5. The Small One (1978)
Bluth’s first-ever directorial credit was a 30 minute television short during his time at Walt Disney Animation. Even though it was his first time at the helm, The Small One plays into many themes that Bluth would go on to utilize later in his career.
The Small One’s story is a simple, focusing on the relationship between the Son of a Farmer and “Small One”, an elderly work mule on the farm. Small One’s age leaves him slow and weary, but his indomitable spirit and sense of loyalty is all that matters to the Son. When the Farmer realizes that Small One’s age prevents him from pulling his load, he instructs his Son to take the mule to town and sell it.
The Son dutifully obeys, trying to ensure that his friend goes to an owner that will treat him well. When the Son realizes that Small One’s worth as a companion is not as valuable to others, he becomes disheartened. It is only through a fateful encounter that the Son is able to part with Small One, ensuring the animal’s kind nature will help contribute towards a greater cause.
Made under the Disney banner, many of the animation techniques and character designs are typical of other pieces from the same time period, with the Son’s design looking suspiciously close to that of The Jungle Book’s Mowgli. Regardless, Bluth’s eye for quality and the sense of life he can breath into non-human characters is on full display here.
The Small One is very light fare, with the ending coming as no surprise to anyone familiar enough with the film’s historical setting.The story’s greatest strength lies in the bond between the Son and Small One, which Bluth uses to commentate on the very relatable fears of not just our own mortality, but also the mortality of those we love. Playing the “boy and his companion” trope with great skill, Bluth’s first short effectively displays his potential.
4. Anastasia (1997)
After a string of below average films, Bluth earned a bit of a rebound with 1997’s Anastasia, his second attempt at replicating the “Disney Princess” formula. Basing the film around historical events while also taking some considerable liberties with the material, Bluth creates an interesting fairy tale that often manages to rise above Disney’s efforts.
Focusing on the titular Romanov princess, the story opens on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1916. Anastasia is separated from her family, who are betrayed and killed by her father’s confidant; Rasputin, a madman who draws magical powers from an unholy relic that he sold his soul to obtain. After spending her childhood in an orphanage, unable to remember anything about her true identity, Anastasia sets out to find her destiny and a place she can truly call home.
Her travels lead her to Dimitri and Vladimir; con artists attempting to collect a large reward being offered by Anastasia’s surviving family for the return of the long-lost princess.. Bringing her along due to her “uncanny” resemblance to the real Anastasia, Dimitri and Vladimir soon start to realize that this orphaned girl may be more than even she realizes; a realization that also brings about the return of Rasputin, who sets out to finish off the last of the Romanov’s
Unquestionably one of Bluth’s most visually appealing films, Anastasia recreates the beauty and splendor of Communist Russia and Jazz Age Paris. Utilizing subtle 3D effects, Bluth is able to enhance scenes that are incredibly well designed to begin with; peaking with the breathtaking “Once Upon a December” sequence. As Anastasia wanders the abandoned palace of her late family, her memories come back to her in the form of ghosts that seemingly waltz down from the afterlife and populate an abandoned ballroom.
As the sequence continues, the attention to detail swells: characters are reflected in the polished ballroom floor, camera moves become more intricate, and even the designs of individual characters becomes more focused. As Anastasia imagines her family arriving, Bluth and his team make the effort to nail every aspect of the Romanov’s likeness, right down to Alexi Romanov’s hemophilia-induced limp. It’s a true testament to the passion of Bluth and his animation team.
Beyond the animation, the rest of the movie is a strange but effective combination of Bluth’s preferred tropes and bits and pieces of Disney’s princess formula. Anastasia is littered with all the expected musical numbers: the “Part of Your World” declaration of the protagonist’s dreams, the “Be Prepared” ballad chronicling the villain’s dastardly plans, and even a brief “Whole New World” sequence that fleshes out the budding romance between Anastasia and Dimitri.
The film’s antagonist Rasputin and his talking animal sidekick Bartok are a blatant emulation of Aladdin’s Jafar/Iago dynamic, but such unfavorable comparisons are easily overlooked considering the level of energy Christopher Lloyd and Hank Azaria bring to the characters.
On the side of originality, Anastasia herself displays qualities quite-unlike her Disney counterparts. She may fall for the first man she meets, but her feelings for Dimitri never squander her overall goals; with Anastasia and Dimitri only getting together after the Princess manages to achieve her dreams and defeat the villain with little-to-no help from her man; something not seen at Disney until 2013’s Frozen.
Anastasia was a big hit for Bluth and 20th Century Fox, and is easily one of Bluth’s best remembered works. What’s tragically ironic though, is that a large portion of young film fans have seemingly come to believe that Anastasia is a Disney film; a sentiment that Bluth most likely never hoped for. With a dynamic main character and an attention to the smaller things not often seen, Anastasia is one of Bluth’s most exhilarating works.
3. The Land Before Time (1988)
Based on a story idea from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, The Land Before Time went through many changes during production, even having a huge chunk of the movie trimmed and seemingly destroyed. But what survived is a remarkable piece of animation with a well rounded cast of characters that impart valuable lessons on the dangers of prejudice.
Set during the Cretaceous period, our protagonist Littlefoot is a apatosaurus separated from his family by a huge earthquake. He sets out to reach “The Great Valley”, a utopian promised land for dinosaurs of all kinds.
