Banjo, the Woodpile Cat

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.

It’s a great package of material – and you can buy the DVD from Don himself off Amazon.com. Below is a excerpt from the middle of the short:


  • julian

    This is nice. I owned a beta copy in the early 90s. Its great that its rereleased. I’m a fan of this groundbraking film. Thanks to Don Bluth productions and its team of amazing talent for this charming gem — and allowing a new generation to see what alot of talent and guts can achieve.

  • http://yeldarb86.deviantart.com Mr. Semaj

    I’d go with the combination of The Little Mermaid, Roger Rabbit, Mighty Mouse, and The Simpsons, although in terms of animated features, the seeds WERE planted with Don Bluth’s exodus.

    This is the part of Disney history that fascinates me most for some reason.

    After The Black Cauldron bombed, Disney was about to abandon animation altogether. Along with Roy Disney’s protests, Roy himself having just helped reform Disney’s upper management, Bluth’s competition was finally beginning to pick up with An American Tail, proving that animated features were not dead after all. Luckily at the time, Ron Clements and John Musker had already prepared a proposal for The Little Mermaid, the studio’s first fairy tale in 30 years.

    Of course, The Black Cauldron was just part of a bigger story showcasing life at Disney during the early 80′s. Older management was literally stuck in the past, hardly able to deal with life after the founders were gone. With animation, many re-releases of the features were made, but since the 1950′s had only been able to produce one new feature every 3-4 years. And very few animated shorts were being made prior to Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

    As a result, several animators left long after the Bluth exodus, and among the many things that came from it was the foundation of Pixar and Tim Burton making his mark as a Hollywood director. How different would life have been if Disney had let John Lasseter work on “Where Wild Things Are”? Or if they had more faith in Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie”?

    I might check out this Banjo DVD just to see what Bluth and company has to say.

  • Austin “oppo” Papageorge

    And who’s to say that Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop wasn’t that catalyst?

  • http://www.cataroo.com John Cawley

    Have always maintained Bluth’s exit from Disney was the first step for the animated feature boom. The exit came at a time when Disney’s future was uncertain. His exit attracted the attention of all kinds of media, especially the Wall Street Journal which suddenly made the business of animation seem important. Bluth’s many interviews focusing on ‘classic’ animation spurred interest and support among Hollywood’s insiders. Though Bluth’s first attempts did not create the desired boom, the seed of his work brought the likes of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg into the picture. Though Lucas failed on his wonderful TWICE UPON A TIME, Spielberg’s match-up with Bluth (due to Spielberg’s admiration of the the look of THE SECRET OF NIMH) was a box office success that shook Disney into taking a serious look at the artform they felt they owned. Suddenly there was serious competition. Hollywood had officially entered the animation business… which also ultimately changed the animation process forever. As for starting the TV boom, that honor would be shared by DIC and Filmation. But that’s another discussion.

    • Steve C.

      “by DIC and Filmation”, THE two US TV cartoon studios that to many of us animaiton fans, were the biggest disasters to happen to animation, without even Hanna-Barnera’s 1957-1963 glory [or H&BH’s Tom and Jerry background, though all of that just puts HB themselves in their post-mid 1960s years on in bad as well as Dic and Filmation.);)

  • http://haraldsiepermann.blogspot.com Harald

    I remember seeing this totally unprepaired on German TV one day (I was 18 and never heard about Don Bluth before) and thought “what is this? There’s Disney animation outside of Disney???” And I took a piece of paper and wrote Bluth Goldman on it, so I wouldn’t forget their names.

    Anyway, Groening said in Annecy, that without Roger Rabbit there wouldn’t have been the Simpsons.

  • http://eggheadcheesybird.co.uk Alex

    I like the DVD commentary on Titan AE far more than the film, Bluth and Goldman strike me as very honest about a films shortcoming and not afraid to give credit where credit’s due on the stuff that works. If the commentary on this is up to that standard, I’m sure this will be a good investment.

  • Nancy K.

    Don’t forget “Brave Little Toaster” and the original “Family Dog” as 2 of the films influencing the change in animation.

    “Banjo” harbours all of the classic Bluth bad habits–weak story, lack of character development, sappy music, bizarre color, and characters that all move exactly the same. It does take some time to realize that the main character is a cat at all, even though it’s explained in the title.

    That it’s less than half an hour long is a blessing, because the problems that show up more prominently in his feature work seem a bit less noticeable, and make it a definite time capsule of the late ’70′s.

