Podzilla 1985

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hearts of the Art

Animation is one of my passions, even if I'm not currently doing anything with my degree in it. Needless to say it's all around us in commercials, TV shows, movies and web videos. It touches young and old in all corners of the world. But how often do you really think about who's making Hank Hill say "I sell propane and propane accessories."?

That's what I'm here for. To help toss out a few names of the people who have made the genre of animation what it is today. There's a long list of animation greats out there. I'll be bringing to light some names you may already know and several you may not. Heck some of them I only know about because of my beginning animation class back in the day. One thing will be for sure the men and women I choose to cover will have something in common.

They are at the heart of their art.
Don Bluth
 If you were a child of the 80's, like me, you'll probbaly recognize the name Don Bluth. If it was a popular animated movie in the 80's, but not Disney, he probably had a hand in it. Some of my favorite animated films are a result of his work. Unlike the Disney classics we all know Bluth's works are usually a bit on the dark side and include a touch of mystical forces at work.

Bluth was born September 13, 1937, in El Passo, Texas. At the age of six his family moved to Payson, Utah where he grew up on the family farm. The family moved again, when he was seventeen, to Santa Monica, Ca, where he finished up high school. After attending one year of college at Brigham Young University, in Utah, Bluth was hired on at Disney, where he became an assistant to John Lounsbery.

Under Lounsbery he worked on Sleeping Beauty. My favorite Disney move of all time. He's not credited for his work on the film though. After two short years Bluth left Disney and traveled to Argentina on a mission trip. He  returned to the USA two and a half years later and opened the Bluth Brother's Theater with his younger brother. Bluth went back to occasionally working at Disney, but also returned to college and got his degree in English Literature from Brigham Young.

In 1967 he focused his efforts on the animation world, and joined Filmation. There he did layout work for The Archies, The Fantastic Voyage, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down, and Sabrina and the Groovy Goolies. He later returned to work full time at Disney in 1971.

While there he did character animation on Robin Hood, and Winnie the Pooh and Tiger Too. He also served as an animating director for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, and Pete's Dragon. He also did a few scenes for The Fox and the Hound as well as some story board work for The Black Cauldron, but he left the Disney company early in production and was never credited for the work.

 When Bluth left Disney in 1979 he took 18 of his fellow animators with him. It was a dark period at the Disney animation studios. He didn't like how things were being run and left to start his own production company.
This kinda makes me torn on the man. The studio was struggling with a new team of animators, since most of the nine old men were retired, and dealing with new business management that was more concerned with cost than creativity. I'm a Disney fan at heart, but I also love the work that Bluth went on to make. So his betrayal of one of my favorite studios makes me like him a little less. Leaving on his own would have been fine, but to steal a good chunk of talented artist in the process feels a bit under handed. Smart for his business but still under handed. Yet at the same time his leaving created competition for the studio, and possibly helped in bringing them back up to par with the classic films if not surpassing them.

A few of Disney's better know animators voice their own opinions on this matter in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. Watching it depressed me, but it really is a great watch for any animation fan. But back to the man of the hour...

 Bluth and his team showed off their skills to the world with Banjo the Woodpile Cat
 I remember very little about this film, other than renting it at our local video store when I was really little. I was drawn to the three singing cats that were pink, purple and teal more than anything else. What do you expect from a four year old? 
It's about a little cat who runs away from home to Salt Lake City. 
After going back and re-watching this short I can see the style, that would continue on to his best known films, taking shape.

Mrs. Brsiby meets with Nicodemius
In 1982 the studio released it's first full length feature film, The Secret of NIMH. Based off the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I still own a copy of and highly recommend. It follows a little field mouse on a mission to save her sick son.

I love this movie. It's one I remember asking my dad to rent for me a lot. When it was released on dvd years later I was ecstatic to find it. I still enjoy this film to this day. It's kinda dark, I'm surprised it didn't scare me as a kid, but looking back a lot of the cartoons I liked as a kid had dark themes mixed into the bright happy colors. Just watch the pilot episode of Rainbow Bright and you'll see what I mean. 

