Don Bluth: Leave to come back stronger?

 

Text by Damien Duvot

Illustration by Patrick Atkins

Illustration by Patrick Atkins

When looking at animation during the second half of the 20th century, it would be difficult to find a more interesting figure in the field than Don Bluth. Starting as an animator and later becoming director, Bluth positioned himself as an independent against the powerful Disney machine which he first left, only to return to it later. Just like his career, his films deal with exile and the return to one’s roots in a permanent movement guided by the pursuit of an ideal.
This quest was clear as soon as he embarked on directing films. While working at Disney, Don Bluth started the production of his very first short film, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, in his garage with the help from a few animators. Banjo, like the young Don, left his childhood farm for the big city, discovering its wonders and dangers. While Banjo returned to the safety of his home, Bluth resigned from Disney, dissatisfied with its pervasive money-oriented culture. His life beautifully imitating his art, Bluth returned to his garage to finish the project that was so dear to him.

Exile – A choice or a necessity?

Throughout a career that may be characterized as fairly chaotic, Bluth directed a large number of films. Many of them, however, were based on the founding idea of rejecting the ordinary for the possibility of a better world. And very often, it had to go through the experience of exile.

In The Secret of NIMH (1981), Bluth’s first feature adapted from a novel by Robert O’Brien, the theme appears in various guises. While Mrs Brisby wants to get her family to safety before plowing season, the rats have escaped a life of captivity in a laboratory. Their situations may differ, but their motivations are the same: keeping safe.

That idea is also present in An American Tail (1986), produced by Spielberg. The film follows the journey of Fievel, a mouse, with his family, fleeing to the United States to avoid being persecuted by cats. An animated tale depicting the personal story of screenwriter David Kirschner, whose grandmother emigrated to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia.

Although exile is often driven by a fear for one’s life, some of Bluth’s heroes leave on a whim. One such character is Anastasia in the eponymous film (1997), one of Bluth’s biggest hits. Anastasia, an amnesiac orphan who is unaware of her status, leaves the orphanage, and later her country, with only the pursuit of a better life in mind.

 

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