Ed. note: contains spoilers for The Land Before Time.
It was with a certain trepidation I revisited the films of Don Bluth. It’s probably been over 20 years since I first saw his classic films, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), to name some of his most memorable. I believe I’ve secretly carried the emotional weight of them in the pit of my stomach all these years. Just seeing the relatively cheerful poster art for The Land Before Time drew out of me, from the foggy but sensual depths of childhood, mixed feelings of resistance and fascination. It was a gut feeling, not intellectual, that haunted my endeavor. What’s the adage – go with your gut? Well, my keen childhood gut had decidedly anxious feelings about these films. Turns out, it wasn’t wrong.
Now that I’ve revisited these films, I’m going to call the style associated with this gut feeling Don Bluth’s sustained melancholy. It serves as an aesthetic, emotional, and narrative descriptor for the animation style, emotional tenor, and embattled narratives of his films. Of course, they are not always melancholic. They can be hopeful, even cheery at times, and other times they are downright horrific, but infused throughout the most Bluthian of his films is a style propelled by melancholy. Even in the most joyful of moments there seems to be a weight, just off-screen, struggling to pull the momentarily brightened animation down to its melancholic baseline.
This artistic style is emphasized by its relationality – to what, you ask? To Disney, where Bluth worked off and on between 1955 and 1979 (working full time for them from 1971 on), before resigning and founding his own rival animation studio with fellow Disney defectors. Bluth felt Disney was losing sight of its artistic mission in lieu of corporate motivations, and decided to compete against them instead of struggle with them. Bluth and his colleagues stood in stark, darkened contrast to Disney’s lighthearted animation style and narratives. Essential to any compelling narrative, for children and adults, are the requisite moments of struggle, misfortune, fear or tragedy. Popular children’s animation usually treats these moments with discerning brevity, before quickly moving along to cheerier sequences. With Bluth, however, these moments are often extended and emphasized in uniquely unsettling, sometimes bizarre, but always dazzling ways.
The Land Before Time, Bluth’s third feature and one of his most successful financially and narratively, follows a ragtag herd of young dinosaurs displaced by cataclysmic events, separated from their families, and in search of the more prosperous Great Valley. Early in the story, Littlefoot (voiced by Gabriel Damon), our protagonist, is devastated when his mother is mortally wounded saving him from a Sharptooth (otherwise known as a T-Rex). It is truly one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in all of animation. This tragedy leads to a powerful exchange between Littlefoot and an empathetic stranger, named Rooter, offering solace and guidance. It’s from Rooter’s sage advice that we learn the death of Littlefoot’s mother will resonate throughout the rest of the film.
Rooter: The great circle of life has begun. But you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.
Littlefoot: What’ll I do? I miss her so much.
Rooter: And you’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you. In a way, you’ll never be apart for you are still part of each other.
Littlefoot: My tummy hurts.
Rooter: Well that, too, will go away with time, little fella. Only in time.
Transplanted to a different film this sequence would have its moment, but wouldn’t linger. Bluth allows the gravity of the situation – the tragic loss of a parent – its due respect by showcasing Littlefoot’s grief, even his depression. He finds his mother in his own shadow; she whispers to him across the great divide; clouds take her shape in the night sky; she is gone but not forgotten. She remains a constant presence throughout the film, a guiding spirit-force propelling Littlefoot onward towards the Great Valley. Ultimately, this strategy weighs heavily on the narrative and its style, but it should. The film remains a realistic and rare depiction of the process of grief from a loss, not just its fleeting moment.
The film works on other levels as well, though. It offers children (and adults alike) a template for the importance and necessity of diversity, and a strong critique against racism. A simple but powerful early exchange between Littlefoot and his mother reveals how racism can be passed down and reproduced from one generation to the next.
Littlefoot: Why can’t I play with that three-horn? We were having fun.
Littlefoot’s Mother: Well, we all keep to our own kind. The three-horns, the spike-tails, the swimmers, the flyers. We never do anything together.
Littlefoot’s Mother: Well, because we’re different. It’s always been that way.
Littlefoot: Well, why?
Only when all the young dinosaurs are separated from their parents can they befriend each other, bringing out each other’s unique virtues and talents. It is because of their combined differences they reach the Great Valley, and that is a powerful message for us all.
I’d like to turn to another essential part of Bluth’s sustained melancholy, which is the hyperbolically nightmarish rendering of antagonists accompanied by a perpetually grisly animation style. The distilled apex of these elements is probably best displayed in The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs Go to Heaven. And let me be clear, it’s not that Bluth’s films lack hopeful or upbeat sequences, it’s that the gloomy, tenebrous moments far outweigh them. For example, after watching The Secret of NIMH, in which a widowed field mouse must befriend a pack of rats to save her sick son, it’s difficult to pull out any extended sequences that aren’t riddled with anxiety, fear and darkness. One scene between Ms. Brisby and the Great Owl, whom she seeks out for guidance, is a paradigmatic example of the aesthetic used throughout this particular film and many of Bluth’s others.
Bluth’s narratives offer a plethora of perilous situations whereby the horrific elements are pushed to their extreme with lasting effects — it’s part of why my gut remains simultaneously wary and intrigued by Bluth to this day. These elements reached a terrifying climax in All Dogs Go to Heaven, as we’re shown a sequence with monsters literally from Hell.
It’s hard to imagine any child watching these scenes without having them hot-iron branded onto their brains (and guts). I believe Bluth’s inspiration for some of these scenes came from horror films of the German expressionists, which helps explain their dramatic style. One scene in particular bears a remarkable likeness to F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926).
All of these factors combine in unforgettably impactful ways that forced animation in new and progressive directions. While Bluth might have wallowed more than most on the grim and dramatic, there is a truthfulness to his animation and storytelling style. He wasn’t afraid to tilt the balance of his stories towards the absolutely bizarre, terrifying, or melancholic aspects of life, because they are just that, part of life. This uneven balance, if anything, highlighted the optimistic moments in his stories, imbuing those rare moments with an exalted sense of happiness and resolution. He offered us a different perspective not only on animation, but on life through animation, and for that we can be thankful. And remember, listen to your gut. It knows a thing or two.
In honor of its 30th anniversay, The Land Before Time will screen at the IU Cinema on Sat., Sept. 8 as part of the CINEkids International Children’s Film Series and the Jurassically Yours: Extinct But Not Forgotten series.
If you want to do more than just watch Don Bluth’s films, you can attend Don Bluth University and learn animation from the master himself. 2018 Class Registration is now open!
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 filmmaking, and a Tarkovsky nut.