NIMH did OK in the box office, but didn't become a cult classic until after it's TV runs and video release. It's over all failure though led to Don Bluth Productions filing for bankruptcy.

In 1983 Bluth formed the Bluth Group and began work on Dragon's Lair, a game that took arcade games and animation in a new direction. Now I have never played Dragon's Lair. In my defense I was born in '83 and we only had an Atari that my parents got rid of before I was old enough to enjoy it, but I'll pause while you all gape in shock and cuss me out over it any ways.

All done? Alright.

Watching videos of this game honestly boggles my mind. To me it just seems like a cartoon, but I understand that the characters are controllable. I just have to keep reminding my brain of that. It's really amazing the approach they took rather than the pixel graphics we all know so well. Since it's original release in '83 until present time this game has been formatted for various systems over 60 times by about 16 different publishers. I'm not sure of that's just awesome staying power or just that it's classic, but it's an impressive record in my book.

While working on a sequel to Dragin's Lair, the arcade industry came crashing down. Bluth was left broke as well. In 1985 the Bluth Group filed for bankruptcy. Maybe a little karma for doing Disney wrong? Probably not.

Moving into the late 80's things start to click into place for Bluth. Teaming up with Steven Spielberg in 1986, An American Tail was brought to life. At it's release, this story of an immigrant mouse trying to reunite with his family, became the highest grossing non Disney animated film of all time.

I love this movie. I was so jealous of my cousin when she got a large plush Fievel and I didn't. The film has lovable characters, a moving story and memorable music. You become emerged in the world of the Mousekewitz family as they immigrate to America from Russia. Their dreams are cut short when their son Fievel is separated from them and they learn that life in New York isn't exactly as they planned.

For me the music was always my favorite part. "Somewhere Out There" still makes me tear up to this day. Though it's a hard choice as to whether  "No Cat's in America" or "Never Say Never" is my favorite song. I liked the scenes of the mice singing of their perils with cats, but I also really like the uplifting optimism of the French pigeon, Henri. It's a hard pick.

The popularity of An American Tail lead to a the sequel, Fievel Goes West, but Bluth wasn't involved in it or it's Saturday morning cartoon spin off. The loveable little Russian-Jewish mouse also became the mascot for Amblimation. His next collaboration with Spielberg would be even more successful. What would that be? Ever heard of a little film called The Land Before Time?

Little Foot meets Ducky for the first time
Now I'm not talking about it's umpteenth direct to dvd sequels here. I mean the original movie. The one that started it all, and is by far the best of the lot. I still have plush Little Foot and all of the puppets from Pizza Hut.

This charming story, of a little long neck trying to reunite with his grandparents in the Great Valley, awoke an obsession with dinosaurs to an entire generation. I remember going through every book on them in my local and school's library.  Though unlike my cousins who saw the movie in theaters, I had to wait for the VHS release. Luckily grandma bought it right away and needless to say it was the only think that got played at her house for a while.

The main theme of the movie is unity and cooperation. Each type of dinosaur was use to staying in it's own herd and not socializing with the others. Their home however was becoming a barren wasteland and most herds were moving on to greener lands. After a massive earthquake Little Foot was separated from his family by a massive gorge. They call to him and tell him to keep heading to The Great Valley where they will meet up with him again. On his journey he's joined by Ducky the big mouth, Petrie the flyer, Spike the spike tail, and Cera the three horn. The five learn to work together to keep each other safe from Sharptooth on their way to the valley.

Ducky is by far my favorite character of the movie. I can quote most of her lines still to this day. Petrie is a close second though, in all of his nervous hilarity.

Itchy and Charlie dog con artists extraordinaire
Bluth broke ties with Spielberg after the film and had nothing to do with any of it's many sequels. His final film of the 80's was All Dogs Go to Heaven. It had mediocre results in theaters but became a cult classic on video. As depressing as this movie can be I love it and can still quote it word for word.

Charlie is killed by his business partner Carface when he tries to get his share of their assets. After waking up in the halls of judgement he's appalled at the idea he's dead. So he cheats the system and rewinds the clock that represents his life. He get's to return to the wold of the living but is warned that he will never be able to return to heaven where all dogs are normally admitted to. He's hell bent on getting his revenge until a little girl changes his heart.

This is another Bluth film that I adore the music in. I think it's part of the reason I remember the script, well that and the fact that Charlie and Itchy are voiced by Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise respectfully. I love the banter between those two. Of all of his films, this one is my all time favorite hands down. I've very glad that he had nothing to do with it's terrible sequels either. Bluth is smart in that sense I feel.

Through the early 90's all of Bluth's project were flops in the theaters. On their own they were amusing but nothing overly special.

 Rock-a-Doodle was one I liked. The story of an Elvis like rooster who leaves the farm to be a star, but is needed to save his home from everlasting darkness. Not a very strong story, but great characters and fun music.

Thumbelina was a rather disjointed story that mostly just jerked it's title character around. She'd wind up in different situations with creatures voiced by well known character actors such as Gilbert Gottfried, Carrol Channing, John Hurt and even Charo. I honestly never watched this one as  kid but only saw it recently because I noticed that Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was Thumbelina.

Mrs. Toad, voiced by Charo, and Thumbelina

A Troll in Central Park I also never watched and still haven't to this day. Just no interest really. I might at some point just for the sake of it being traditionally animated but it's not high on my to do list.

The Pebble and the Penguin I vaguely remember seeing on Cartoon Network at some point, but it's another one that doesn't really stand out. I know the main character wants to find the perfect engagement pebble for his girl, but the bad guy snatches her off somewhere for himself. The fact that Tim Curry voices that villain makes me want to go back and properly watch it, but it probably won't happen any time soon either. Though I do like penguins....

In 1997 Bluth finally struck gold again with Anastasia. With it's amazing voice cast how could he go wrong? Meg Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, Burnadette Peters, Christopher Llyod and Hank Azaria. I dare you find a problem.

Being a princess film Anastasia is often mistake for a Disney production, which is annoying to the hard core animation fan, but in it's own way a compliment to the films quality. Anna is  strong female character who you want to see succeed. Once again not a single character to dislike, even the villain Rasputin is great, if not a bit gross, in all of his scenes. The music, as well as the story, is what always brings me back to this movie. This was another one I missed growing up, but gave a chance on Netflixs about a year ago and fell in love with it. I kinda wanna go watch it right now to be honest...

Bluth's last big film was Titan A.E. which financially was also a flop, making barely half of the budget spent on it. I personally enjoyed the sci fi fantasy of the human race looking for a new Earth.  I was obsessed with anime by the time it came out and it's over all feel just clicked with me.

Once again a great voice cast including Matt Damon, Drew Berrymore, Bill Pullma, John Lequizamo, Nathan Lane, Janeane Garofalo, Jim Cummings, and Ron Perlman. Unlike his past films though this one wasn't a musical and instead took a current day rock n' roll sound track. "Over My Head" by Lit always stood out to me.

Titan A.E.'s story also ran a little more on the adult side. More serious tones of the end of humanity, greed and betrayal, with rays of optimism and hope mixed in with the over all jaded out look of the main character.  I still like this movie. I might not watch it a lot but I'll go back to it now and again for a rewatch.

For the most part now Bluth had been focusing on animation education and passing on the tricks if the trade to new generations. He's put out a few books on story boarding and character design, both of which I'd like to get copies of but haven't gotten around to. He's also launched his own website DonBluthAnimation.com which focuses mainly on video tutorials you can get, but he does have some helpful tips posted as well. Like so many other forms of art, if the knowledge isn't passed on it will be lost.

Bluth's work give me hope that in this CG dominated world that traditional mediums will one day make a big come back. I know Disney is still in the game as well as Stidio Ghibli, and the occasional foreign film like The Illusionist finds it way to us.

Until next time, remember you can't keep a good dog down.
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