    Here’s hoping they give the same deluxe treatment to their masterpiece, “Rock-A-Doodle.”

  • Bugsmer

    I’ve never heard of it. This looks like a scene from An American Tail. You can see the late 70′s Disney influence in the character design, and the very Bluth-like expression on the little cat’s face.

  • http://animationinventory.blogspot.com/ Teodor Ajduk

    Only the new Don Bluth can revive the production of 2D animation and not the Princess and the Frog.
    The first was Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, and then other films.

    Even movies such as Titan AE or Bartok the magnificent loking better than all these new 3D movies

  • http://amymebberson.blogspot.com Amy Mebberson

    I sometimes get the impression Bluth’s entire animation acting technique centred on the bottom lip.

    Watching Crazy Legs and Zazu’s mouth movements, all the times it also happened in Robin Hood and Small One suddenly leap out at me in a disturbing way ;)

  • Chris Sobieniak

    What Amy stated is probably one of those quirks I have with Bluth all the time with these. Something about the way the character’s lip movements startles me at times when they just open their mouth ridiculously wide enough to be taken less seriously. I have an animation cel of a character in Secret of NIMH of one of those moments. The bottom lip thing does seem like overkill for both Crazy and Zazu, but I guess it was all in the characterization of those two.

    One of those things about Bluth that was once told to me by a pal I knew once was in how common the theme of a lost child finding his way home has been in most of his work. We see it in Banjo, we see it in An American Tail, we see it in Titan AE (to some extent). It’s very easy to pick up on this theme and see how Don plays with it in these films.

    I first discovered Banjo some 13-14 years ago in a VHS pre-viewed bin of a video store, and not with it’s original case as well. Had to check the tapes carefully to notice one said the title on it and saw “Don Bluth Productions” copyrighted and it clicked! Brought it home and watched the whole 27 minute opus and thought it was OK (the tape itself had seen better days), but furthering on whatever info I could get about it from books and other materials, it kinda dawned on me into wondering what those days were with Don & Co. were working on this during the long stretch of the 70′s. Now with a new DVD 2-disc set out, I can probably now come to understand what those days were like. Sounds like this set is worth more than what I felt the film deserved before.

    Like noticing the new cover art too, the characters thankfully do not stand out all glossy as they did in the late 90′s cover (let alone the VHS covers of the 80′s that were more lifting from a poster).

  • Acetate

    I agree with Mr. Semaj, although I would insert The Great Mouse Detective before Little Mermaid as it featured the talents of Ron and John as well. It’s a pretty snappy little film in its own right.
    I don’t know if the Bluth animations for Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace games were of any influence on features but they sure got alot of press back in the day.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Because of “Banjo,” since Bluth was working at Disney and working on it in his spare time, now all animation studios make all artists sign a contract stating that anything they create while working there(even if you’re working on it at home) belongs to the studio.

    • http://sjcarrasblog.blogspot.comblog,alsoonFacebookat:http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001249396142 Pokey, alias Steve C.

      Pedro..regarding the animators contract not to work at home and elsewhere, that’s an oldschool thing…Chuck Jones actually got fired by Jack Warner while still there in 1962 for working on UPA’s and later WB’s “Gay Purr-ee”—it was WB’s not knowing of Chuck’s presence but their eventual release of that one, then Jack Warner recognizing Chuck’s artistic style on it, and the credit, that outed Chuck as director in 1962! Chuck was so furious he denied any existence of the animation studio, even the then-waning one past 1962[as opposed to the later 1960s re-opening that introduced Bunny and Claude and other characters.]!

  • Nancy K.

    “Only the new Don Bluth can revive the production of 2D animation and not the Princess and the Frog.
    The first was Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, and then other films.”

    Baloney! Bluth left to do his own thing. Bravo. But he also left because he didn’t feel the old Disney animators paid him enough respect. They didn’t care much for him, and started focusing on training new talent rather than let Don’s sappy fantasy version of what Disney “once was” infect Disney feature animation.

    Disney may have been in the doldrums at the time, but they DIDN’T forget that “character animation” is the thing. Something Bluth either never knew or quickly forgot.

    LONG LIVE THE RATS NEST!

  • Nancy K.

    “Because of “Banjo,” since Bluth was working at Disney and working on it in his spare time, now all animation studios make all artists sign a contract stating that anything they create while working there(even if you’re working on it at home) belongs to the studio.”

