Walt Disney’s Absalom: Don Bluth and the Nine Old Men

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By: Colby J. Herchel

Twitter: @cjherchel


There is a fourth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as watching Toy Story in your pajamas. It is the middle ground between taste and talent, between sound and vibration, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his pop cultural knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call… THE FOURTH PLANE.


 

Ah, Don Bluth, the eternal example of a man who no one remembers but inexplicably everyone knows his work. For my first career-spanning look back, I’ve elected to give this remarkable artist his due, even if some of his work is looked on rather poorly in hindsight (hem hem “Rock-a-doodle”).


Suffice it to say you’ve seen “The Land Before Time.” You have. People forget that this picture made the most money for any animated feature EVER before “The Lion King,” then bested by “Toy Story 3” and “Frozen.” See a pattern? But before the roar of the Disney Renaissance, they had, aptly, the Disney Dark Age, and who, if we’re going to represent the European history analogy to its fullest (I will, you’ll see), the Byzantine Empire was Don Bluth.


Our hero began like a young Walt– he loved animation for its innovation, and where better to prosper than at Walt Disney Animation itself? He had a hand in films like “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Sword in the Stone” (which would go on to inspire our dear John Lasseter to take up the fold years later), and even directed the animation portions of the oft forgotten “Pete’s Dragon” (Which certainly should not be). This is a particularly enjoyable venture, with a bundle of fantastic songs to boot. In fact it’s going to be remade in a year or two if I’m not mistaken, but without these songs [refer to the power ballad “Candle on the Water” to understand the heinousness of this act:

Yet even though his successes were growing at the studio, he found that even though he was the young darling of the Nine Old Men, animators who became the proverbial disciples of Disney at his passing, the old timers were fairly adverse to innovation, and were largely behind a span of the Dark Ages known as the Xerox Era (the timeline’s coming, I promise). Here, they replicate scenes in new features by “xeroxing” the new characters on old templates. For fun examples, shown here:

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So we’re circling around the late 60s early 70s at this point. And of course, all the new animators, still young and idealistic, were frustrated at having to serve under a series of talented but conservatively dated elders. Don Bluth was, of course, their Absalom, ready to rebel against the studio that birthed him for refusing to let go of the past and innovate on.

thumbIt was for his 42nd birthday that Don Bluth rounded up the best and newest animators from under Disney’s nose and created a new studio, and as is habit for big new upstarts, it began in his garage (see every post ’75 innovator ever) with a thirty minute short called “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” It’s all available on Youtube, and its quite fun. Actually, I highly recommend it. It’s got a wonderful story, and though it has a couple of references that our old pal presentism might take issue with, ex. smoking and corporal punishment, you never see the titular cat get the spanking and it’s not to really be thought about.

This story comes from a personal one from Don Bluth– he had a cat who lived in his woodpile in Utah. It becomes kind of a love letter to his own youth; yeah, if you get in trouble, your dad would spank you, it was how it was, not that that should be promoted. And it plays with every kid’s thoughts that come when they get in trouble: “This isn’t fair, I want to run away from home!” This short plays with that, with a lovely set of cats in Salt Lake City showing him that maybe things weren’t awful where you were. This protagonist isn’t always in the right, which really is a departure– when have we seen that post “Pinocchio?”

Oh, and the songs are wonderful. Don Bluth himself wrote the music and lyrics. I’m thoroughly impressed, as the thirty minute journey is mostly musical. Of course, it didn’t get much screen time, and that venture faded quickly. It was on to new things and here I won’t go into too much detail– we’ll discuss the movies he made from here as we go along, week by week. But after “Banjo” he got the rights to a phenomenal children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien, “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” and made what many consider to be his masterpiece, “The Secret of NIMH” in 1982. This of course received few showings across the country, but had, as would be a norm for Bluth, done well with the home video market.

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The studio didn’t have a lot of money at this point, but continued to do non-features such as a scene from the campy “Xanadu” and a cult classic arcade game, “Dragon’s Lair” (along with its even zanier sequel), which quite honestly started the action-adventure game in my book, followed by its companion “Space Ace” in 1984. A couple of guys got wind of the amazing “Secret” and decided to give animation a try. These bozos were none other than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and they brought Bluth around to animate two pictures: “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time.”

These did exponentially well, and even when their collaboration ended (they were done with Bluth’s darker storytelling), the studio went on to make a string of so-so work to flops, and eventually Bluth started working for 20th Century Animation, making his final work there. It’s imperative we discuss the tone of Bluth’s work– he set out to treat kids with darker stories, he believed they could handle it. And you know, it’s because of him that people even consider making animation on that level, and look at Pixar– they almost follow his model to a T. He focuses on character flaw, and flawed they are, just like Woody and Buzz were when we first met them.

He’s far from the perfecter, but he is the innovator. And some of his work is absolutely gorgeous. I still think some of his final work is ahead of its time. You’ll hear me gush and sigh a plenty about the fellow, but all in all his impact on family entertainment is substantial. He may have fallen when Disney got its sea legs again, but his influence is echoing even today.

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Colby is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. He can be found singing with old women in his spare time.


 

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