Monday, March 29, 2010

Not Disney

I never know if I should feel pleased or offended when people assume that any animated movie of quality was made by Disney. (Yes, I take these things a little too personally.) I started compiling a list of the films that most commonly get mistakenly attributed to Walt Disney Animation Studios and realized very quickly that they are generally they work of two Disney Deserters, Don Bluth and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Bluth became one of the chief animators at The Walt Disney Company in the 1960s. He first started as a directing animator for films such as 101 Dalmatians. In the 1970s he was an animator on the likes of Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and Pete's Dragon. His last involvement with Disney was the 1978 short The Small One.

At this point, the da**ed dirty trai – um, I mean disgruntled Bluth was allegedly upset with how the Disney animated features had "lost their charm" at the time. Along with two colleagues, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, Don Bluth defiantly quit. They left because of what they felt was a lack of regard by their superiors about the quality of the artwork, a deteriorating production process, and management's declining respect for the artists who built the studio. They quit in the name of Walt Disney, whom the three felt would never tolerate the way the current regime had let the animation department fall to such a low level. I think stealing eleven of Disney’s top animators to form Don Bluth Productions doesn’t seem like the best way to help the studio regain its former excellence, but what do I know?

The first release by the newly formed Don Bluth Productions was a short film titled Banjo the Woodpile Cat, and this led to work on an animated segment of the live-action film Xanadu (because nothing bespeaks high standards of quality like a film that has its stars spend most of their time on roller skates).

The studio's first feature-length was animation, The Secret of NIMH (1982), an adaptation of the award winning children's book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The film grossed twice its budget at the box office and many consider it to be Bluth's masterpiece. I’ll be honest; I loved the book, and I loved the film. I often do Jeremy quotes (“Ooh! oh-oh-oooh! A sparkly!”) that people seldom get, but are generally good for a laugh.

Teaming up with producer Steven Spielberg, Bluth's next project was An American Tail (1986), which at the time of its release became the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all time, grossing $47 million in the United States and $84 million worldwide. The film’s feature song "Somewhere Out There", composed by James Horner and written by Barry Mann, won a Grammy Award.

The second Spielberg-Bluth collaboration The Land Before Time (1988) did even better in theaters and was followed by more than ten direct-to-video sequels. (A quick side note here – can anyone make an animated dinosaur film that doesn’t involve a bunch of herbivores trekking to a distant land to find food and escape the carnivores? LBT did it, Disney’s Dinosaur did it, and they even used that plot line in one of the Ice Age films. I’m really tired of this story line; that’s all I’m saying.)

Bluth broke ties with Spielberg before his next film, All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). Although it had only moderate theatrical success, it was highly successful in its release to home video. It was followed by several less successful films such as Rock-a-Doodle (1991), Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and The Pebble and the Penguin (1995) (it’s not so easy to crank out hit after hit, is it Mr. Bluth?). Bluth scored another win with Anastasia (1997), with well-known Hollywood stars as its voice talent. This may be the film most commonly mistaken as a Disney production, for it follows a very familiar formula: a sassy and resourceful princess driven to become more than she is, a cruel and conniving villain who uses dark magic, a handsome and endearing love interest, and a comic-relief sidekick. Anastasia was Bluth’s last big hit.

The other influential defector was Jeffrey Katzenberg. In 1984, Michael Eisner became Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at The Walt Disney Company. Eisner brought Katzenberg with him to take charge of Disney’s motion picture divisions, including its ailing Feature Animation unit. As the studio head, Katzenberg was responsible for turning the studio around and creating some of the most critically acclaimed and highest grossing animated features that Disney released: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991, the first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). He also sealed the deal that created the highly successful partnership between Pixar and Disney and the deal that brought Miramax Films into Disney.

When Eisner’s second in command, Frank Wells, died in a helicopter crash in 1994, Eisner refused to promote Katzenberg to the vacated position of president. When Katzenberg pushed the issue, Eisner forced him to resign. Katzenberg launched a lawsuit against Disney to recover money he felt he was owed and settled out of court for $280 million.

Later that year, Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. He was executive producer of Prince of Egypt (1998) and Joseph: King of Dreams (2000), released by DreamWorks, as well as Shrek in 2001. At this point Dreamworks became an established name in the industry, and people generally quit confusing them with Disney.

I realize that I may sound a tad bitter when I look at the careers of these remarkable gentlemen, but I just can’t help but wonder: what wonderful works could have been created if they’d stayed?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, as usual. You do mention that Beauty and the Beast is the only animated picture to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture; correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe in the same year it became (and remains) the only animated picture to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture.