When was the first time you cried over a cartoon? Maybe your heart dropped at the gunshot that robbed Bambi of his mother and his mother of her life, or ached at the loss Wilbur the pig felt at the death of Charlotte the spider. Was it Hazel giving up the ghost in Watership Down, or Simba curling up beside Mufasa in The Lion King?
Or maybe it was Littlefoot’s mother’s death in the 1988 classic The Land Before Time, one of the most moving sequences in all of animation, and without a doubt the saddest dinosaur-related scene in cinematic history. So sad, in fact, that it took the King of Entertainment himself to ensure it made the film’s final cut.
“I remember we came to that moment in The Land Before Time, and everyone said, ‘Oh, this is too hard — no, no, we don’t want kids to see this,’” recalls Don Bluth, the film’s director. “It was Steven Spielberg who said, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all are born, we all live to a certain age, and then we all go. And someday we come back again. Everyone has to go through it. ‘This is a moment,’” he recalled Spielberg saying, “‘called the great circle of life.’”
Six years later, the Walt Disney Company would crib the phrase wholesale and set it soaringly to song in 1994’s The Lion King. But it was Bluth’s film that brought it to the world. All too appropriate, considering his career. The world-class animator and director behind many a beloved movie (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Anastasia) had left Disney a decade earlier, when he felt its films had become soft and second rate, abandoning stories of substance — ones that were willing to depict life’s tragedies alongside its moments of tenderness and joy.
Bluth, 83, began his career at Disney as an in-betweener in 1955, during which time he worked on Sleeping Beauty, but left the company in 1957 to pursue other interests. He returned in 1971, but he wasn’t thrilled by how much had changed. He had been mesmerized and terrified by Snow White as a child, citing the moment when the queen turns herself into a witch as instrumental in making him fall in love with animation. But by the 1970s, Disney’s famed animation core, known as the Nine Old Men, had lost their touch. “As I continued to work at Disney, I started to see the things that had made me so impressed disappear from the screen,” Bluth says. “They were little things — like the water effects and shadows and, more than anything, the psychological effect that goes with characters that are really far out there and scary. I kept watching those diminish.”
Bluth and two of his Disney colleagues, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, started tinkering in Bluth’s garage at night on their own projects, along with a handful of fellow Disney animators, trying to bring back the old magic at a lower cost. By 1979, they had a short, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, in the bag and a film production company, Aurora Productions, ready to give them $6.5 million to start off on their own. Which is exactly what they did. All told, 17 people, including Bluth, Goldman, and Pomeroy, left Disney that year to take a crack at producing their own feature film, an adaptation of a children’s book Disney had passed on: Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. By 1982, The Secret of NIMH, produced by Aurora, Don Bluth Productions, and United Artists and distributed by MGM, was out in the world. And it changed animation history.
In addition to changing the name Frisby to Brisby (to avoid infringing on the Frisbee trademark), the film added a mystical element to O’Brien’s story. But what stands out still today is how ahead of its time the film is. It adapted a dark book for young adults and dealt with mature themes, all with no musical sequences — this was a far cry from The Rescuers, another mouse-centric film Bluth worked on when he was back at Disney. Mrs. Brisby, a widowed field mouse, spends the film attempting to move her home before plowing season begins — a time of year that would result in certain death for any unsuspecting rodent — all while caring for her sick child and dodging many a farmhouse danger. Her endeavors bring her to the seemingly perilous Great Owl, a mysterious but wise old bird who sends her in search of the rats of NIMH, refugees from experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health that have rendered them intelligent and expanded their life spans but made them dependent on human technology to survive. Following much conflict and tragedy, the rats help Mrs. Brisby save her home and her child — by incidentally teaching her, with a little help from a mystical amulet, to help herself.
Brisby’s inner strength was inspired by Bluth’s grandmother. “She had 13 children, and her husband died when the oldest was 18,” Bluth says. “Mrs. Brisby reminded me of her. I thought, Here’s little Brisby, who could be a pathetic and plain little creature wandering around saying ‘Somebody help me!’ But she’s not. She’s more like, ‘Whatever I have to do to save my family, I will do.’ That’s a strong theme going throughout the film. She’s surrounded by dangers.”
Danger — serious, life-threatening danger — is omnipresent in Bluth’s work. “In all of our lives, there’s danger, whether it’s danger to your health or danger by driving a car or by anything else at all — there’s always danger,” he says. “So your cleverness, and how you face that danger, plays a really important part in each of our lives.” In An American Tail, his first collaboration with Spielberg, Jewish mouse refugees escape Russia for the American shores, where they find that life isn’t that much less perilous. In All Dogs Go to Heaven, the film’s canine lead is, quite literally, a dead dog. In The Land Before Time, Littlefoot and his dinosaur companions narrowly escape famine, earthquakes, tar pits, and menacing predators — including the monstrous tyrannosaur they call “Sharptooth.” And, of course, Littlefoot’s mother doesn’t escape at all.
The scene in which Littlefoot’s mother saves him and his triceratops friend, Cera, from the Sharptooth is unlike any other death sequence in animation up until that time. In Bambi, the mother’s death at the hands of the hunter, Man — heartrending as it is — occurs offscreen. In The Land Before Time, Littlefoot literally watches his mother die.
Still, Bambi was a major influence on Bluth. “I saw it sitting in a theater next to my own mother,” he says. “What that scene did was prepare me for the moment when that would happen to my mother. She wouldn’t be shot by a hunter, but she would depart. And when we were making The Land Before Time, we knew the mother was going to depart, and had to, for Littlefoot to grow up. Mothers have to leave their children, or they won’t grow up. That is a human thing.”
One of the great tricks of animation is the ability to make a cartoon dinosaur the vehicle for such a powerful moment of human tragedy. “When you look at the little dinosaur, it’s not a human being, so you’re not being attacked directly — it’s indirect,” he says. “There’s a symbol on the screen of a little boy — he talks like a little boy, but it’s a dinosaur; it’s not you — and then that dinosaur loses his mother, and you can immediately say ‘Me too!’” It’s something he makes a point of teaching a new generation of animators at his own Don Bluth University. When his students first attend a class, many of them are simply hoping to improve their drawing. But drawing is a language, Bluth says, and even once you’ve learned a language, it serves no purpose at all unless you know what to say. “What we in the animation world are doing is presenting symbols that are reflective of real life,” Bluth says. “If you show the dark moments, then the triumphant moments have more power. And if animators don’t understand that, I don’t think they’re animating. What they’re doing is drawing.”
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