    Simply not true. It had more to do with the interest in animation art and the studios wanting to own everything for fear of losing money should it escape their clutches.

    • Steve C.

      Amen to that, Nance, but also the “property” issue dates back to the classic era—Warners, for instance, when producer Leon Schlesinger looked over Bob Clampett’s stuff, decided to pass but let Clampett keep it IF he left, which was a part of the reason for CLampett’s departure. Also, both sides here, don’t forget most important that DISNEY HIMSELF got himself in an unfortunate snag with Universal in his pre-indie days, with Oswald the Rabbit, which in the last few years the studio official got rights to,
      losing the rights originally to his future Columbia distribution client Charles Mintx and wife Margaret Winkler, then to DIsney’s fututre friend Walter Lantz, before Oswald was discontinued [all of which I might said here..] then around the time of the publication of this blog article, the rights RETURNED to Disney, while getting back once again to 1938, Disney came up suppsoedly with wife Lilly, on a tgrain trip, with little mice named Mickey, and oh yeah-Minnie. So moral, is, despite the usual contradition, creating Oswald before losing the rights, then making history with Mickey, and in the last five years reclaiming it, Disney studio could have their cake and eat it too…but a long time coming. This was in an agreement but correct to Nancy K’s comment about studio ownership, as it was nothing nerw in the 80-s9-s whenever.:)

  • Ryan

    The Bluth guys like to call their dialog process “chewy.” It’s very easy to over enunciate things when you’re thumbnailing mouth shapes and trying to get a feel for the tone of the dialog. This kind of animating is fun as hell, but it packs more of a punch when its used less sparingly.

    I think you guys need to remember though that this was all done in their free time after working full time at Disney. No one got paid for doing any of the work on this featurette and that should be a testament to their devotion to the craft. How many of us could say that we would work almost every night and weekend in someones garage for YEARS to master our greatest talent and passion?

  • Paul

    Consider the facts, Banjo was an independent animated first film : A- made at night in a garage while moonlighting a day job and : B- made in the animation dark ages time period of the mid to late 1970s . It looks pretty darn good.

    What Banjo did for Don Bluth , Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy was a first chance to independently direct and produce an animated film . It was an important stepping stone to making a number of successful animated features . The first of which was the stunning piece The Secret of Nimh . A spectacular return to the shimmering, mesmerising deep-focus animation associated with Disney’s classic 1937-1942 period. It is a dark moody piece with mesmerizing music and marvellous use of lighting and the splendor of full hand drawn animation and special effects left far behind all its contemporaries . Looks and compare Nimh with the likes of … H&B Heidi’song , Raggedy ann and andy , BAkshi’s American Pop , Watership down , and Disney’s flat outing : Fox and The Hound . Nothing comes close . It will years before Disney returns to glory.

    One important fact to the animation renaissance of the later 80s is the commercial success of Bluth second film American Tail (part 1) . Universal wanted a sequel . There was a dispute with Amblin and Universal over the profit sharing from American Tail with Bluth whih was made at a very low budget ($9 mil ) and they parted ways after Land Before Time.
    Don Bluth refused contract terms for the American Tail sequel with Amblin and Universal . Don Bluth made his next film with a new Partner , Goldcrest.
    Universal and Amblin then set up its own Studio (amblimation) in London to produce the American Tail sequel as its first film . An important nucleus from amblimation moved to Dreamworks in 1994 when Jeffrey Katzenberg set up his successful toonshoppe.

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    Pedro: that’s creepy and a huge turnoff. Anyone know what studios in the US (or abroad) literally have that arrangement.

  • http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=052C631F61EE2838 Iain

    I got a copy myself a month ago on the first week Don was selling it and it came a few weeks later. I agree with Jerry, it is a very nice package, kind of like an independent rendition of the Disney Platinum Editions slightly surpassing the previous special editions of “NIMH” and “Pebble”.

    And even though it’s a year late, i’d love to see a special edition of “The Land Before Time” to make up for the cheapie that came out almost six years ago.

  • julian

    70s style, lips, color, chicken before the egg, whatever you try to knock… I think its a damn good show piece. And it was the first time a team of animators said, “hey i want too learn more about my craft”, and had COURAGE – yes, courage – to take the time and do it. The art form was going down the drain. I think we owe alot to the team of artists that made you think about QUALITY. You might not like what they did, but it stepped the game up and gave us some great talent. Yes, they did pave the way for the new animation boom that came …..to this day THE SECRET OF NIHM still looks the best from any of the films of the 80s and 90s. There’s been alot of other studios and directors that made a big imprint: JOHN K, BRAD BIRD, TIM BURTON, RICHARD WILLIAMS, JOHN MUSKER-RON CLEMENTS, BAKSHI, TOM WHILHITE, JERRY REES… a lot of people who were a part of the boom. BANJO was a big move for the Bluth team. BRAVE …I think we need too see more of that.