As he travels, guided by the spirit of his deceased mother, he encounters and befriends a group of diverse dinosaur companions: Cera the triceratops, Ducky the saurolophus, Petrie the pteranodon, and Spike the stegosaurus. As they travel, their friendship is tested by the stresses and doubts brought about by their obstacles, made even worse by several inherent prejudices that the various species hold against one another.
Originally pitched as a dialogue-free film similar to the segments in Fantasia, The Land Before Time still embodies the spirit of the 1940 classic with its hauntingly brilliant animation. Littlefoot and company trek through diverse environments: from barren fields that evoke apocalyptic imagery to the lush paradise that is the Great Valley, with every frame standing as an eye-catching beauty.
Although the dinosaurs are given kid-friendly names to stand in for their hard-to-pronounce designations (triceratops are referred to as “three-horns”, stegosaurus as “spike-tails”, etc), the movie doesn’t attempt to pander to its audience. Years before the death of Mufasa rocked childhoods everywhere, Littlefoot’s mother meets an equally tragic end.
The tension between the young dinosaurs is brought about by beliefs instilled in their youth, such as Cera’s sense of superiority by virtue of being “born better” than the others. The stakes are always very high, as the characters deal with starvation and the threat of predators higher up the food chain. But through it all, it’s the determination of the central protagonist Littlefoot, and his ability to round his companions together, that makes the difference.
2. An American Tail (1986)
The first of two collaborations with Steven Spielberg, An American Tail once again demonstrates Bluth’s desire to meld strong, character driven storytelling with lush animation. In exploring the plight of a lost immigrant in 1885 New York, Bluth manages to defy the notion that animation is “just for kids” with a story rich in insightful themes and efficiently implemented pathos.
Beginning in Russia, the Mousekewitz family is forced to flee their homeland after an attack on their village by anti-Jewish Cossacks. During the trip to America the naive, curious Fievel Mousekewitz is thrown overboard by a vicious storm. Washing up on the shores of New York City, he traverses through the this expansive new world, searching for his family while meeting new friends and avoiding a con-man desperate to exploit Fievel and other immigrants for manual labor.
While the animation on display is wonderful, it takes a less grandiose route than NIMH did, substituting awe-inspiring sights for more honest depictions of the squalor of New York’s dingy streets and slums. But even though Bluth is focusing on the historic, it doesn’t mean the film is devoid of anything mythic. The storm sequence in which Fievel is swept out to sea is a sight to behold, as waves take on the form of terrifying monsters, thrashing the boat in a truly remarkable display.
The world the mice inhabit contain many parallels to the human world of 1885, parallels that allow the film to explore themes that would be hard to swallow in most children’s fare. Fievel is sold to a sweat shop not long after arriving in America, a scheming politician of the Tammany Hall breed pledges loyalty to the immigrant mice while only really desiring their votes, and the Mousketwitzs come to learn some hard truths about their idealized notions of what life in America can be for foreigners.
But what keeps the movie afloat is unquestionably the appeal of its protagonist. Fievel’s quest contains some heartwarming highs and soul crushing lows, but he embodies an ideal of innocence and optimism that allows him to persevere through even the darkest of moments.
His journey to find his family is the crux of the film’s narrative, but along the way, he intersects with many other characters and ultimately inspires a class-revolution that unites the city’s mice, immigrant and native alike, in order to overcome their persecutors. When Fievel is finally reunited with his family, it’s a truly triumphant payoff to an emotional roller coaster of a story.
1. The Secret of NIMH (1982)
If there’s one consistent aspect behind Bluth’s work, it’s that he loves using fairy tales and fables as jumping points to dive into stories with big ideas or deep themes. His first feature length film is unquestionably his best; a marvel of traditional animation and classic good vs evil storytelling.
In a world where animals live and work in their own societies, unnoticed by humans, we follow a widowed field mouse, Mrs. Brisby, as she attempts to care for her four children; including Timothy, who is stricken with pneumonia.
Desperate to find a cure for her incapacitated son, Mrs. Brisby seeks help from a clan of rats who seem to possess a degree of intelligence and technology that surpasses even the humans. Mrs. Brisby’s journey reveals secrets not only about the rats, but also about her husband’s death; secrets that ultimately empower her toward saving her family.
The Secret of NIMH is a strikingly beautiful film. Desiring to do things the old fashioned way, Bluth and his team have animated some of the finest hand-drawn sequences in the history of the genre by experimenting with lighting and shading techniques rarely seen before or again.
The cels on display are a marvel to behold, from blood-red skies that provide a backdrop to scenes of peril to the awe-inspiring labyrinths that Mrs. Brisby and company must traverse on their journey. The attention to detail is astounding; a true labor of love.
But beyond the beauty of its design, NIMH also succeeds as a well told and surprisingly deep story. The rats, endowed with gifts of intelligence they didn’t ask for, struggle to survive while dealing with ethical and personal quandaries that few animated movies would dare to explore.
This is a movie with high stakes, and Bluth makes no effort to sugar coat it; leading to some of the most terrifying and brutal moments ever seen in the genre. From major character deaths to themes of torture to bloody confrontations, this movie has a weight that gives it real value. But this darkness is not the ultimate thesis of the film; it’s that true heart and courage can overcome any obstacle. When the sun finally shines during the film’s finale, it shines out the clearer.
Author Bio: Tom Peeler is a journeyman filmmaker who loves to dabble in film critique and analysis. A Pennsylvania native, Tom and his colleagues produce short films and other media through their independent production company Sycamore Street Studios (http://www.sycamoreststudios.com). You can follow Tom on Twitter @SycamorStStudio.