Don Bluth is an animator, writer, producer, and director who first went to work for the Walt Disney Company in 1955. He left two years later to work at a mission for the LDS church in Argentina. He would later return to the U.S. to finish his college education at Brigham Young University. He joined Filmation in 1967, working on The Archies and other projects. He rejoined Disney in 1971, working on films such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and Pete’s Dragon. Bluth became weary of the way the company was being run. Wanting to revive the classic animation style of Disney’s earlier films, he left to form Don Bluth Productions (taking several Disney animators with him). Their first project was the 1979 animated short Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Bluth then set out to return feature animation to its golden era by concentrating on strong characters and story with his first animated feature. For this installment of Animation Corner, I’ll be looking back at the only two good films Bluth has directed: The Secret of NIMH and the Oscar-nominated Anastasia.
Co-written and directed by Bluth, 1982’s The Secret of NIMH centers on a widowed mouse named Mrs. Brisby who seeks out help from the mysterious rats of NIMH before a field plow is scheduled to destroy her home and children. Featuring the voices of Elizabeth Hartman, John Carradine, Hermione Baddeley, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Arthur Malet, Paul Shenar, Peter Strauss, Aldo Ray, Shannen Doherty, Wil Wheaton, Jodi Hicks, Ian Fried, Edie McClurg, Tom Hatten, Lucille Bliss, Joshua Lawrence, and Frank Welker, this critically acclaimed film grossed over $14.5 million domestically on a $7 million budget, although it could’ve done more had it not been for poor promotion and competition from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The film was based on Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. There was a lot of experimenting with unusual and more labor-intensive techniques such as rotoscoping, doing multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadows, and using back-lit animation with matte paintings. For this production, two modern, computerized versions of the multiplane camera were manufactured. To keep costs down, the animators worked long hours, but were offered a cut of the film’s profits as additional compensation (this was the first time that animators had received such an offer). The filmmakers were forced to change the name of Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby when Wham-O (the manufacturers of Frisbees) refused to sign a waiver to allow the filmmakers to use the same-sounding name. The film also marked the first time that an animation film would feature a score by Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. Among the film’s accolades are two Saturn Award nominations (including one win for Best Animated Feature) and a Young Artist Award nod for Best Family Feature- Animated, Musical, or Fantasy.
Co-directed by Bluth and Gary Goldman, 1997’s Anastasia centers on a young woman who teams up with a pair of con men in order to find some trace of her family while the con men intend to take advantage of her likeness to Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. Featuring the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, Andrea Martin, and Rick Jones, this critically acclaimed film grossed $58 million domestically on a $53 million budget (it made another $81 million internationally for a worldwide total of over $139 million). The film is an animated remake of the 1956 film of the same name and is based on the urban legend that Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia survived her family’s execution. The film was the first to be made by Fox Animation Studios. Historians weren’t very pleased with the number of liberties taken with the story even though most of the characters were based on real people. David Newman, who provided a terrific, Oscar-nominated score, is the son of Alfred Newman, who scored the 1956 version of Anastasia and also received an Oscar nod for that film’s score. Among the accolades are nine Annie Award nods (including one win), a Critics Choice Award win for Best Family Film, four Satellite Award nods, two Golden Globe nods (both for Best Original Song), and two Academy Award nods (for Best Original Song and Best Original Score- Musical or Comedy).