For over 50 years, Don Bluth worked tirelessly to solidify his legacy as one of the most iconic animators of all time. His first major animation gig was as an uncredited in-between artist for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1959, though he subsequently left the company to work as a layout artist for television in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bluth returned to Disney in the mid-70s, working as an animator on such films as Robin Hood, Escape to Witch Mountain, Pete’s Dragon, and The Fox and the Hound.
Bluth left Disney for good in the early ’80s to launch a directorial career of his own, and was responsible for some of the greatest non-Disney animated films of the ’80s and ’90s, including The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Anastasia. Whether part of someone else’s project or his own films, Don Bluth’s animations stand out for their rich characterizations, breathtaking color schemes, and high-concept portrayals of action and movement. Here are the 10 most beautiful Don Bluth animations that have been featured on the big screen.
10 Elliott – Pete’s Dragon (1977)
Following animator stints on such Disney films as Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and The Rescuers, Don Bluth worked on the 1977 Disney live-action/animated musical fantasy film Pete’s Dragon as the animation director for the character Elliott, the clumsy-yet-protective dragon who befriends the young orphan Pete (Sean Marshall). The movie earned two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song (Candle on the Water) and Best Original Score.
A Creation of Classic Disney Lore
With the help of designer Ken Anderson and fellow animators Glen Keane, Randy Cartwright, and John Pomeroy, Don Bluth brought incredible life to Elliott, who was voiced by comedian Charlie Callas. While Pete’s Dragon features incredible musical numbers and a veteran cast of actors including Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Shelley, Elliott is, without a doubt, the magical crux of the film who became a crucial part of Disney lore following his big-screen debut.
- Release Date
- November 3, 1977
- Don Chaffey
- Helen Reddy , Jim Dale , Mickey Rooney , Red Buttons , Shelley Winters , Sean Marshall
Stream on Disney+
9 The “Don’t Walk Away” Dance – Xanadu (1980)
By most accounts, the musical fantasy film Xanadu was not critically or commercially well-received. Starring Olivia Newton-John, who was just two years removed from her breakthrough film role in Grease, the movie earned six Golden Raspberry Award nominations (with Robert Greenwald winning Worst Director) and only racked up a box-office gross of $23 million on a $20 million budget. Still, the movie would go on to reach cult classic status thanks to its energetic soundtrack, and Don Bluth would lend his animation talents to Xanadu, making one of the movie’s hit musical numbers — Don’t Walk Away by Electric Light Orchestra — really pop on the screen.
One of the Few Bright Spots
Don Bluth’s contribution to Xanadu occurs during the moment in the film where Newton-John’s Kira and Michael Beck’s Sonny become animated and romantically dance to the ELO ballad. Choreographed by Kenny Ortega, the scene particularly shines thanks to Bluth’s vibrant use of color and his combination of magic and humor during the fish and bird transformation scenes.
Bluth was given 12 weeks to complete the two-minute-and-seven-second scene, but he opted to do most of the work himself, as his animators at Don Bluth Productions were busy working on The Secret of NIMH. Many critics called out Bluth’s animation as one of the bright spots of Xanadu, and in a 2008 documentary, Bluth touched on the creative process behind the iconicscene.
“They had taken some footage from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and it seemed to match really well, so they decided to use animation for the song. I told him we were really busy and couldn’t do it. He said, ‘Yeah, you can and I will pay you this much money, and more money. Whatever. Do it!'”
“The concept was pretty fun actually. It didn’t involve too much character development. Just a lovely, lovely girl and a lovely, lovely guy and they turn themselves into several animals and go romping through some romantic moonlit night.”
“Our attempt was when they went into the fish and the bird that they still seemed like the characters. We did little earmarks like the bird wearing dance leg warmers like the live action character did.”
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8 The Secret Is Revealed – The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Based on Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Secret of NIMH marked Don Bluth’s directorial debut. Winning the Saturn Award for Best Animated Film, the movie featured a dark and engaging plot and breathtaking animation. A perfect example of this combination especially stands out during the scene where the wise rat Nicodemus reveals the insidious rat experiments that took place at the National Institute of Mental Health (a.k.a. the titular NIMH).
