Why you should care
Every ’80s kid will remember the emotional jolt of these animated films.
Disney’s worst decade was one of animation’s finest. In 1979, longtime employee Don Bluth left Mickey’s old stomping grounds to found his own studio along with several other defectors. His first feature as director, 1982’s entrancing The Secret of NIMH, signaled the beginning of an immensely productive 10 years during which Bluth’s output filled the void left by his struggling competitors. His dominance came to a halt when 1991’s Beauty and the Beast ushered in the Disney Renaissance with all the music that made their films cultural touchstones. Bluth’s own underappreciated Rock-A-Doodle tanked a year later; all good things must come to an end, even if it isn’t happily ever after.
Bluth’s sensibilities come through most clearly in his first five films. He didn’t appropriate folklore in crafting these tales, but talking animals abound nevertheless. These early works are marked by a grainy, more textural aesthetic than their counterparts, with darker color palettes and painterly backgrounds. More bleak than comedic, they’re often despairing in tone: NIMH takes place in a Watership Down-inflected milieu, its community of experimented-upon rats and mice facing certain death unless they flee the encroachment of menfolk.
… their peripheral strangeness and the lived-in feeling of their fictional worlds.
It also features what Nick Pinkerton once described as “the most brutal thing that I had ever seen” as a child — a sentiment likely shared by many: The qualities that define Bluth’s approach are often thought of as “adult” in the context of entertainment geared toward children, but words like “brutal” and even “melancholic” are more apt. An American Tail is rich in grimy period detail as it charts the highs and lows (but mostly lows) of the immigrant experience, while The Land Before Time is about dinosaurs the audience knows are doomed to eventual extinction.
It doesn’t stop there: All Dogs Go to Heaven tells of a murdered dog who returns from heaven to avenge his own death, a process that includes a nightmare in which he visits hell and, alas, a bittersweet ending that sees him ascend to the clouds once more after laying down his own life in order to save that of a little girl. Rock-A-Doodle takes place under a sunless sky and near-constant torrential rainfall — not exactly an upbeat setting.
For whatever they may lack in A-list voice talents and catchy tunes, An American Tail and NIMH make up for with their peripheral strangeness and the lived-in feeling of their fictional worlds. Many an animated film is allusive in ways that go above children’s heads, but few contain J.S. Bach sheet music atop a piano or explicit references to The Brothers Karamazov. Kids watch their favorite movies over and over; as an adult, I’m more in awe of NIMH’s unsettling oddity than ever.
With the recent news that Pixar plans to squeeze another feature out of the Toy Story franchise, it’s clearer than ever that the standard-bearer for contemporary animation isn’t oozing originality. In hindsight, Bluth’s ascendancy seems a brief moment in time. And while his idiosyncratic corpus undoubtedly declined in quality at the same time that Disney’s improved, today’s animators would still do well to learn the true secrets of NIMH and take a lesson from them.