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Don Bluth: The Animator Who Shaped a Generation

Bluth has never been afraid to show children the darker side of life.

Don Bluth feature
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  • Photo Credit: The Land Before Time Wikia

If you were a child in the 80s or 90s, odds are that Don Bluth movies have a nostalgic hold on your heart. Personally, just hearing a song or a quote from one of Bluth's features immediately transports me to a time when I was much younger, much more vulnerable, and inclined towards nightmares about Sharpteeth.

Bluth and his friend and creative partner Gary Goldman are behind many of the weirdest, darkest, most imaginative animated Western children's movies ever—The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Anastasia, to name just some. Bluth films explore the surreal potential lurking behind everyday life, using a fantasy lens to examine everything from the Jewish immigrant experience to the afterlife. Let's take a look at nineteen fascinating facts about the life and career of Don Bluth.

Don Bluth decided to become an animator after watching Snow White at age four 

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  • Still from Anastasia, arguably the Bluth movie most heavily influenced by Disney.

    Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Animation

As a child growing up in El Paso, Texas, Don Bluth used to ride his horse to the movie theater, where he had a watershed moment watching Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He told IGN in 2000,

"I'd say somewhere around 4 years old, I saw a picture called Snow White. I think that's the one that got me. It wasn't like anything I'd ever seen before. I liked the look of it. I liked the emotional response I had to it. I just liked everything about it, and the name that came immediately after that was Walt Disney. I began, over the years as I was growing up, to have an affinity towards the Disney pictures, and I waited for every one with anticipation for the new delight that had been created.

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"Then you get into your teens and you start saying, 'What am I going to do when I am of age and I go out into the workforce?' I kept saying, 'I think that's what I want to do.' I wanted to go to California and work on animated films. I had this drive; absolute drive and from four years old on that never really deviated."

Don Bluth was a Mormon missionary

Don Bluth is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After an initial stint at Disney, he left the company in 1957 to finish his English Lit degree and to work as a missionary in Argentina. After returning to Disney in 1971, he felt the company culture had changed and that management had begun to prioritize money over art. 

Don Bluth resigned from Disney on his 42nd birthday

During his time at Disney, Don Bluth worked on Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, The Small One, and Pete’s Dragon. He was in the midst of production on The Fox and the Hound when, on September 13th, 1979, Bluth and Gary Goldman resigned, taking 16 other animators with them. Bluth felt that the studio had begun to sacrifice quality in order to cut costs in the wake of Walt Disney's death and the subsequent retirement of much of the Disney old guard. At their resignation, Bluth and Goldman reportedly said “We couldn’t make a change here, so maybe if we go out there and compete with you, it’ll make you work harder.”

The abrupt departure of Bluth, Goldman, and the rest of the "Disney defectors," as they came to be called, severely delayed the release of The Fox and the Hound. 

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Don Bluth originally pitched The Secret of NIMH to Disney

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  • Photo Credit: MGM Entertainment

While Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were still at Disney, they pitched a movie adaptation of the Newberry Award-winning book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. But management rejected it, saying “We have already done a mouse-movie," referring to 1977's The Rescuers

Bluth and Goldman went on to make The Secret of NIMH through the newly founded Don Bluth Productions, with the movie financed by Aurora Productions. The movie was a critical success but a box office failure, due in large part to lack of promotion on behalf of MGM. Today, it enjoys enduring success as a cult favorite. 

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An American Tail and The Land Before Time were his first commercial successes

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  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Following The Secret of NIMH, Don Bluth directed another 'mouse movie.' An American Tail (1986) is the story of immigrant mouse Fievel Mousekewitz and his family, who flee the Ukraine for the U.S. in hopes of a safer, cat-free life. Following the commercial success of An American Tail and the 1988 movie The Land Before Time, Bluth's production company seemed to be Disney's biggest rival. 

The upstart studio had a creative impact on Disney as well. For instance, The Land Before Time opens with the devastating death of protagonist Littlefoot's mother. After she dies, an older dinosaur named Rooter explains—years before Disney's The Lion King featured a song about the circle of life—“It is nobody’s fault. The great circle of life has begun … You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you, as long as you remember the things she taught you.” 

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He believes it's important to depict uncomfortable emotions on film

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  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Most millennial and Generation X viewers can probably name a moment from the Don Bluth pantheon that devastates or terrifies them to this day—when Littlefoot's mother dies in The Land Before Time, for example, or the depiction of Hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). 

In an interview with Nostalgia Critic's Doug Walker, Bluth explained why he includes deeply upsetting scenes in movies aimed at children: "[If] you don’t show the darkness, you don’t appreciate the light. If it weren’t for December no one would appreciate May. It’s just important that you see both sides of that. As far as a happy ending … when you walk out of the theatre there’s [got to be] something that you have that you get to take home. What did it teach me? Am I a better person for having watched it?"

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Child psychologists were brought in to ensure The Land Before Time wouldn't traumatize children

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  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

The "circle of life” message delivered by Rooter following the death of Littlefoot's mom was suggested by child psychologists, who were consulted due to concerns over how children would react to the devastating scene. 

Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg disagreed over what young audiences could handle

Even after leaving Disney, Don Bluth still had to compromise his creative vision. He and Steven Spielberg, with whom Bluth collaborated for An American Tail and The Land Before Time, often disagreed over how dark those films should be. For instance, executive producers Spielberg and George Lucas cut 19 scenes from The Land Before Time because Spielberg feared the footage was so scary they'd have “kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents." 

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Spike in The Land Before Time was inspired by Don Bluth's dog

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  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Don Bluth's favorite character in The Land Before Time is Spike the stegosaurus, who was based on his dog, Cubby. 