  • julian

    OH YEAH! — Don, maybe do some more films with Banjo? You do have fans!

  • http://www.grotto11.com/blog Brian Tiemann

    Ah yes, the “big city”: Salt Lake City. Let the good times roll!

    A curiosity of not-so-subtle proselytizing in a pet project, this piece was. Kinda like the Battlefield Earth of animation.

    Still, earlier comments about the cat designs notwithstanding, I think the cats in this look more like cats than Tiger in An American Tail. I remember seeing that movie when I was a kid and going through the entire film literally not knowing what in hell he was supposed to be.

  • Norm

    “Banjo” was originally run in primetime on ABC television. Running back to back with it was John Wilson’s “Stanley the Duck”, which looked cheap and was actually shot on different, mismatched film stocks. I’ll bet the network paid the same license fee to both specials.

  • Nancy K.

    “s and 90s .theres been alot of other studios and directors that made a big imprint .JOHN K, BRAD BIRD, TIM BURTON,RICHARD WILLIAMS,JOHN MUSKER-RON CLEMENTS,BAKSHI,TOM WHILHITE,JERRY REES,Alot of people were apart of the boom”

    Mostly people Don hated. And with no love lost–because most of these people (and the 9 old men) saw through Don like the plate glass he was. The fact that Don left was a nice shake up, but NONE of these people “benefitted” from Secret of Nimh. The film was barely released, and it’s story was a travesty. No one cares about twinkles, splashes, overanimated characters with bad acting when they can’t care about the STORY.

    Thankfully, the people that stayed at Disney or left shortly before and after Don (but didn’t succumb to his cult like personality) cared more about STORY and CHARACTER than funky details.

  • http://www.drawn2gether.com/blog Tina Price

    Hey, this was my first job in animation in Don Bluths garage. What fun. Here is a behind the scenes story from Dorse Lanpher who experienced this first hand:

    http://www.drawn2gether.com/blog/2008/06/18/banjo-days/

    Enjoy the good ole days.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Much of what Julian said could sum up how people should view Banjo on it’s own, as an experiment and a triumph of those that have devoted their time to nurture it to completion. While it may not suffice as an adequate story due to length, it otherwise was a testament what these people were capable of, and the potential to go onto bigger projects like features films that followed.

    > A curiosity of not-so-subtle proselytizing in a pet project, this piece was. Kinda like the Battlefield Earth of animation.

    I wanted to think of this as the Daicon IV of American animation, but I don’t think it would be that close (let alone I don’t know what would be the best equivalent for that anyway).

    I remember reading about it airing on ABC in ’82 (having looked up TV listings for the day it aired). What I did wonder though is if it had been re-edited for the TV airing in case they needed to shorten it’s running time for whatever timing constraints were in place?

  • Jason

    I agree with EVERYTHING Nancy K. says. Back in the ’80′s, I’d heard about Don Bluth – that he left Disney because of what he perceived as sloppiness (the animators didn’t fill in the mouses’ eyes in “The Rescuers”, etc.) – and I was fascinated and impressed by his apparent desire to bring back old-fashioned quality to animated films.

    Then I saw some of HIS films. “All Dogs Go To Heaven” – EGAD. How awful. A cross between Rin Tin Tin and Little Miss Marker, and the resultant mutt needed to be put to sleep. It sure as heck did it to me. Feh. I don’t get what Don’s beef was. Latter-day and lesser Disney films like “Rescuers” and “Robin Hood”, with all its flaws, were still far more enjoyable films than anything he created.

  • Cameron

    I’m not sure where this deal about Bluth hating those people comes from, or these people “seeing through Don like a glass plate.” I only remember Bluth laying glorious praise upon Brad Bird and John K hating Don Bluth (but who doesn’t he hate?). Don Bluth’s ego is unreasonable, but he rightly deserves some credit for helping to kickstart the renaissance.

    I strongly disagree about Secret of NIMH’s story, but that’s just me. I love the movie, regardless of how much I despise everything he made in the nineties (save Dragon’s Lair II).

