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10 Essential Don Bluth Films Every Animation Fan Should See

29 August 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Tom Peeler

best don bluth movies

American animator Don Bluth has had a long and varied career, but, over the last decade, awareness of his style, ambitions, and work have mostly receded from the pop culture radar. Which is unfortunate; because in addition to his unique style, Bluth was an animator unafraid to use the medium to explore concepts of class struggles, racism, the perils of adolescence and even mortality.

Born in El Paso Texas, Bluth’s love of animation was sparked during his childhood through his fascination with the films of Disney. His passion for the Mouse House eventually landed him a post-collegiate job there, where he would go on to work on such legendary projects as Sleeping Beauty, The Fox and The Hound and The Black Cauldron.

His time at Disney was ultimately a disappointment; as Bluth felt the company, seemingly only interested in saving money, was straying too far from the animation techniques that had inspired him as a child. Determined to make films more akin to the Golden Age of Animation, Bluth and a handful of other animators departed to create their own studio.

Bluth’s efforts caught the eye of many, leading to beneficial relationships with industry legends such as Steven Spielberg. Often partnering with fellow animator Gary Goldman, Bluth’s early films were released to critical and commercial success; even outperforming films released by Disney during the same period. Creating memorable characters and crafting worlds of beauty, wonder and even dread; Bluth’s style was a unique force in 80’s animation.

However, Bluth’s fortunes would see a downturn during the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s. While Bluth continued to direct, his films were less well-received (such as the widely-panned A Troll In Central Park) and often times unfavorably compared to the big-budgeted, award winning films released by his former employer (like his 1994 release: Thumbelina).

Bluth would see a new streak of success in the mid-90’s, but it was undeniable that his films were beginning to take on qualities more reminiscent of Disney; for better and for worse. His final directorial effort to date came in 2000, when his sci-fi adventure Titan A.E. underperformed so badly that it bankrupted 20th Century Fox’s animation branch.

Since then, Bluth has scaled back his filmmaking efforts, focusing on smaller projects like music videos and video games. Many of his films have been given the sequel treatment, but aside from one exception (Bartok the Magnificent), Bluth has never been involved with a sequel to one of his films. His legacy is often muddled by a lack of awareness for his work.

Many young cinema lovers often incorrectly identify his works as Disney productions, dealing an ironic blow to his early intentions. His works are not entirely unappreciated, as several of his films have gone on to be admired as cult classics. The future of Bluth’s animation career is unknown; but his filmography, from his best to his most underwhelming, is a collection of singular works that are worthy of any animation buff’s time.

 

10. Bartok The Magnificent (1999)

Bartok The Magnificent (1999)

A peculiar film on several levels, Bartok is a spin-off of 1997’s Anastasia, starring the Hank Azaria-voiced lackey of Anastasia’s Rasputin in his own solo adventure. Although several sequels to Don Bluth’s films have been made over the years, this is the only one Bluth himself has ever had any involvement with. Whatever reason Bluth had for stepping up to direct, Bartok is a sloppy sequel to a superior film.

Bartok is a street performer with a gimmick built around feats of strength and bravery that sharply contrast with his cowardly persona. Partnering with Zozi the bear, Bartok ekes out a living pretending to defeat Zozi to the delight of the public. While performing in Moscow, Bartok earns the favor of Prince Ivan, future Czar of Russia.

Not long after Bartok’s show, Prince Ivan is kidnapped by Baba Yaga, a witch feared by the people of Moscow. The Regent hires Bartok to save the Prince, and along with Zozi, he sets out to defeat the witch and save the future Czar.

It is never established if the events of Bartok The Magnificent take place before or after Anastasia. The aesthetics of the film’s locations suggest it takes place years before any of the events of the original film, but those questions are never fully addressed.

Frustrating as it is, the film assembles scattered pieces of history and folklore in order to produce a wacky series of slapstick events for Bartok to venture through. The overall schtick is made tolerable by the film’s brief runtime and the efforts of its voice cast, especially Hank Azaria and Kelsey Grammer, who seem to be having a great time with their characters.

