The 2D animation renaissance of the 1990s began in the 1980s. Did any one movie or TV show begin it – or was it the combination of the popularity of Mighty Mouse the New Adventures (1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), and the introduction of The Simpsons (1987)? Some might credit the Don Bluth/Steven Spielberg An American Tail (1986) as the catalyst.
Certainly the 1979 exodus of Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and eleven others from Disney, in protest of the then-deteriorating animation department, could be considered the beginning-of-the-beginning. During the 1970s, Bluth and company – while still employed at Disney – tinkered away at nights and on weekends in a little garage in Culver City on a personal film. The goal was to learn how to make a classically animated film from scratch, and do it all by themselves without studio support.
Banjo The Woodpile Cat was that film – and it emboldened the group to break free of Disney and start making new films on their own. How successful they were, creatively, is a matter of opinion – and as for Banjo itself, no one considers it a classic but it’s always been a sweet little picture. Now Bluth has re-released Banjo on a two-disc DVD that is actually worth owning by any serious student of animation or Disney history.
In addition to a newly remastered version of the film, there is a great audio commentary track by Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy recounting the making of the short. On the second disc is a 13-part documentary, The Story Behind Banjo, with the trio detailing their time at Disney, how they made on Banjo at night while animating The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon and The Small One during business hours, what they learned and how it led to their departure from Disney. It’s a fascinating story. There is also a vintage TV newscast from 1980 with behind the scenes footage at Bluth’s newly independent studio, a separate on-camera “conversation” with Don and a collection of trailers for every feature and video game the Bluth studio ever worked on.