  • Dave

    02/28/09 5:40pm Brian Tiemann says:
    “Ah yes, the “big city”: Salt Lake City. Let the good times roll! A curiosity of not-so-subtle proselytizing in a pet project, this piece was. Kinda like the Battlefield Earth of animation.”

    —–

    “Not-so-subtle proselytizing” for what ? There’s no “proselytizing” that I can remember. (haven’t seen the film in years.) It’s about a kitten who runs away from home and hitches a ride on a truck to the nearest “big city” … which happens to be Salt Lake City because the story is set in Bluth’s boyhood home state of Utah . If Bluth had grown up in farm country in Ohio maybe he would have had the story so that that Banjo hitched a ride into the big city of Columbus. So what ?

    Are you trying to say that because Don Bluth is a Mormon (well-known) and Salt Lake City has a predominantly Mormon population that it is somehow “proselytizing” for Mormonism because in the film the character Banjo ends up in Salt Lake City ?

  • RODAN

    Let me just say..as a fly on the wall… I’ve seen a preview of the extras on this DVD and hearing the Banjo experience from Don, Gary and John is really something. The art was in transformation at the time. And from what I understand the old timers were totally behind the Banjo efforts of the younger animators at the studio. The art was dieing and needed this type of project to nurture the new breed. It’s going to be quite interesting and enlightening to those who weren’t around at that time and nostalgic to those who were. I was in awe of the efforts put forth by this group. It’s actually very inspirational. The extras on this Banjo are going to be really worth it. I can’t wait to get my hands on this DVD.

  • http://cartoonsteve.blogspot.com/ Steve

    I’ve been looking for an excuse to upload this clip from one of my dusty old VHS tapes – segment a show called “The New Magicians”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UY8Nd1aNO8

    Don talks about leaving Disney and his method for casting animators to particular scenes in Nimh based on their personality and acting strengths.

  • julian

    hey nancy i worked at bluth studios (west olive) in 1989 .and nor did i see or felt like i was in a cult….the artist working there at the time ..i think were the most giving ..it was a time were we had animation classes everyday .(taught by ken duncan,) we had acsess too all learning material,and treated very well ….and there was always a feeling and invataion too progress in the studio .people moved from mail room too animation ,and from video tester too animator …a good time for begginers, i dont think too many studios offer that ..then and now …im a baptist .and respect whatever and whom evers religion …and i can say . I never felt like i was in a cult ..IT WAS A TIME I WILL NEVER FORGET .and i wished that others could have had the opprutunity i had ……….and by the way .did any body ever hear that don bluth hates all of those people?? from his mouth ? hmmmmmmmm. im sure they didnt …i say more sparkles ,good animation ,nice backgrounds,….and learning ..and for the bitter artist in are very small animation community(cult)ha-ha!! go make your own banjo..with some willing (free will) artist …and maybe from your hard work and dedication could start a few rumours about your ..CULT …HA!………MUCH LOVE TOO ALL ARTIST!! PEACE…….(SORRY TYPOS)

  • julian

    OH YEAH …..HERES A FEW PEOPLE WHO WERE THERE ….JOHN POMEROY.LORNA COOKE ,LINDA MILLER ,KEN DUNCKIN,BRUCE SMITH,LARRY LEKER,DORSE LAMPHNER,MAT BATES,SHANE ZALVIN,DAVE AND WENDY BREWSTER,JEFF ETTER ,JOHN EDDINGS,TOM HUSH, CATHY CARR ,JAN NAYLOR,JAMES LOPEZ,MIKE c,MARK KOETSIER.NATASHA KOETSIER,AND MANY MORE .ALOT OF TALENT IN 1989…..AND GUESS WHAT THEY DIDNT HAVE TOO BURN DOWN THE COMPOUND…..I got too see how much work it took too make a film …but they made it look easy …..real pros. in 1989.

  • http://checkeredgeekcartoons.blogspot.com Zach Cole

    I’m glad Nancy K mentioned BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER.

    That was definitely part of the movement, and Joe Ranft and John Lasseter were involved.

    Although Bluth is important, and I’m glad this film is being re-released, especially since I’ve been meaning to see it for quite some time.

  • Trevor

    No one has noticed the resemblance between Crazy Legs, the large cat talking to Banjo in this clip and Scat Cat, the head of the alley cats in “The Aristocats”? They’re both street cats, both fat, both wear a derby, and were both voiced by the late Scatman Crothers. How odd that all those people left Disney and ended up inadvertantly copying it so closely this way.

