Soft Targets: A continued look at the films of Don Bluth / by Aaron Bouchard

It is not an exaggeration to say I hate the term ‘kid’s film’, as in a film made with only kids in mind. This is a label applied by lazy critics or lazy filmmakers to try to excuse the fact that the film in question is lacking in a specific department. “Don’t worry that the story does not make sense and the main character is a lummox,” the filmmaker says,” It is just a kid’s movie anyway.” It is also a surefire sign of a cash grab, kid’s movie means parents are going to pay up so their child can be distracted by flashing, bright colors while their parents have ninety minutes to dwell on past mistakes, like not using contraception.

I watched a quintuple feature of All Dogs Go to HeavenThe Secret of NIMH,Pebble and the PenguinThumbelinaand Titan A.E.. The quality these films all seem share is their losegrasp on a narrative structure. After the experience with Rock-a-Doodle, I wrote that Bluth’s other films stood on their own much better. Nostalgia is the natural inebriation of life making rather mundane or bland events seem so much more interesting than actually are. Guess what? MTV is just as pointless as it ever was, the 90’s were a soft-rock ballet mess, and Don Bluth films are mediocre.

Keep in mind the 1980’s is when Disney animation had exhausted most major fairy tales and were looking for darker literature to mine. It was not a banner decade for Disney animation, but provided at least some of the most interesting films of their catalogue (The Black Cauldren & Fox and the Hound come to mind) either due to new management or to challenge Bluth at his own game. Bluth started out as an animator for Disney but left when he realized he might never get a chance to direct for them. He had an opportunity to surpass Disney, but it was Bluth that held Bluth back. Certain elements found themselves shoehorned into his films like a shiny McGuffins, a group of three children creatures (insectspuppiesbirds, etc…), & a quick wrap up ending. Bluth seems to hold on to these things as if they are the only way to make an animated movie, as if without them the whole project would fall apart. On paper, his films sound interesting:

  • All Dogs: Murdered by his former business partner, a dog escapes heaven to seek revenge.
  • Pebble: A penguin must find his way back to his mate after he finds himself 3000 miles from home.
  • Titan A.E.: A young man joins a group of space travelers to save humanity form extinction.
  • American Tale: A family of JewishPolish Russian mice travel America to escape Nazis/Stalin/cats.

NIMH is moody and frightening. The main character, Ms. Brisby is always in danger, but doing it for the most selfless reason of all; the love and safety of her children. Everything seems dirty in this world, death and misery hangs over everyone. They do not need to learn about the frugality of life, it is fact. NIMH is mostly a world without poetry, nature politics rule here and, until Ms. Brisby’s magic red neck lance pointlessly dues ex machina’s the ending, NIMH is a world where nothing is given to you.

Much like NIMH, some of Bluth’s films never reach their potential but it is hard not to admire them for attempting some seriously outlandish stuff. All Dogs features such family-friendly themes as death, gambling, the occult, and child endangerment. Titan, written by John August and Joss Whedon,is another film with some great ideas which bares its writers’ individual marks of bending genre conventions and making the unusual acceptable. Thumbelina was not a complete embarrassment (I am trying to be diplomatic, but when Charo’s disturbingly well-endowed anthropomorphic frog is the highlight of your film, time to rethink priorities).

NIMH and Titan are, as of right now, the bookends of Bluth’s career and probably his best work. Among the rest, no other film is as equivocal of a sour black abyss that isPebble and the Penguin.

Bluth does not take directing credit for Pebble. In fact, no one takes directing credit forPebble. Bluth’s name only appears in the production company logo ‘A Don Bluth Limited’. Penguin had a rocky history getting to the screen and was the final nail the coffin for Bluth’s Ireland production company. According to the always reliable IMDb, much of the animation and coloring was farmed out to other animation houses all over the world and it shows. Pebble is a cheap looking, shockingly sexist mess of a narrative film. Our main character is Hubie possibly very likely has Aspergers. This is not an insult; he is described like this everywhere. Marina (Hubie’s love interest) is harassed most of the film by Drake (voiced by Tim Curry doing his best ‘American-teenage-football-player-from-the-1950’s’ impression). Drake wants Marina to marry him which he subtly shows by verbally and physically abusing her on a regular basis and in public. Curiously, Marina’s friends do not understand why she is not attracted to Drake.

Pebble is also a musical, a very, very bad musical. Let there be no mistake, Barry Manilow (who wrote all the songs for the film) is a great musician, but the UN should probably get together to draft sanctions on him writing music for animated films. This whole experience has made me realize what a genius Tim Rice is and how he can make a musical number not just catchy and memorable but actually feel like it is supposed to be in the movie. I wonder if Bluth felt like he had to make his movies musicals because it never really feels like the film wants it to be, it always feels very forced.

The film ends with a simple message: violence will solve your problems. When Hubie finally makes it back home, he confronts Drake and the two proceed to punch and kick each other until Drake falls to his death and is crushed by pieces of his own home. Drake’s horrific demise is never spoken of again, but I like to imagine the sequel to Pebble would be Hubie dealing with his Drake-induced PTSD, working a horrible job, and lying awake at night wondering how he could possibly get away from his vapid, materialistic wife and six children that are very possibly not his.

I am not sure if Bluth’s career is over, but other than a short film he ‘presented’ in 2009 (i.e. cashed his check) he has been absent from the film industry. Bluth was a trail blazer in independently financed animation when feature-length hand-drawn animation was incredibly expensive. It seems like with budget animation being relatively cheap, Bluth could easy make a comeback with name recognition and nostalgia alone. Maybe he does not want to, maybe he cannot. Is there still a place for Bluth and hand drawn animation or is that officially an aesthetic choice to recall a bygone era? Could a film be made now and be called ‘Bluthesque? For me, his films represent someone trying something new, a break away from tradition which had become stale but unable to evolve. It cautions to sticking too close to what you know structurally especially when it does not work and will not work. Problems are problems.

Or you can just beat your problems up. From what I understand, that works out great.