Don Bluth may not be as familiar a name as Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki or Ralph Bakshi, but his place in the history of cel animation is just as secure. The animation giant began his days at Disney, working on such classics as The Rescuers, Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood and The Sword and the Stone.
Fed up with the way the Mouse House was being run, Bluth led an exodus of Disney veterans and started Don Bluth Productions. The maverick animator is the subject of The Belcourt’s latest Saturday-morning retrospective for kids, which kicks off 10 a.m. this Saturday.
First up is 1976's Pete’s Dragon, an at-the-time groundbreaking test run for the live-action/animation interaction Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would nail little more than a decade later. My grandmother never put it in the Disney VHS rotation when I was a kid, but Elliot the dragon always stuck out during the few times I screened the movie — it was a unique treat to see an animated character so prevalent in a live-action movie. Despite my limited exposure to Elliot and friends, the film weaves a sweet “boy and his invisible dragon” narrative, and who can forget Helen Reddy’s Oscar-nominated tune “Candle in the Water?”
Apart from its live-action/cartoon angle, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, shape or form. But it’s a special enough feat to lead off the Bluth retrospective.
Bluth's first directorial effort after leaving Disney may be his best-remembered film, The Secret of NIMH (screening June 8), a dark adventure about experimentally enhanced lab rats who come to the aid of a field mouse and her brood. It got great reviews and remains a cult favorite, and it did modestly well in theaters. Sadly, Bluth's studio went bankrupt after its release.
After a short pit-stop in the video game world — remember Dragon's Lair? — Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg to produce a couple of films for Universal. An American Tail and The Land Before Time (screening on June 15 and 22 respectively) were both box office successes.
After parting ways with Spielberg, Bluth produced a string of minor feats, the most remembered likely being All Dogs Go to Heaven, which closes the screening series on June 29.
Bluth’s days of working in the movie business came to a close with his time at Fox Animation Studios. After 1997’s Anastasia hit it big, Bluth’s last directorial effort couldn’t garner the same results, with 2000’s Titan A.E. tanking at the box office (but providing CL’s new column Generation VHS with an upcoming post to lament on its cult status).
Since then, the animator has been spending his days teaching aspiring filmmakers how to hone their craft through DVD tutorials, which are available at his website. So kudos to Bluth for inspiring a new generation to carry on the torch of animated films. If you care to share a few Bluth classics with your youngsters, or take a stroll down memory lane, all of the films will screen at 10 a.m. for only $5.