  • http://Mr.FunsBlog Floyd Norman

    Don Bluth and I are about the same age, and we started at Disney in the fifties. I’ve always had great respect for Don even though I never had any desire to join his “cult.”

    However, there’s another story I’ll bet none of you know, and it also took place in Culver City. Don Bluth and his brothers had a theater group, and they staged musical shows using Disney talent and others back in the sixties.

    I can’t help but wonder how Disney’s Tom Schumacher and Don Bluth would have gotten along had he remained at the Mouse House?

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    After the back and forth from people who were actual working animators in the 80s, I just wanna chime in as a CHILD of the 80s and say Secret of Nimh and American Tale played huge roles in my learning to love and want to create animation. Thanks Don, and all who were a part of his work!

  • Al

    Now that you bring it up, there’s at least one “Banjo” scene where the cats suddenly sport One Hundred and One Dalmatians proportions and there’s also that homage to Disney’s “Bongo”, where the “Banjo” cat leaps up the tree trunk straight at camera. Before Bluth and company left the House of Mouse, plenty of classic animation scenes were Xeroxed from the morgue. I’m not saying that they were traced per se, but if you screen these shots side by side, your jaw will drop lower than a Bluth take. But innovation begins with copying. They branched out from there and grew their own school of animation. The secrets they took with them enabled Bluth’s studio to compete against Disney at a level that no other challengers had done up to that moment. It wasn’t the appearance of “Secret of NIMH” but the huge success of “An American Tail” that woke Disney up to a serious business/artistic threat. That spurred Disney to unleash their purse strings and once again get serious about animation, which paid off handsomely for them. Katzenberg, for one, made out like a bandit when he left the place, which came out in the trial.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Does anyone remember how Disney pushed the release of Tron so that it would crush NIMH’s box office?

  • George

    Another tidbit some may not know is that Don Bluth toiled a few years at Filmation in the late 1960′s/early 1970′s to help repay the debt incurred by the theatre he and his brothers had operated. TV animation paid far better than Disney theatrical work in that era, and it was money Bluth needed. For many years Bluth held the Filmation house record for the number of decent layouts drawn per day by a single artist. Not only was he good, he could really grind it out, and the latter attribute was most prized by Filmation. You can detect Bluth’s design sense in Filmation shows such as “Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down?”, which showcase a higher degree of drawing talent than usual in Filmation product. Understandably, Bluth doesn’t like to call attention to that part of his c.v.

  • Matt Sullivan

    BANJO was a nice little fim.

    Additionally, Don Bluth was the man whose work made me want to become an animator. SECRET OF NIMH, DRAGON’S LAIR, all the early stuff. It was darker and different. It saddens me to see someone who so bent on changing animation fall into formula-laced filmmaking and relative anonymity.

    But I still love his work. I love his style. The man can draw. There’s no better board artist. It’s a shame he’s relegated to signing autographs at Comic-Con. He should he helming a new feature. I write scripts and have always fantasized about having them made in Don’s signature style. Don, if you;re out there, let me pitch something to you. You’re awesome :}

  • Bill5925

    I remember a talk at UCLA where Don was describing how his group had to relearn the old tricks to do the splashes and twinkles and semi-transparent paint and so forth that they had forgotten at Disney. He was very proud of this technical acheivement. He also talked about how important story was to the film. I guess he didn’t walk the walk. At that same conference, he said he wouldn’t go back to Disney for all the money in the world. Disney’s Joe Hale then said “We HAVE all the money in the world!”

  • Sean

    I think some people like Nancy certainly have an agenda against Don Bluth, although what it is will probably not be revealed.

    As someone born in the early 80s and who grew up with Don Bluth films, there is a lot I can appreciate and I have taken note of. I don’t like the blandness, the flailing, the shallow stories, the singing, and the disgusting cuteness that prevails in all of his movies and shorts, but there is obviously a lot of skill and craft at work here and it should be appreciated.

    Bluth’s output was terrible in the 90s, and his 80s films were all flawed, but had a certain charm. I don’t agree with overanimating and generic archetype characters, but what I enjoy most about Bluth’s earlier films is the darkness and scariness that is in all of them. They really know how to create washed out colors and mood, as well as have an atmosphere of hostility that you still to this day don’t see in animated films from the US.

