If you’re 50 or younger, there’s a strong chance one film or another by Don Bluth did a number on your childhood. Bluth is a living, breathing national treasure of American animation whose career spans not just decades but whole eras of cartoon history. Bluth worked on Sleeping Beauty at Disney in the mid-1950s, and after a career pivot and a return to the House of Mouse in the 1970s, he rebelled against the studio’s hegemony before going on to direct some of the most culturally significant and commercially successful films of the 1980s—movies arguably more thematically daring than almost anything Disney ever did. At 84, Bluth is still active, teaching animation and, it turns out, writing.
This week, Bluth released a memoir, Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life, making this the perfect time to look back at his career and, specifically, the nine theatrically-released feature films he directed. Our apologies to Bluth’s short films, the five video games for which he was animation director, and especially to the direct-to-video Bartok the Magnificent, the only sequel to one of Bluth’s films he ever directed—despite the existence of, for instance, a whole 13 sequels to A Land Before Time—for not making the cut. We have no regrets, on the other hand, for not including the mess that is The Pebble and the Penguin, which Bluth directed with his longtime collaborator Gary Goldman before MGM meddled with the film so much toward the end of production that the duo demanded their names be dropped from the credits. Also, we are not going to speak of any of the sequel films and/or series and/or holiday specials Bluth wasn’t involved with—there are a whole lot, and nearly all of them are better left alone.
From worst (whew, boy) to best (keep a box of tissues handy), here are the animated films of Don Bluth, ranked.
At his best, Don Bluth is a quietly transgressive genius of children’s entertainment and a master of the animated medium. At his worst, he directed the bottom three entries of this list. (Or at least codirected with Goldman, as with this flick.) All three of these films were released during the first half of the 1990s, a decade Bluth would eventually turn around for himself with Anastasia in 1997. Until then, though, the movies were, well…bad. Of the three films Bluth released between 1990-1994, Thumbelina is usually considered the most tolerable, an uninspired Disney knockoff adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that was, arguably, at least more interesting than the other animated film Gilbert Gottfried lent his voice to that year, The Return of Jafar.
28 years later, though, both are nearly unwatchable, thanks in no small part to their racist caricatures. In Thumbelina’s case, it’s the Latinx-coded toad characters, whose exaggerated accents and over-the-top sexuality are difficult to stomach, let alone justify. Then there’s Gottfried’s Berkeley Beetle, who—honestly, it’s not even worth explaining, but the gender politics of it all are deeply concerning. If the rest of the movie succeeded, that would be something, but the bizarrely meandering story is hard to follow and there are way too many songs (thanks in no small part to Barry Manilow) to boot. At least the animation is good. But then again, it’s still Bluth.
A Troll in Central Park (1994)
1994—not a good year for Don Bluth! For one thing, The Lion King came out and made an absurd amount of money by literally stealing a concept and phrase from The Land Before Time wholesale and setting it to song. For another, he made another very bad movie, which an AV Club retrospective on Bluth’s career from a decade ago argued was “widely considered to be his worst film.” We’re going to agree to disagree with the AV Club, a publication that was, at the time, based in Chicago, which means they can be forgiven for this misassessment. Let’s clear this up here and now: A Troll in Central Park is a better movie than Thumbelina because it is set in New York. Also, because it’s (probably? it must be!) the only time Dom DeLuise (a longtime Bluth collaborator), Cloris Leachman, and Jonathan Pryce all acted in the same movie.
This film, which 1. mixes animation and live-action, 2. features bonafide maudlin country legend Glen Campbell as the voice of a musical rooster with Elvis Presley vibes whose crowing can control the rising and setting of the sun, and 3. casts Christopher Plummer as the Grand Duke of Owls, who does a whole dramatic song-speech about how much he hates sunlight over a reinterpretation of Johann Sebastien Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in G Minor, is probably a lot of fun to watch if you are on psychedelics. Sans drugs, it’s less fun to watch.
Titan A.E. (2000)
At first, it’s a bit discomfiting to see a Bluth and Goldman movie make such obvious use of CGI in conjunction with traditional animation. At the same time, the visuals are so sleek and well-conceived that it almost doesn’t matter. And, of course, for the subject matter, it works. Bluth was no stranger to genre films, but Titan A.E. is his first and only work of science fiction, and it was initially intended to be a live-action film before 20th Century Fox execs realized they had no idea how to pull it off and made it the problem of their animation wing. It’s worth saying: Titan A.E. is not exactly a paragon of narrative originality. The characters are forgettable, mostly, and the tropes are not exactly few and far between. It lands somewhere between The Iron Giant and both Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars: The Clone Wars in terms of look and feel, and is simply too cliché-ridden to measure up to any of them where the bigger picture is concerned. But it’s an engrossingly pulpy space opera with its fair share of visually beautiful moments, which is more than can be said of its live-action contemporary, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
This beloved children’s film is about a German Shepherd con artist (voiced by Burt Reynolds!) in pre-WWII New Orleans who is, quite literally, murdered by his best friend and partner and cheats death via supernatural, uh, pocket watch in order to return to Earth and take revenge. He ends up befriending an orphan girl who can talk to animals (and also a very theatrical alligator) and learning some heartwarming lessons about love and generosity and sacrifice. One of the cool things about Bluth movies, in addition to their willingness to tackle very tough topics for younger audiences (again, this film is about a dead dog), is that they can be kinda bananas on a narrative level and yet still somehow work as an overall film. That is the case here, not the least because the animation is just so fun to watch, with the color and character animation both standouts. It’s a bit of a jumble, but it’s a compelling one. Oh, and here is an actual, honest-to-god fact you simply cannot make up: this is the only one of Bluth’s films to date to get the Criterion Collection treatment.
