While the Walt Disney Company is practically synonymous with childhood favorite animated moments, it hasn't always been that way. Sure, they have some competitors today between Dreamworks, Sony Animation and incredible smaller companies making extraordinary features like LAIKA and Cartoon Saloon, not to mention the behemoth that Pixar has become. But once upon a time they had major competition in the works of film director and animator Don Bluth, a former Disney employee.
Bluth's films once out performed Disney's year by year, and his features, which featured gritty yet moving animation, darker yet more meaningful stories and great songs, are credited by many fans as the fuel that fed the Disney Renaissance fire, pushing the company to make much better movies in order to compete with Bluth's brilliance.
In 1979, Don Bluth released an adorable 26-minute movie, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, that was based on the true story of the disappearance of his own cat who eventually returned to his family. It was Bluth's side project while he continued to work at Disney before leaving while working on The Fox and the Hound, delaying the project's release.
While it wasn't his best work, it made a statement for his Disney-free animation and marked a time when Disney wouldn't release another short for four years following 1978's The Small One, directed by Bluth himself, without Bluth on board anymore.
Several companies, including the Walt Disney Company and Pixar, have attempted to create beautiful films with dinosaurs as the protagonists, but movies like The Good Dinosaur and Dinosaur will never come close to the emotional impact of Don Bluth's The Land Before Time. While The Good Dinosaur slightly outperforms The Land Before Time on Rotten Tomatoes, it's ultimately a forgettable movie while the tale of Littlefoot, his heartbreaking loss, and his quest to find the Great Valley with his friends. Grossing $48 million, the movie also beat its Disney rival at the time, Oliver & Company, at the box office. This was also ironic since it was the first film Dom DeLuise didn't lend his voice to, opting to star in Oliver & Company instead.
As with several of Bluth's other successful movies, The Land Before Time was a hit on VHS and spawned several much less successful sequels with annoying songs as well as a TV series. We recommend skipping them all but ensuring you see the first film at least twice.
Remember back when Disney and Don Bluth went after not only computer generated films, but stories in space? Don Bluth's Titan A.E. came out two years before Disney's Treasure Planet, but both films featured epic stories, battles in space and edgier music than normal, which is why it was such a bummer that neither did all that well.
Experimenting with 3-D animation along with hand-drawn traditional styles may not have worked out, but both films were still enjoyable. Titan A.E., which starred Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore as its main protagonists, bested Disney in terms of, once again, the most meaningful story. With the entire survival of the human race at stake, it make Treasure Planet's search for, well, treasure seem underwhelming.
It was the comeback hit that should have launched Don Bluth back into a powerhouse of family entertainment. 1997's Anastasia, while quite loosely based on the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, was a brilliant piece of animation, filled with gorgeous animation, beautiful storytelling, a great soundtrack and even an all-star cast including Meg Ryan and John Cusack.
While Disney released several films in the same year, its animated release, Hercules, another loosely adapted tale, was a fun story but not quite as funny or moving as Anastasia, which scored negligibly higher on Rotten Tomatoes. The Don Bluth film was so beloved it launched not only a spin-off movie but toys, books, a computer game and a stage musical as recently as 2016.
Anyone who's seen Xanadu knows what a hot mess the film was during its release, with mostly negative reviews, but the movie has developed such a strong cult following, had several successful musical numbers and has even inspired a successful stage musical. Don Bluth's animation in the film may never be hailed as masterful, but it was definitely an impressive attempt at something new and groundbreaking that became beloved by many fans.
Xanadu is much more memorable than the 1980s Disney films that were released the same year, like Herbie Goes Bananas, The Watcher in the Woods and Popeye. While all of these movies may have been more successful initially, and even remain entertaining, they did't develop the same fan following that Xanadu did.
Like its predecessor Rock-A-Doodle, Thumbelina marked a much more lighthearted picture for Don Bluth and company, with sillier numbers, more vibrant colors and less scary storytelling. There was nothing from Disney for Thumbelina to compete against in March of 1994, but it really didn't stand a chance against Disney's epic masterpiece The Lion King, released that summer. It also sadly won a Razzie for the worst song of the year for Carol Channing's "Marry the Mole." The film didn't even reap half of its original budget at the box office.
As terrible as that sounds, like many of Bluth's films, it made more money from home media releases and has been popular enough to be released via Blu-ray as recently as 2012. Ironically, Disney now owns the film through 20th Century Fox, which has owned it after acquiring it from Warner Bros.
While Don Bluth was the original director of 1995's The Pebble and the Penguin, a movie based on the mating habits of Adelie penguins in Antarctica, MGM demanded so many changes to the film that the end result was not only far from Bluth's original concept for the film, but the director demanding to be uncredited when it came to the cutesy train wreck that diverted heavily from his previous works.
Unfortunately this film didn't actually best the Disney film released a week earlier, A Goofy Movie, but we're including it as an honorable mention because we're all dying to see A Penguin Story, the original film that Bluth wanted to create, and compare it with A Goofy Movie.
You can't keep a good dog down, or so you'd know if you were a fan of Don Bluth's 1989 masterpiece, All Dogs Go to Heaven. A beautiful story about a dog who's also a con artist and the young orphan girl he manipulates before befriending, it's full of Bluth's trademark multi-layered characters, dark themes (we even get to see the devil in it) and some decent song numbers.
Critics were torn about the somewhat disjointed movie, which received only a 55% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it marked the moment when Disney surpassed Bluth's films as the release of The Little Mermaid the same year was a whopping success. Bluth's characters and story, however, still bested Disney's in the hearts of many fans who preferred the story of compassion, growth, redemption and actual consequences to the disturbing tale of a 16-year-old child who was willing to give up her voice to marry a man she'd only just met.
Not only did An American Tail become the highest-grossing non-Disney animated feature of its time and beat its rival, The Great Mouse Detective, at the box office, but it portrayed meaningful, moving stories of Jewish immigrants in America. Rich with symbolism, wonderful songs and those deeply flawed but relatable and heroic depictions of Americans (as mice), it prompted kids (who often simply called it "Fievel," as kids are wont to do) to request it during every visit to the video store.
Yes, it did lead to some cringe-worthy sequels, but the original film was nominated for multiple awards, including a Grammy for the beautiful song "Somewhere Out There," which it won.
It's one of the darkest yet best made animated movies in history. The incredible tale of Mrs. Brisby, a brave yet terrified widowed mouse, and her quest to save her sick son and entire family from being destroyed by the farmer's plow, is a childhood favorite for many a Millennial. Disney had previously turned down the movie rights to The Secret of NIMH, and Bluth, who loved the story, gave us the tale of a strong, layered woman on the big screen much earlier than Disney did.
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96 and an incredible opening week where it outdid movies like Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Rocky III, and Firefox, the movie has stood the test of time, ultimately making the most money on home video. Disney's hit at that time, Tron, might have made more money at the box office that July than The Secret of NIMH, but it was considered a flop by Disney standards while Secret of NIMH was seen as something special from a competitor.