    His 80s movies were more for adults in a lot of ways, while still being enjoyable for kids. All Dogs go to Heaven had some pretty harsh scenes and subject matter. Land Before Time apparently had some violence cut out. I can get around that. I think if anything, his studio early on has proved that animated films don’t have to have stupid pop culture jokes, Jonathan Taylor Thomas Singing, or be bright, pink and whimsical for the whole film in order to be successful.

    This is definitely what is stagnating major releases for the last 15-20 years, and why animated films are not going to be taken seriously here in the US like in other countries for a long time. I’m sure there’s still a market for this darker type of animated film, and I bet it can be done with a lot more depth, less flailing, and more human characters than Don Bluth and his crew ever did, but who’s going to take the initiative?

  • Chris Sobieniak

    That’s a question that still keeps getting in our heads all the time Sean. We can only hope for the best.

  • http://www.yaytime.com dave roman

    It’s amazing how much this looks like some of Bluth’s later films. It’s a shame that all the kid characters always act the same.

    But I still love The Secret of Nimh! And even kind of liked Titan AE.

  • Nancy K.

    “His 80s movies were more for adults in a lot of ways, while still being enjoyable for kids”

    I have no “agenda” against Bluth. I could care less! But his films are regressive, immature, poorly structured, and characterless. I can sometimes admire the craft (except for the ugly greyed colors), but it’s to the service of a noise signifying NOTHING. Especially for Adults.

  • julian

    I have no “agenda” against Bluth. I could care less! But his films are regressive, immature, poorly structured, and characterless. I can sometimes admire the craft (except for the ugly greyed colors), but it’s to the service of a noise signifying NOTHING. Especially for Adults……………..Im glad you cleared that up NANCY….we can all sleep well tonight ………love you don .

  • Vanguard Battle Hydra

    Seems like Nancy K doesn`t understand Don Bluth at all. Yes, I have to admit that he has done some really horrible movies in the 90s like Thumbelina, but I disagree with almost everything Nancy says.

    Bluth`s best movies always use the expressionistic animation, so he doesn`t need to make complex dialogue for his films. And that also worked in Disney`s Bambi, so why couldn`t it work in Bluth movies? And his colors in the 80s films are dark and murky, but that is more realistic when comparing to the always bright and shiny palette of most animated films. Just look at the backgrounds in An American Tail and you`ll understand. And one can`t be serious while saying that the story of Secret of NIMH was a weak one: it was meant to be complex and unique! I guess Nancy K isn`t just used to darker, more complex stories like NIMH had. Besides, NIMH had more character development than any other film Bluth made: Mrs Brisby`s test of courage was so well-written and powerful that no one can deny it!

    Yet I have to admit that most of the songs in Don Bluth films are horrible, especially in his 90s movies. But The Secret of NIMH and Land Before Time had almost none, which is always a great thing. Oh, and did I mention how beautiful the score by James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith is in these movies?

    Bluth has made most of his films for both kids and adults (well, maybe some of his 90s films are a bit too childish in some way), like Disney and Miyazaki do. But I can`t understand how someone can consider The Secret of NIMH immature when compared to some of the overrated, lightweight Disney and Dreamworks flicks like The Little Mermaid. That`s like preferring Batman and Robin to The Dark Knight.

    Nevertheless, Don Bluth deserves a place as one of the gods in the Animation Olympus.

  • Vanguard Battle Hydra

    Here`s my top list of Don Bluth films I´ve seen, from best to worst:

    1. The Secret of NIMH (Beautifully animated, good title character development, no singing and an unusually complex story enjoyable for both kids and adults)

    2. Land Before Time (I love dinosaurs. And when Don Bluth does a film about them with high-quality animation and no songs, how can one go wrong)

    3. The Small One (One of the best Disney shorts ever. In fact, most of the movies Bluth worked in are my personal favorites, like Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood and The Rescuers. This short has also the most touching scenes ever in a Don Bluth film.Only NIMH and LBT can match them)

    4. An American Tail (I don`t like how the mice are drawn in this film, but the story is still touching and James Horner`s music is just incredible. The songs aren`t that great, though)

    5. All Dogs Go To Heaven (Don Bluth`s funniest movie; Kurt Reynolds and Dom Deluise never fail to humor in this one. I also like the film noir-style atmosphere in this film, and all the darkness in Bluth`s best works impress me. The only bad things in this movie are the campy songs, and the annoying Ann-Marie)