Rich Colors and Psychedelic Transitions
Derek Jacobi’s chilling voiceover exposition perfectly sets the mature tone of the scene that shows ordinary rats being transformed into hyper-intelligent hybrids. This isn’t a scene that you’d see in a typical Disney movie, as it features chilling cruelty towards animals and psychedelic transitions that may be too scary for kids. Still, the rich colors and the compelling character animations beautifully showcase Bluth’s distinct style that he would masterfully employ in his subsequent films.
Stream on Tubi
7 Mrs. Brisby Saves the Day – The Secret of NIMH (1982)
After leaving Disney in 1979 to start Don Bluth Productions, Bluth and his ragtag team began work on The Secret of NIMH in January 1980. Aurora Productions gave Bluth 30 months to complete the film on a budget of $5.7 million, which was significantly less, both financially and time-wise, than Disney features typically worked with. Bluth and co. were up for the challenge, working long hours to complete the project.
From an animation perspective, Bluth’s team utilized traditional animation techniques, while also experimenting with rotoscoping, backlit animation, and various other lighting situations that helped add depth and texture to the characters and backdrops. These techniques came together to create beautiful animated scenes, with the climatic scene where Mrs. Brisby saves her family being a moment that particularly comes to mind.
A Colorful, Memorable Ending
The final scene in The Secret of the NIMH includes all the factors that make Don Bluth animations so incredible: eye-popping color, high-octane action, and emotional resonance. The fantastic burst of yellows, oranges, and reds as Mrs. Brisby activates the power of the amulet is especially powerful and makes for one of the most memorable endings of any Bluth film.
6 Fievel Gets Lost in the Storm – An American Tail (1986)
Following the success of The Secret of NIMH, Don Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg for his second major project, An American Tail. The movie tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz (Phillip Glasser), a Jewish mouse who struggles to reunite with his family after they get separated during their emigration from Russia to America in the late 19th century. Featuring the voice-acting talents of Dom DeLuise, Christopher Plummer, and Madeline Kahn, An American Tail received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song (Somewhere Out There) and grossed $84 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time.
With An American Tail, Bluth once again demonstrated his predilection for creating darker, more mature animated films. The scene where Fievel gets separated from his family in a terrifying storm was undoubtedly difficult for children to watch, but it also demonstrated Bluth’s impressive versatility as an animator and storyteller.
While perhaps traumatizing for younger viewers, the storm scene in An American Tail is also a beautiful evocation of past Disney films, especially Pinocchio and Fantasia, with the personification of the fearsome waves seemingly representing a mixture of Poseidon and Chernabog. Disney’s influence on this scene is also shown in the animation techniques, as the storm-afflicted ship was initially built as a model and photographed, showcasing a type of rotoscoping that was used in several early Disney films.
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5 The Mouskewitzes Visit the Statue of Liberty – An American Tail (1986)
After watching the main characters experience one perilous experience after another, viewers of An American Tail are finally treated to a scene of relief at the end of the film, as Fievel and his family fly by the Statue of Liberty on pigeons as they enter into America. Having just been completed, the statue still boasts its original bright copper color, and in keeping with the magical fantasy element of the film, it actually smiles and winks at Fievel and his sister Tanya as they pass.
A Warm, Triumphant Scene
To defend the use of darker scenes in his movies, Don Bluth once said, “[If] you don’t show the darkness, you can’t appreciate the light. If it weren’t for December, no one would appreciate May. It’s just important that you see both sides of that.” If December in An American Tail is the opening storm, then May is the triumphant ending scene. Through warm tones and breathtaking movement, Bluth beautifully conveys the manifestation of the immigrant’s dream: freedom.
Produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, The Land Before Time spawned an incredible franchise that included 13 direct-to-video sequels, a television series, and several video games. The iconic children’s film featured a familiar animation style that hearkened back to Disney’s Golden Age, though Bluth’s distinct vision is consistently present in the project, from the intense action scenes to the gorgeous animal animations to the realistic depiction of grief and loss (the death of Littlefoot’s mother is up there as one of the most tragic animated scenes of all time). Still, it is the beginning birth scene that serves as a beautiful introduction to the Land Before Time world.
The Birth of an Animated Icon
Besides being one of the most adorable scenes in any Don Bluth film, the birth of Littlefoot and his friends also profoundly resonates on a human level, especially in the way that it portrays a newborn’s innate curiosity and the loving and protective nature of mothers. Even though The Land Before Time deals with creatures that went extinct millions of years ago, the opening scene firmly plants us into the world of the film and allows us to truly care about the characters.
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3 Charlie Goes to Hell – All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
In Don Bluth’s fourth studio film, All Dogs Go to Heaven, the late Burt Reynolds provided the voice of German Shepherd Charlie B. Barkin, a former con artist who escapes Heaven to seek revenge on the Bulldog gangster who murdered him, befriending an orphan girl in the process. Though it received mixed critical reviews due to its somewhat mature depictions of murder, theft, and alcohol use, the movie spawned several sequels and a TV series. As it turns out, it is the film’s darker plot points, such as Charlie’s hellish nightmare, that led to the creation of the movie’s best animations.
A Menacing Scene
It may seem strange to describe a scene depicting a horrifying canine version of hell featuring a monstrous devil dog as “beautiful,” but Charlie’s nightmare actually contains some pretty incredible color work and exciting action shots that are in many ways reminiscent of his work from The Secret of NIMH. Going back to Bluth’s “May-December” quote, it is this menacing scene that actually helps the audience to appreciate the ending even more, when Charlie redeems himself and earns his place back in Heaven.
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2 The Opening Scene – Anastasia (1997)
Following several box-office flops in the ’90s with Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin, Don Bluth finally struck gold once again with Anastasia in 1997. Based on the legend of Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of the last Russian czar Nicholas II, Anastasia featured an all-star voice-acting cast that included Meg Ryan as the titular grand duchess, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Hank Azaria, and Angela Lansbury.
While it certainly wasn’t known for its historical accuracy (for example, the famed Russian mystic Rasputin obviously didn’t actually have a magical bat sidekick named Bartok), Anastasia was a commercial success, earning $140 million at the box office, and received two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (Journey to the Past). The movie marked a return to form for Bluth from an animation standpoint, as he impressively transports the viewer into his fantasy version of early-20th-century Russia in the very first scene.
Incredible Animated World-Building
The opening to Anastasia doesn’t just set the scene and establish the main conflict of the story, but it also creates the expectation for an animated period piece that is incredibly ambitious in scope. Beginning with a ball at the royal palace celebrating the Romanov Tricentennial, the viewer is immediately struck by the beautiful colors and the jaw-dropping set pieces. The sudden appearance of Rasputin introduces the fantasy element of the movie in a compelling way, and once again shows Bluth’s predilection for juxtaposing light and dark tones. In just three-and-a-half minutes, Bluth has built the world of Anastasia, and the audience is along for the ride.
- Release Date
- November 21, 1997
- 1hr 34min
Stream on Disney+
1 The Ghost Waltz – Anastasia (1997)
While “Journey to the Past” was the song that earned Anastasia Academy Award attention, “Once Upon a December” is arguably the most compelling musical number in the movie. Earning a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Original Song, the song is sung by Anastasia in its entirety when she enters the dilapidated Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and recalls her childhood home’s former glory through a dream sequence that includes a stirring ghost waltz.
Simultaneously Haunting and Joyful
Anastasia’s pseudo-reunion with her dead relatives through the ghost waltz is melancholic, haunting, and joyful all at the same time. This complexity of emotion conveyed through striking and colorful animation not only elevates the song itself, but also showcases Bluth’s impressive capacity for elevating a film’s narrative through a single scene.