Sunday, July 9, 2017

80 years was never enough, Mr Bluth

Walt Disney was primarily an entertainer. He knew what sold and he knew how animation entranced a cross-section of the population that had been alienated by the movies. Cartoons, he correctly realised, would appeal to children if they were based on stories they grew up on. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which established his subsequent career in that respect, and from that point on, he ensured that every story he supervised (until The Jungle Book) would use traditional techniques to instil some sense of authenticity, of effort, which children would appreciate. He needed dedicated animators for this, obviously.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened in 1937. So many things happened in 1937. People were born, people died. Nations fought, nations receded from fighting. War was in the air, war was off the table. Among those who were born that year, who lived through the war and later wound up in the entertainment industry, was one such animator who saw the decline of the industry after Disney’s death and yearned to bring back its golden era. That man, who turns 80 this year, was Don Bluth.

Don Bluth’s movies almost always centre on outsiders. Mrs Brisby in The Secret of NIMH, Fievel in An American Tail, Littlefoot in The Land Before Time, Barkin in All Dogs Go To Heaven, and Stanley in A Troll in Central Park: these are all outcasts trying to fit in. Bluth’s goal with them seemed to have been to make the audience cry because they were outsiders. He seemed so fixated on separating them from their surroundings, moreover, that he kept them separated right until the end.

Movies are determined by their directors. Directors are people, and like all people they are conditioned by their faith and ethnicity. As Pauline Kael noted, for instance, the shift in Hollywood from the optimism of the fifties to the cynicism of the seventies was brought about by the Vietnam War and the concurrent shift in the industry from Protestants to Catholics. Controversial though this remark was, it indicated that the religious background of directors could explain the leap from the studio system to New Hollywood.

Don Bluth was neither Catholic nor Protestant. He was a Mormon, affiliated to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. From the beginning, Mormonism was an estranged denomination. Condemned as heretics, its adherents were forced to flee to Utah. Soon enough they flourished in Arizona and Wyoming, but that sense of being excluded, morally and physically, never quite left them. They were Protestant in the strictest sense of that term, but they repudiated both Protestantism and Catholicism.

To understand how Bluth’s faith influenced his work, one should watch the final project he worked on with Disney, The Small One. I saw it as an eight-year-old and I remember being moved by how deftly it concentrated, not on a human figure, but on an animal.

The story is largely fictional, even as a parable: it constructs a fable out of the donkey which carried Mary to Nazareth. But out of that fable emerges certain strands that bind his later work: the Fagin-like overwhelming villain (the tanner), the confused protagonist (the donkey), his faithful friend (the boy), and a horde of other characters who are, at best, indifferent to his plight.

In Bluth’s world, judging from this, the narrative is driven more by the indifference of the many than by the cruelty of the few. His stories do contain villains (and they are some of the cruellest I’ve come across), but it’s mostly the helplessness of the protagonist we identify with. In Disney’s movies, we know the good and the bad, and we know that a clash between the two is inevitable. In Bluth’s movies, by contrast, that clash exists, but to get to that clash, the protagonist must endure immense shame, humiliation, and scorn from everyone else. That is what Mrs Brisby suffers in The Secret of NIMH and what Chanticleer suffers in Rock-a-Doodle. That would have been the same indifference the Mormons suffered when they began their movement.

We never get that sort of indifference with Disney. Disney’s heroes don’t suffer ignominy: they know that they must combat evil somewhere, but are aided by a set of sidekicks. Bambi has Thumper and Flower. Cinderella has those mice and birds. Sleeping Beauty has Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. Mowgli has Baloo and Bagheera. We never doubt their sincerity for one moment, because if we did there wouldn’t be a story in the first place. None of Bluth’s heroes shares this fate: Mrs Brisby, for instance, has to cross some hard yards to convince the rats of NIMH that their homes will be ravaged by the neighbouring farmer.

For that reason, perhaps, these movies are housed by a great many characters, a great many when compared with Disney. Roger Ebert contended that The Secret of NIMH had so many heroes and villains that it was difficult to empathise with any of them. But that was Bluth’s intention: like in Lester James Peries’ Rekava (an unlikely point of comparison, I know), these characters, some menacing, some likeable, are there simply because it takes a collective to get us to identify with an individual. In NIMH, it was Mrs Brisby. In An American Tail, it was Fievel.

When in the mid-nineties he partnered up with Fox Animation Studios, he let go of his earlier avatar. The Don Bluth of Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin was spent, even overspent: he had run out of ideas. Of the three movies he made for Fox, however, only one can really be said to have stood out: Anastasia (his second project was a sequel to it, Bartok the Magnificent).

Thematically Anastasia doesn’t resemble his earlier work. His heroine doesn’t suffer ignominy and she isn’t alienated the way his protagonists usually are. We know she’ll be reconciled with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, just as we know that before the final reconciliation she’ll encounter her foe (Rasputin) in a fantasy sequence which has no actual basis for itself: it simply happens, she rescues her benefactor (Dimitri), and everyone resolves for a happy ending. Yes, the heroine is estranged, yes, she has to find her way back (“Heart don’t fail me now / Courage don’t desert me”), and yes, like Mrs Brisby she isn’t aware of her own past. But in other respects, it was patently a Disney flick churned out by Fox.

80 years is a long time, long enough for an artist to get out what he wants. With fewer than 15 movies over two decades, however, I doubt Don Bluth ever closed in on what he desired. His best work, which lasted just three features (NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time), reflected his upbringing in a way which Disney’s did not. Full of estranged protagonists and characters whose main function was to spurn those protagonists, they not only precipitated the return of Disney, but also (as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast clearly showed) ensured that it returned with a refreshingly different conception of the children’s cinema.

But no, 80 years wasn’t enough. Not for Bluth. NIMH bankrupted him, his studio was liquidated, and he had to resort to outside patronage (from Steven Spielberg and Fox) to nurture his creativity. His work was as much the result of estrangement as his heroes were. The only consolation we can derive from this, then, is that he wasn’t estranged by his audiences. The Secret of NIMH on that count remains a superior work of art: superior to the later Disney and the pixelated fantasies our children wade through today. We should be grateful, I believe. And we are.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 9 2017