Donald Virgil "Don" Bluth (born September 13, 1937) is an American animator and independent studio owner. He is best known for his departure from the Walt Disney Company in 1979 and his subsequent directing of animated films such as The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), as well as his involvement in the laserdisc game Dragon's Lair, and a brief animation sequence in the 1980 musical Xanadu. The competition provided by his movies is often credited for inducing the Walt Disney Company to improve from their streak of lackluster film efforts, to the films that would make up the Disney Renaissance.
Bluth was born into a family of seven children in El Paso, Texas, and grew up on a farm in Payson, Utah. He decided he wanted to work in the animated film industry when he watched the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At age six, he began drawing, and planned to one day work for Walt Disney Studios. In 1954, Don's father moved the family to Santa Monica, California. Upon graduation from high school, Don took a portfolio of his drawings to the Disney Studio in Burbank. He landed a position in the animation department as an "in-betweener". This job required him to create the drawings in between the animator's key drawings to complete a movement. Bluth worked with Disney from 1955 through 1956 on the classic motion picture Sleeping Beauty (1959). He left after one year. Don spent the next two and a half years as a Mormon missionary in Argentina. Upon his return he made the decision to continue his formal education, he enrolled at Brigham Young University, studying English Literature. During this time he continued to work summers for Disney.
The Disney years
The first two films he worked as an assistant animator on were Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone, for both of which he was uncredited. He would not return to Disney until in the 1970s, when he was an animator on Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Pete's Dragon. His last involvement with Disney was the 1978 short The Small One; he drew a few scenes for The Fox and the Hound (where he was once again uncredited), but left early in production.
The independent years
Upon leaving Disney, Bluth brought several other Disney animators with him to form a rival studio, allegedly upset with how the Disney animated features had "lost their charm" at the time. This new studio demonstrated its ability in its first production, a short film titled Banjo the Woodpile Cat, and this led to work on an animated segment of the live-action film Xanadu (1980) and then to its first feature-length animation, The Secret of NIMH (1982). Grossing twice its budget at the box office, many consider this film to be Bluth's masterpiece.
Dragon's Lair and Space Ace
Teaming up with Rick Dyer, Bluth then created the groundbreaking arcade game Dragon's Lair (1983), which let the player control a cartoon-animated character on screen (whose adventures were played off a laserdisc). This was followed in 1984 by Space Ace, a science-fiction game based on the same technology, but which gave the player a choice of different routes to take through the story (Don not only created the animation for Space Ace, he also supplied the voice of the villain, Borf), and Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, a sequel which was very rare in arcades.
A String of Hits
His next film would have been an animated version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, but was never made as the financial resources were drawn back. After teaming up with Spielberg, his next projects instead turned out to be An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988), which did well in theaters and became animation classics. While All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989) would only see a minor theatrical success, but a better one on later Home Video sales. Each of them launched a line of direct-to-video sequels and television spin offs, none of which Bluth had any involvement with.
A string of flops
By the end of the decade and through the 1990s, Bluth films such as Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin had dropped significantly when it came to box office returns.
Work at Fox Animation Studios
Bluth scored another hit with Anastasia (1997), which grossed US$140 million worldwide in part because it used well-known Hollywood stars as its voice talent and stuck closer to long-proven Disney formulas: a sassy and resourceful princess driven to become more than she is, a cruel and conniving villain who uses dark magic, a handsome and endearing love interest, and a comic-relief sidekick. Anastasia was produced at Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, Arizona, which established 20th Century Fox as a Disney competitor.
In 2000, after the studio's third film Bartok the Magnificent (released direct to video as a spin-off of Anastasia and the only sequel directed by Bluth), 20th Century Fox Studios decided to shut down the Fox Animation Studio facility in Phoenix.
Dragon's Lair nostalgia
A recent attempt to capitalize on Dragon's Lair nostalgia by releasing the computer game Dragon's Lair 3D: Return to the Lair (2002) was unsuccessful; the game was panned by critics as being flat and uninteresting, despite groundbreaking cel-shading techniques that lent the game a hand-animated feel. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman are currently seeking funding for a film version of Dragon's Lair.
Despite the failure of Dragon's Lair 3D, Bluth and Goldman continued work in video games when they were hired to create the in-game cinematics for Namco's I-Ninja.
"Mary" music video
In 2004, Bluth did the animation for the music video "Mary", by the Scissor Sisters. The band contacted Bluth after having recalled fond memories of the sequence from Xanadu.
Bluth has also authored a series of books for students of animation: 2004's The Art of Storyboard, and 2005's The Art of Animation Drawing. Additional books are planned.
As director and/or producer
- Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1982, short film)
- The Secret of NIMH (1982)
- Dragon's Lair (1983, video game)
- Space Ace (1984, video game)
- An American Tail (1986)
- The Land Before Time (1988)
- All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
- Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp (1991, video game)
- Rock-a-Doodle (1992)
- Thumbelina (1994)
- A Troll in Central Park (1994)
- The Pebble and the Penguin (1995)
- Anastasia (1997)
- Bartok the Magnificent (1999)
- Titan A.E. (2000)
- Dragon's Lair - The Movie (TBA)
- John Grant, Masters of Animation, 2001, Watson-Guptill Publications, ISBN 0823030415
- Official site
- Detailed info on Don Bluth's films, including a biography
- The Dot Eaters entry on Bluth and the development of Dragon's Lair
- Remembering NIMH An interview with Don Bluth Studios about the making of The Secret of NIMH