Post-Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Disney Studio’s Animation Department was steadily declining- Walt Disney was a vital part of the story develop process in the animated films, constantly giving notes, suggestions and critiques and when he passed, the animators were left without a guide. While the films that were created between Walt Disney’s death and Don Bluth’s walkout- The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973) , The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (1977), The Rescuers (1977), and The Fox and the Hound (1981)- are still considered classics, four out of the five films released in this period were based on pre-existing books. The stories were already written, and while some edits were made (often to soften up the less family-friendly themes), the animation was often rushed and re-used clips from previous films to save on budget. The corporate heads at Disney Animation pushed for more fluffy animation; stuff that could sell toys and appeal to the children, and less scary scenes. Lastly, the Nine Old Men; a group of talented Disney animators that animated iconic characters like Baloo from The Jungle Book, Tinker Bell from Peter Pan, and helped design Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio; were all retiring. They were a part of the last generation of animators that had been working with Walt Disney since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the new hires- including Don Bluth and Gary Goldman- could see the animation studio floundering without the Nine Old Men’s artistic direction.
Don Bluth got his first taste of directorial power on a short film, The Small One (1978), a Christmas special based on a 1947 book of the same name. He was then assigned as the Animation Director for Pete’s Dragon (1977) and animated Elliot, the giant, green dragon. During this time, Bluth ran a secretive program with a small group of animators teaching themselves in Don Bluth’s garage and experimenting with their skills, exploring the different rungs of the animation production ladder. Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979), a short created in this program, was pitched to Disney executives to show what their animation crew was capable of, once they had the freedom to experiment and grow. Disney turned it down. So, on September 17th, 1979, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and nine other Disney animators walked out on the studio, and created their own animation studio- Don Bluth Productions.
Don Bluth Productions flourished with their first few films released in the following decade, proving to be a steadfast and worthy opponent to Disney Animation Studios. Their first contract was to create animation for a fantasy roleplay simulation arcade game, Dragon’s Lair, and a space adventure arcade game, Space Ace, which helped make back the costs from The Secret of NIMH (1982), their first full-length animated feature and first cult classic. This animation adaption of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, and he reached out to Don Bluth for a partnership- the studio would be renamed to Sullivan Bluth Studios after the addition of Morris Sullivan to the financial team. The resulting contract with Spielberg- originally billed for a three-movie deal- would produce Sullivan Bluth Studio’s 1986 hit An American Tail, and added George Lucas as a producer for The Land Before Time in 1988. Both movies became blockbusters, with An American Tail becoming the first highest-grossing animated film at it’s initial release in 1986, beating out Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective by over $22 million. An American Tail‘s main thematic song, Somewhere Out There, became an instant hit and won two awards at the 30th Grammy’s Awards- Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television and Best Song of the Year. The Land Before Time was the last film in Bluth and Spielberg’s partnership, as Spielberg’s success with Disney Studios on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) would prompt him to create his own animation studios, Amblimation Studios, later rebranded to Dreamworks Animation in 1994.
Without Spielberg or Lucas helping with production costs for the next projects, Don Bluth Studios relocated their ever-growing crew from California to Dublin, Ireland. Unfortunately, Sullivan Bluth Studios struggled to keep up with Disney, who had just released The Little Mermaid in 1989, kickstarting the Disney Renaissance, a series of films that broke the box office records numerous times. Disney Animation Studios released hit after hit in the decade following starting with Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and ending with Tarzan in 1999. On the other hand, Sullivan Bluth Studios released All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Rock-a-Doodle (1992), Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and The Pebble and the Penguin (1995); all financial flops. Sullivan Bluth Studios filed for bankruptcy, barely holding on.
Fox Animation Studios, a newly formed animation studio from 20th Century Fox, took on Sullivan Bluth Studios, and they created three films. Anastasia (1997) was the biggest hit from this era, inspired by the real case of the missing Romanoff children during the Russian Revolution and featuring a magical villainous Rasputin; Bartok the Magnificent (1999), a direct-to-DVD sequel to Anastasia focusing on Rasputin’s henchman, Bartok the albino bat, and his quest to save the Romanoff prince; and Titan A.E. (2000), a science fiction adventure set in space, wherein the main character has to save humanity by protecting a ship that can produce a new planet. After Titan A.E. failed to pull in a profit, Fox Animation Studios dismantled, and 21st Century Fox refocused their attention and budgets into Blue Sky, a department specializing in CGI animation.
Since then, Don Bluth has been chipping away at side projects and teaching students how to traditionally animate in his unaccredited Don Bluth University in Arizona. In 2015, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman put together a Kickstarter for an original, full-length animated adaption of Dragon’s Lair; Netflix announced a live action adaption of the arcade game would be released in 2020 but was postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 Pandemic; and the animated adaption appears to be scrapped as well. In late 2020, Don Bluth announced his partnership with Lavalle Lee, co-founding Don Bluth Studios with a focus on creating short stories based on fables and nursery rhymes and adapting them into traditional animated shorts.
While Don Bluth’s animated works might not hold as much weight to Disney Animation Studio as they once did in the 1980s, his movies are still enjoyable to watch and entertaining for all ages. Be sure to check out the films we have in our collection featured in this post, listed below!
Don Bluth’s Filmography
The Small One – Available to order on SearchOhio
Banjo the Woodpile Cat- Available to order on SearchOhio
Rock-a-Doodle – Available to order on SearchOhio; Based loosely on the tale of Chanticleer the Rooster
A Troll in Central Park- Available to order on SearchOhio
The Pebble and the Penguin – Available to order on SearchOhio
Bartok the Magnificent- Available to order on SearchOhio
Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life by Don Bluth (Autobiography)
Planning on a vacation to Savannah, GA? Contact Jen Library’s Special Collections for a tour of their Don Bluth Collection of Animation, donated by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman to the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005. Digital copies of these artifacts, mainly storyboards, production art, and animation cels, can also be viewed online here.