The animation is nothing impressive, in fact at times it seems to go against everything Bluth was fighting against when he left Disney. Cheap looking CGI effects coupled with Saturday Morning Cartoon quality animation make up the entirety of the film. With only one or two truly memorable moments, such as a darkly humorous musical number by the Regent towards the end, Bartok The Magnificent falls tragically below par.

 

9. Thumbelina (1994)

Thumbelina (1994)

To say Thumbelina is a bizarre movie is an understatement. Thumbelina is so weird, so odd, and in some cases so shockingly groan-inducing that it’s almost unbelievable to consider it as a work of Bluth’s.

By the time Thumbelina was released, Disney had cranked out The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, establishing female-driven musicals as the animation standard of the era. Whether by request of the studio, or a desire to try and beat Disney at their own game, Thumbelina marks a departure from Bluth’s career-changing resolution to do things differently; and the film suffers for it.

Adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, Thumbelina is the story of a tiny girl born from a flower to a lonely old woman. Thumbelina is curious about the wonders of the world, but finds her size puts her at a disadvantage. One night, she is visited by Cornelius, the prince to a kingdom of fairies. Cornelius and Thumbelina fall in love instantly, but their courtship is cut short by Grundel, a dim-witted toad who kidnaps Thumbelina and makes plans to marry her.

Thumbelina escapes from Grundel and sets out to reunite with Cornelious. With the help of several companions she encounters along the way, Thumbelina evades the clutches of several would-be suitors and learns to believe in herself despite her shortcomings.

Thumbelina features some gorgeous pieces of hand drawn animation, but it also contains some CGI pieces that are absolute eye-sores, even for their time. Still, that doesn’t stop highlights such as Thumbelina and Cornelius’ bumblebee flight from being a dazzling sight. There are several elements of Bluth’s previous designs present; such as NIMH-like forest creatures, but the designs of Thumbelina, Cornelius, and the film’s pack of protagonists are very unique in their own right.

Where the film falls apart is in its structure and handling of its narrative elements. Thumbelina herself has little-to-no agency, as she spends the entire film in a state of objectified hell, pursued as a romantic prize by several evil characters until her ultimate goal is realized: to be the romantic prize of a good character.

This plot thread is strung along by several undercooked musical numbers by Barry Manilow. Manilow’s talents aside, this film’s musical reach exceeds its grasp, and falls short of the standard being set by Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman at Disney. Aside from the film’s catchy romantic standard “Let Me Be Your Wings”, Manilow’s compositions include some of the cheesiest and weirdest songs ever heard, including the Razzie-award winning “Marry The Mole”.

Thumbelina has garnered its own cult following via the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, but when held up to the rest of Bluth’s filmography, it ends up a lesser effort that might’ve been something better if it shied away from attempting to be like the “popular kids” on the cinematic playground.

 

8. Titan A.E. (2000)

Titan A.E. (2000)

Bluth’s last feature length directorial effort, Titan A.E. represents several big leaps for Bluth as a filmmaker. The change in genre from fairy tales and fables to science fiction opened his animation style up to a whole new world of possibilities. This new frontier also allowed him to explore his storytelling abilities in interesting new ways. While the final product is more style than substance, Titan A.E. is much more than what it was initially pegged as upon release.

Set in the distant future, mankind is scattered across the cosmos after the destruction of Earth. Cale, a wayward young man who escaped Earth and now makes a living as a salvager, encounters Captain Korso, a man on a mission that relates not only to Cale but his missing father. Eager to locate his father, and to get closer to Korso’s lovely crew member Akima, Cale agrees to help, leading to an adventure with the fate of the human race hanging in the balance.

Drawing from a script co-written by genre legend Joss Whedon, Bluth delivers an action packed sci-fi adventure with witty banter and a unique visual style.

While some of the CGI effects are a relic of their time, Bluth’s crossing of 2D characters and environments with 3D models and effects creates some truly memorable moments, with unique locations and cleverly designed alien species. A celestial showdown between two ships within a field of giant ice shards ranks among some of Bluth’s finest moments.