    6. Anastasia (An okay film with good songs and an interesting protagonist, but the story doesn`t really match with the historical events. This was also when Don Bluth had to rip off Disney because he lost his ideas in the 90s, so you can see all the trademark from Disney`s 90s films in here)

    7. Titan AE (An interesting concept, though not very memorable. The characters are a bit flat, and the music never impresses anybody. Besides, I`ve never cared for such scifi material)

    8. Thumbelina (One of my least favorite animated films ever. Annoying lead characters, weak and softhearted villains, horribly naive morals, disgusting songs and a lightweight princessy atmosphere that already bugged me in The Little Mermaid. I haven`t watched the rest of Bluth`s 90s films because of this travesty)

  • Chiibihime

    Haha….Nancy K obviously cares because she cares enough to come to a Bluth page and comment…AND actually do research on the guy…..? Saying he hates so-and-so. How would you know if you don’t care, dear? Hmm?
    Anyway, I have a bone to pick with you about the whole ” immature weak story” thing. Most Bluth films are much more mature than Disney and Fox ones. MUCH. And you call his stories weak…but all Disney does is replicate fairytales that everybody knows!! They NEVER come up with original ideas of their own! It’s always based on a book or a legend…but aside from NIMH, Bluth always uses ORIGINAL ideas! And his stories are not weak or poorly structured.

    And Jason, “Dogs” beats “The Rescuerers” ANY day. Seriously. “Rescuerers” is boring. The sequel was great though. But “Dogs” is still better. It dared to be a mature film about salvation and damnnation. I admire that.

    ALL HAIL DON BLUTH, THE ANIMATION GENIUS!!

    • Erik

      Dark does not equate mature(or even good)…That is utter bullshit. I don’t mind you praising Don Bluth, but having to bring up ignorant criticisms of Disney films in order to make your point doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Disney HAS done original stories(Lilo and Stitch, Lady and the Tramp, Bolt, Brother Bear, Emperor’s New Groove) and the whole point of their adaptations is to tell a timeless story in a new way. Being an original story doesn’t make a movie inherently superior.

      Don Bluth’s stories certainly have great imagery, but they’re not without their flaws. The characters are endearing, but the stories don’t have much structure.

      Frankly, the whole Fandom Rivalry between Disney films and Bluth films aggravates me. They’re not mutually exclusive.

  • Vanguard Battle Hydra

    Nah, I think the Rescuers was a good film. It had a great atmosphere, proper characters, and an interesting story that wasn`t afraid of being grim and darkly intense at times. The animation looks outdated, but it fit the story and the atmosphere very well.

    As I was saying, it is the darkness or mature subject matters that make movies like Secret of NIMH enjoyable for grownups as well. The movie itself carries a subtle plot, which requires understanding and the right attitude. Unlike the crudely overrated Little Mermaid, NIMH doesn`t focus on the cutesy exterior, but on the story and the title character development instead. Besides, the animation on NIMH is more accurate and expressive, with the characters acting like if they were in real life, not to mention that the colors are lush and carefully-painted. Little Mermaid, on the other hand, has rubbery and weak character movements (even though it`s acceptable when being under the sea), flat pastel colors and most of the animator talent is solely wasted on the most irritating Big Lipped Alligator Moment in Disney history, Under The Sea (Why in wonder did that turkey win an Oscar?).

    Oh, and Mrs Brisby is a well fleshed out character. She`s not a Miss Perfect & Popular, nor a wisecracking jerk, but a common single parent, with fears and doubts. She doesn`t want to be a hero, but she does what she has to do in order to protect her son. This makes her more realistic and I´m sure some would identify with her. Ariel, on the other hand, is a bland brat only caring about a prince she has a crush on, even though she doesn`t know him well. She doesn`t develop in any way during the film, just falls in love and gets into trouble. Jodi Benson`s voicework doesn`t save the flat character in any way, leaving Ariel with the personality of a seashell.

    Thus being said, Don Bluth can do well with the story and characters if he really takes it seriously.

  • http://sjcarrasblog.blogpsot.com Steve Carras

    Like Jason, I too agree with everything Nancy said. I did not even BOTHER to see a SINGLE Don Bluth flick at ALL—-NOT “Brisby”. NOT “American Tale”..or that endlessly produced series of Dino movies, etc. I’m so glad that others have made this statement..

    [Really, in my humble opinion, he gave other Mormons a bad name, no personal offense or other intended, by via his doing this [IMO only] “mush” and then stating his religion…]