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Don Bluth is rumored to own a cut of All Dogs Go to Heaven that features a deleted scene in Hell

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  • Photo Credit: United Artists

For many viewers, the All Dogs Go to Heaven dream sequence set in Hell is sufficiently disturbing as-is. But Don Bluth reportedly owns a version of the film that contains more scenes in Hell, which were cut over concerns the movie would receive a PG rating. 

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Rock-a-Doodle initially included a scene where a baby was baked into a pie

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  • Photo Credit: The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Rock-a-Doodle (1991) was the first and last Don Bluth film to include live action. It was also the first in a string of increasingly bizarre movies from Bluth and Goldman, followed by Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and The Pebble and the Penguin (1995). According to Don Bluth Films, Rock-a-Doodle initially included a "very funny" sequence where a baby skunk was baked into a pie. However, it was cut after marketing informed the team that most instances of child abuse occur in the kitchen, and that therefore the scene would be inappropriate. 

Don Bluth could have adapted My Fair Lady instead of Anastasia

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  • Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Animation

In 1994, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were hired by 20th Century Fox Animation, a new division of 20th Century Fox created to compete with Disney. For the studio's first feature, Fox told Goldman and Bluth they could either direct an adaptation of My Fair Lady or Marcelle Maurette's play Anastasia. The duo chose the latter, believing it would be impossible to create an adaptation of My Fair Lady that was more compelling than the 1964 Audrey Hepburn film. However, Bluth and Goldman's Anastasia did include some teaching scenes reminiscent of My Fair Lady and Pygmalion

Don Bluth's only sci-fi film is Titan A.E.

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  • Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Animation

Don Bluth's lone science fiction film Titan A.E. is set thousands of years following the destruction of Earth, and 15 years after a mysterious human invention all but entirely wipes out our species. Fox Animation lost $100 million on the film, and the studio was subsequently shut down. 

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman are planning a Dragon's Lair movie

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  • Photo Credit: Cinematronics

Animation by Don Bluth was featured in the 1983 Cinematronics sword and sorcery game Dragon's Lair. The notoriously difficult game quickly gained a strong following, one that's still invested today. Stranger Things season 2 featured the gang playing Dragon's Lair; it's also one of only three games in storage at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.   

In 2015, Bluth and Goldman began crowdfunding a Dragon's Lair prequel feature film. They've said the movie will provide more backstory for the game's heroes Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne, and reveal how the latter isn't just a damsel in distress. 

He is also a theater manager

In the mid 90s, Bluth began offering his home in Arizona as a theater venue for local performers. Since then, the Don Bluth Front Row Theater has expended into a separate venue in Scottsdale. At one point, he also ran the "Bluth Brother's Theatre" with his brother Fred in Culver City. 

During the early 70s, Don Bluth had planned to release an animated short film based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin fairy tale.

This grim legend is definitely up Don Bluth’s alley. For those who need a refresher, the Pied Piper of Hamelin story follows a piper who was promised a large sum of money to lure the rodents away from a rat-infested town. When the piper played his instrument, the rats followed him out of the city and into the Weser River in Germany where they all drowned. 

However, the mayor of the town thought it was a scam, and refused to give the piper his money. The enraged piper returned to the area at a later date, played his music, and lured the town’s children away. In most versions of the story, the children were taken to a cave and never seen again.

Related: The Chilling True Story Behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin 

Bluth had planned on creating an animated adaptation of this dark story. Art designs and some brief animations were even made that suggested this was going to actually come to fruition. However, despite evidence of pre-production work, the project was dropped for unspecified reasons. Luckily, a Don Bluth animation of the film was uploaded onto YouTube.

After The Secret of NIHM, Don Bluth planned on releasing an animated film based on a Norwegian folktale.

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  • Photo Credit: MGM Entertainment

After filing for bankruptcy following the release of The Secret of NIHM, Don Bluth was determined to try and dig his studio out of the mud. The next project he planned on releasing was a film titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon, adapted from a Norweigan fairy tale. The story revolves around a young girl who goes on a quest to save a handsome prince from marrying a troll.

The movie was worked on extensively, and was well into post-production. However, because of financial reasons, Bluth was unable to complete the project and it was ultimately canceled. After scrapping the film, Bluth and his studio went on to create An American Tail as their second animated release. 

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Don Bluth was approached by Michael Jackson to make a Fantasia-style film using The Beatles songs.

Michael Jackson scored the rights to The Beatles’ songs during the 1980s. With this newly-acquired material, the pop singer asked Don Bluth if he would be willing to incorporate this music into an animated film in the style of the 1940s Disney classic, Fantasia. Bluth agreed to this, and the project was to be titled Strawberry Fields Forever

Bluth wanted to also make use of emerging CGI technology in order to make the movie really stand out. Had the film actually been released, it would have been a huge milestone in animation history since not many feature films were created using computer animation. This would later be accomplished by Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story in the 90s. 

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Ultimately, the film fell through because the living members of The Beatles refused to give Bluth and Jackson permission to use their image in the film. 

If Titan A.E. wasn’t a commercial failure, it would have been a video game.

A video game developer known as Blitz Games was working on releasing a video game adaptation of Bluth’s Titan A.E. for Playstation and PC. Development for the game had begun alongside the production of the film during the late 90s. In 2000, there was even a playable demo at E3—a gaming showcase event—that proved the game was functional and close to completion.

After Titan A.E. was released in theatres and bombed in the box office, everything involving the title was scrapped—including the video game. In an interview with IGN, a representative from Fox Interactive stated that the film’s poor performance was just “only one of many different factors” that led to the game’s cancelation.

[Via AVClub;  Mental Floss; Alternative Magazine Online; Cataroo]

Featured still from "The Land Before Time" via Universal Pictures