“As I continued to work at Disney, I started to see the things that had made me so impressed disappear from the screen,” Bluth has said, among them “the psychological effect that goes with characters that are really far out there and scary.” So he left the company and started making films that were way too weird for Disney. Yet by 1997, the Disney Renaissance had so effectively laid the groundwork for the Disney Principality (Princessipality? Princessdom?) that it was almost inevitable when Disney’s would-be animation rivals turned to anyone they could think of who could possibly come up with a competitive princess flick. So 20th Century Fox had Bluth kick off its animation program, and Anastasia was born. (20th C. would later be eaten by Disney anyway, but don’t worry, Anastasia still doesn’t count as a Disney princess. Take that, the Kremlin!)
The movie’s enjoyable but often predictable plot is shaded slightly darker than most modern Disney princess movies—although it’s still a bit tame for Bluth. And let’s get this out of the way: its interpretation of history is, uh, dubious at best. Yet it’s stunningly animated, and its cast is so stacked that it almost beggars belief. Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, and Angela Lansbury? Bluth had roped in some heavy hitters before, and would again with Titan A.E., but like, goddamn. And hey, it clearly didn’t hurt: Anastasia did well at the box office, and, for the most part, with critics, despite not quite measuring up to the standards Bluth set early in his career.
An American Tail (1988)
Bluth’s sophomore film is the best animated musical he ever made. Even if the songs from Anastasia edge out An American Tail’s soundtrack, the director’s first collaboration with Steven Spielberg is the stronger movie. For one, it’s more moving simply by virtue of its class politics. Here, the precocious only son of a family of Russian Jewish refugees (who just so happen to be mice) takes center stage, rather than the last ruler of Imperial Russia. For another, the film finds Bluth fresh off of his directorial debut and at the height of his ambitions, and Spielberg a rising titan in Hollywood with a budding interest in the animated arts. It wasn’t exactly beloved in its time—the usually forward-thinking Roger Ebert, for instance, panned it, saying it was too bleak for its viewership—but that was mostly because Bluth dared to ask children to accept the difficulties of living in a world of immigration, inequality, pogroms, and internecine violence. Animation audiences in America at the time were used to the glossed-over struggles of Disney films. Bluth wanted to give them something more. And with this film, he did—although it wouldn’t be the last time.
The Land Before Time (1988)
Decades before he killed off Littlefoot’s mother in The Land Before Time—a scene more moving, and less mawkish, than The Lion King’s similar sequence delivered six years later—a young Don Bluth watched Bambi’s mother die. That’s what started it all: Bluth’s love for animation, and his refusal to sugarcoat the brutalities of living for his audiences. “There are dark moments in life,” Bluth has said, “and if you show those dark moments, then the triumphant moments have more power.” Certainly that’s the case with The Land Before Time, the second film Bluth made with Steven Spielberg—a movie about lost baby dinosaurs befriending each other despite their differences and keeping each other safe while wandering through a dangerous prehistoric world that could make pretty much anyone cry. It’s a film that many would argue marks Bluth’s finest hour. And it almost does. But not quite.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Maybe it was the strength of the source material. Maybe it was the thrill of working with a handful of other Disney renegades on their first film outside of that studio. Maybe it was just to spite Disney. For whatever reason, and however improbable it may be, Bluth’s first film, The Secret of NIMH, remains his best. NIMH perfectly encapsulates Bluth and his team’s technical skills—one sequence, in which anthropomorphic crow tangled in string and the field mouse heroine Mrs. Brisby meet each other and then flee a monstrous cat, made Vulture’s list of the most influential sequences in animation history on the strength of its visuals alone.And it also exemplifies the director’s investment in creating complex characters forced to overcome their flawed natures—often, but not always, characterized by timidness—and putting them in films that challenged young audiences, along with the protagonists they root for, to confront the tragic and terrifying aspects of life that prove inescapable, but still endurable. And the story, about a widowed field mouse trying to save the life of her sick son by braving the dangers of the open field in search of a colony of mystical rats, never loses momentum—perhaps because it never loses its stakes.
“In all of our lives, there’s danger,” Bluth has said. “And how you face that danger plays a really important part in each of our lives.” Just before his directorial debut, Bluth braved the hard-knock life of an animator outside of the familiar confines of Disney’s nearly all-powerful studio, then made a film (about a mouse, no less) that blew everything his former studio was working on at the time clean out of the water and ushered in a new age of ingenuity in American animation. It was dangerous, but how he faced that danger played a really important part not just in his own life, but in cartoon history.