time, but it was still popular enough on home video to lead to a sequel, a TV series and a direct-to-video holiday film.
Bluth and Goldman co-directed several more animated films produced by Sullivan Bluth in the nineties including Rock-a-Doodle (1992), Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994) and The Pebble and the Penguin (1995), but these all ranged from not very good to downright terrible and they were all box office bombs with widespread negative reviews, leading to the bankruptcy of Sullivan Bluth literally the same year that The Pebble and the Penguin was released (Bluth and Goldman both asked to be uncredited as the directors of that film when it came out).
Luck finally turned around for Don Bluth in 1997 when he and Gary Goldman scored a hit with Fox Animation’s Anastasia, learning a few lessons from Disney about singing princesses, villains, animal sidekicks and fairy tale romance (to the point where many people confuse this for a Disney film but I won’t get into that). Its success even led to a straight-to-video prequel called Bartok the Magnificent (1999) which Bluth and Goldman also directed and which centered on the life of Hank Azaria’s albino bat Bartok before he became Grigori Rasputin’s henchman.
The success of Anastasia also gave 20th Century Fox the confidence to compete in Disney’s arena of animated feature films, and so they hired Bluth and Goldman to direct their second theatrical feature film Titan A.E. (2000). Unfortunately that sci-fi tale was such a huge money-losing box office bomb that it single-handedly caused Fox to abandon their traditional animation venture, instead focusing on computer animation with Blue Sky Studios, which made the highly successful and Oscar-nominated Ice Age film series.
While working on Titan A.E., Don Bluth had planned on making many more feature films, but like a lot of his ideas, they fell by the wayside amidst his box office failures with very few people willing to invest in him as a director anymore. Bluth no longer consistently made feature films. Even John Pomeroy returned to Disney to animate on films like Pocahontas and Atlantis: The Lost Empire amidst Bluth’s creative stumbles. Bluth still had respect from the gaming community for his work on Dragon’s Lair and after Titan A.E. he worked on a few more games, creating the cutscenes for Namco’s action platformer I-Ninja, developed by British software company Argonaut Games for PS2, Xbox, GameCube and Microsoft Windows. Plus he produced the animation for the iOS game Tapper World Tour (2011) which reimagines the 1983 arcade classic Tapper via Bluth’s short-lived Square One Studios, founded in 2010 and ended in 2011 (those of you born after the eighties may remember Tapper as the bartender from Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, released the year after).
Don Bluth also produced the animation for the 2004 Scissor Sisters music video for “Mary,” the pop rock band having fond memories of Bluth’s work on Xanadu.
In 2020, Bluth set out to launch a new animation studio called Don Bluth Studios with the goal of revitalizing hand-drawn animation in America, with the short film anthology Bluth’s Fables being his first project after trying and failing to deliver a hand-drawn animated film based on Dragon’s Lair.
One thing I will say about Bluth is that he never gives up no matter how many times he fails. But I never got the sense that he understands what makes a good film. For every Land Before Time there is always a Rock-a-Doodle, and that makes me think he has more luck than artistic skill. He said he wanted to make Disney films more like the ones Walt Disney produced but he never seemed to grasp Walt’s strong sense of what makes a good film, which has always been a simple story with likable characters. I’m not saying every animator should be Walt Disney. That would be boring. But there’s a reason Walt’s films were so good. It wasn’t just passion for storytelling and love of animation, which Don Bluth has. Walt Disney had a core understanding of what mainstream audiences like. That’s a skill Don Bluth does not possess and that’s why he always fails.