Ambitious but ultimately unappreciated, Titan A.E. has gone on to develop a cult following in the years since its release. While Bluth has yet to deliver a follow-up, his final feature length effort stands as an interesting experiment from an envelope pushing animator.

 

7. Banjo The Woodpile Cat (1979)

Banjo The Woodpile Cat (1979)

With an animation style that feels distinctly lodged between Bluth’s Disney years and his solo years, his second short film is a charming little piece of entertainment that shows off several interesting aspects of Bluth’s evolution as a storyteller.

The titular cat Banjo lives on a farm with his family and is always getting into mischief. After earning the disapproval of his parents once again, Banjo decides to run away from home; hopping into a delivery truck and heading for Salt Lake City. Several misadventures later, Banjo realizes that the life he had wasn’t as bad as it seemed, and he utilizes the help of his new feline friend Crazy Legs to get back to the woodpile he calls home.

The character designs and animations are noticeably reminiscent of Disney’s The Aristocats, but there are also aspects of the feline designs Bluth would come to use in An American Tail and other films. Other similarities to Bluth’s later works are scattered throughout, including his first uses of animals with hidden worlds and wayward young characters lost in strange new settings. Banjo The Woodpile Cat can be seen as a prototype that would pave the way for some of Bluth’s finest works.

 

6. All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989)

All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989)

A misstep that marked a notable shift in quality from Bluth’s first three films, All Dogs Go To Heaven is a well-intentioned effort that suffers from, among other things, a lack of subtlety and respect for tone that is normally present in Bluth’s work.

Canine criminal Charlie has just escaped from the pound and hopes to resume running his casino in the bayous of Louisiana. However, Charlie’s partner Carface doesn’t want to split the business anymore, so he concocts and sets in motion a plan that leaves Charlie dead.

Upon entering the afterlife, Charlie learns that “all dogs go to heaven” because of their innocent nature. Charlie doesn’t care for anything offered in Heaven and weasels his way back into the mortal world by stealing a watch that keeps him alive as long as it ticks.

Upon returning, Charlie and his friend Itchy befriend an orphaned girl who can talk to animals. Tricking her into thinking they want to help her find parents, Charlie and Itchy exploit her gifts to win horse races and rake in the money. Charlie’s abusive plans soon go too far, and he must make a choice regarding what kind of dog he really wants to be.

All Dogs biggest issue is an incredibly uneven tone, as it veers sharply between scenes of comic slapstick and dark seriousness. Characters drink and smoke and gamble, a little girl is kidnapped and held prisoner at several points, and Charlie has a terrifying nightmare depicting his descent into hell.

But despite all this, the movie manages to shove in moments of wackiness so random that one even went on to establish a trope dedicated to out-of-place movie scenes; the “Big Lipped Alligator Moment”.

The animation wavers as much as the tone; cheap and flat in some scenes, then vibrant and eye-popping in the next. There are some truly remarkable moments though; with Charlie’s nightmare about his descent into the underworld standing out as one of the most amazing and terrifying pieces of Bluth’s filmography.

Its faults aside, at its core All Dogs is a character driven story about the choices we make and how they ripple out to affect not just ourselves but the people we care about. Charlie starts as a schmuck, but his arc is handled so well that by the finale, Charlie has evolved into a loveable rogue who truly earns his spot in heaven. Its a heartwarming story, even if it has a few bumps along the way.

 

 

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  • Gerald Martin

    Agree absolutely on The Secret of NiMH. Breathtaking film; far more adult than anything by Disney.

    • Billy Beefcaked

      Which is why Nimh and An American Tail AND even the original Land Before Time, hold up so well even to this day.

      • Gerald Martin

        When I owned NIMH on an old Beta hi-fi tape, I also thought the sound design was extremely well done. The clanking of the bucket when Mrs. Brisby descended into the cavern in search of the owl seemed to reverberate around my living room.

  • Miami Sunset

    Although Bluth essentially closed down his studios, Dreamworks likely won’t be producing animated films if it wasn’t for him. And he showed other studios that it was possible to compete against Disney and succeed. Prior to Bluth studios, Disney was the only major animation studio. (WB had shut down it’s animation departments at the time.)