It's been more than 12 years since Don Bluth and 16 colleagues shocked the world of animation by walking out of Walt Disney Productions, complaining that the studio's traditions of producing "classical animation" had been abandoned.
In those 12 years, animation has enjoyed a significant revival in creative terms and Bluth and his colleagues, despite fluctuations in their fortunes, have survived as major players in the field. Such films as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Bluth's own "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time" and Disney's "Oliver and Co." have all made healthy profits.
Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," which has grossed more than $100 million so far and become the first animated feature to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, may be the culmination of this upward trend. Indeed, it might seem that Disney animation is now firmly back on the track from which Bluth believed it had diverted when he quit the studio.
Over lunch at a neighborhood restaurant near his studios on the banks of the Liffey shortly before last week's release of his new feature "Rock-A-Doodle," Bluth said he believes the revival at Disney is good for the entire animation business, and that "Rock-A-Doodle" will reap the benefits.
The story of "Rock-A-Doodle" revolves around a rooster named Chanticleer, who believes crowing each morning makes the sun come up. He loses face among the barnyard animals one day when the sun rises without him; in disgrace, he heads for the big city and pursues a career as a rock 'n' roll singer, dubbed "The King," and very much inspired by Elvis Presley.
"Rock-A-Doodle" seems to follow Bluth's avowed intention to make films that deal with moral concerns. "I like to give an audience a little 'take-home' that they can think about later," he explained. "I'd like parents and children alike to go home from our movie and say, 'You know what? I know what that means.'
"When I saw 'Bambi,' I remembered the phrase 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.' Thumper said it. And I still try to do that each day. I do something I was taught by a little rabbit."
One might expect such a traditional message from Bluth, a practicing Mormon who tithes his income to his church, and who says quite straight-faced: "I think Don Bluth Entertainment as a studio would like to support the efforts of parents in raising their children."
Yeah, sure, but who in the animation business wouldn't say that?
"Well," says Bluth, "so many of my contemporaries want to be cute and make movies which are vicious or scary. A lot of times, that's simply indulging yourself." He doesn't name names; clearly, Thumper's advice carries weight.
Bluth first found the story of Chanticleer when he was reading the works of 19th-Century playwright Edmond Rostand, who also wrote "Cyrano de Bergerac." "Here was a story about a man who had lost faith in himself, and starts to believe his whole life had been a sham," he recalls. "I don't cry easily, but I was moved. Then I started thinking about 'Man of La Mancha,' a broken-down old man who sees what he wants to see, so he becomes a great knight and windmills become giants.
"All this was more complicated than we could give to an audience of 4-year-olds, so we twisted it around and tried to tell it to children--if you lose your self-confidence, you can't do a thing. But if you have it, you can do anything. And we told it in a silly cartoon kind of way."
Basing Chanticleer on Elvis, says Bluth, "seemed appropriate. He was a rooster, he strutted, and that was Elvis. Elvis was my big hero growing up. And then again, Elvis was another guy who was connected to his mother and his family. He never got over his mother's death. We didn't parallel that exactly with Chanticleer, but with him too, being a rock 'n' roll singer is a mask--everything on the outside is sunshine and roses, and underneath was a broken heart."
To reinforce the Presley parallels, Glen Campbell (who played as a session guitarist on some Elvis records) sings Chanticleer's vocals, and the Jordanaires--Presley's original back-up singers--lend support.
The film was completed in 1990 and was exhibited with reasonable success in Europe last year. The Samuel Goldwyn Co., its U.S. distributor, opted to delay its release until now so it could be marketed properly. It opened Friday with less than rave reviews.
Bluth, who is not known for mincing his words, has publicly crossed swords with two of the most powerful entities in Hollywood--Disney and Steven Spielberg.
About Disney, he thinks the walkout of himself and his 16 colleagues has indirectly led to Disney's current resurgence in animation. "I had no idea of the impact it would make (when we quit)," he said. "At the time we said, 'Either (Disney) wakes up because of this, or it'll be No. 2 in the field to us.'
The first feature from the Bluth team, 1982's critically acclaimed "Secret of NIMH," was not a box-office success. "But creatively, it rattled Disney, it shook them up," says Bluth. And by the time "An American Tail" was released in 1986, Disney studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg was on the phone to Bluth, he said, offering congratulations.
Now, says Bluth, "I find little things they do reflecting things we've done. They used to paint fire. We said, let's color gels, light it from behind so it has a glow. We did that on 'The Secret of NIMH' for the first time, now all Disney fire's are that way. They've adapted several techniques like that."
"Beauty and the Beast," Bluth thinks, "is a very good picture, extremely entertaining, makes you feel good, fills you with hope. Gorgeous story and music, and the animation is, I think, good."
Spielberg came into Bluth's life when he came up with the idea for an animated feature--the story of a little Russian immigrant mouse and his adventures when he first arrives in the United States. "An American Tail" grossed $47 million. "That raised Steven's eyebrows a little," says Bluth. The next film which Bluth made, for which Spielberg also negotiated a release through Universal Pictures, was the dinosaur saga "The Land Before Time." Again, it hit animation pay dirt.
But when it came to the sequel to "An American Tail," the two men parted ways, and Spielberg found another director.
Was he angry about this chain of events?
"Of course I was, at first," said Bluth, picking his words with care. "Then I thought, how unfair to be so small, to let someone roll over the top of you and feel you can't do anything about it. And a little voice inside me said, 'Welcome to the big world, Don.' So I felt angry, then I got rid of it. I still call Steven when I go back to town."
He pauses to peer out of the restaurant window, his eyes narrowing in thought. It's a fair bet he's mulling over Thumper's advice again. "And while all this is going on," he continues, "I know Steven's not doing the same thing. Because he's very jealous and very competitive."
Bluth--whose two partners, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, both worked with him at Disney--made the move here for financial reasons in 1986. The move was urged on the men by a fourth partner, Morris Sullivan, whom they brought in to restructure the company.
He urged them to move to a country where labor costs for assembly-line animation work were lower than in Hollywood. The Irish government helped cement the deal because of its generous attitude toward tax breaks.
Around 40 animators made the move to Dublin from Van Nuys, where Bluth originally had his studios after quitting Disney. The Dublin facility now employs around 360 people, 80% of them Irish.
Six months ago, the company was in financial hardship, and is now stable only through a $50-million funding advanced by a consortium of European investors.
Thus encouraged, Bluth and his partners are stepping up the company's work rate, and aim to produce two features a year from now on. A further step in the right direction came with the announcement that MGM would distribute its next three pictures, two of which--"Thumbelina" and "A Troll in Central Park"--are close to completion.
"At first we were going to put out 'Troll' first, because it's a gorgeous picture," said Bluth. "But 'Thumbelina' is a recognizable commodity, and it's going to be easier to market. With the problems we've had, that clinched it. It's up to us to put our best foot forward."