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Irish Heat: Don Bluth, Takes On King Disney : As a new golden age of animation appears to be dawning, an American expatriate once again issues a feature that will go head-to-head with his former employer's holiday release. : But can he really hope to vanquish the studio that wrote the book?

November 12, 1989|JACK MATHEWS

DUBLIN, Ireland — Early in Don Bluth's "All Dogs Go to Heaven," as the deceased junkyard dog Charlie is being welcomed by an angelic whippet at the gates of heaven, the camera pans past a batch of clocks hanging suspended above the clouds. On the face of just one of them is the small but instantly recognizable silhouette of Mickey Mouse.

Nice touch. Not only is it a comfort to know that Mickey will always be there for us, but it's a spicy bit of homage from the Disney animators who 10 years ago shocked their elders by walking out on Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the animated cast at Walt Disney Productions, complaining that the studio had lost its way with classical animation.

"We were just a group who loved animation and felt it had disintegrated into something quite inane," says Don Bluth. "Walt wasn't there and the pictures were just repeats of things he'd done. We wanted things to work there, but it's hard to reshape an old company. It's like trying to bend an old oak."

So, on Sept. 13, 1979, on his 41st birthday, Don Bluth, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman left the animation Valhalla on Buena Vista Drive in Burbank and with about a dozen other disenchanted Disney artists in tow, set up shop in Bluth's Culver City garage 18 miles away.

"If Walt had been alive, he would have walked out with us," says Pomeroy. "We weren't doing anything there (at Disney) that he would have liked."

Since the secession, Bluth and his crew have seen their ambitious dream of creating another classical animation studio shattered in Hollywood and rebuilt--thanks to a self-appointed guardian angel named Morris Sullivan--6,000 miles away on the banks of the River Liffey in Ireland. Their work has been stopped by two bankruptcies, they've had two projects halted during production and seen classical motion picture animation totter on the edge of the abyss, only to turn around and surge back stronger than ever.

When they left Disney, the studio was turning out about one new animated movie every three years. Now, both Bluth and Disney are completing one film every 12 months, just in time for Christmas. This week, for the second holiday season in a row, a Bluth production--"All Dogs Go to Heaven"--and a Disney production--"The Little Mermaid"--will enter the marketplace on the same day, on the same footing.

Last year, Bluth's "The Land Before Time" and Disney's "Oliver and Company" were selling ticket for ticket at the box office until "Oliver" drew away at the end and outgrossed "The Land Before Time" $53.2 million to $47.6 million. The year before, Bluth's "An American Tail" grossed $47.5 million while Disney's reissue of "Cinderella" grossed $33.5 million.

Though Disney's reinvigorated animation department may not appreciate the Mickey Mouse homage in "All Dogs Go to Heaven," the film that coincides with the 10th anniversary of the walk-out seemed the right time and place for Bluth to tip his hat to his old employer.

"I was never hoping to become the next Walt Disney, which is what a lot of people said when we left the studio," says Bluth, during a break in production of his next film, "Rock A Doodle," at a rented sound stage at Ardmore Studios outside Dublin. "All we wanted to do was make the kind of animated movies that got us when we were kids. At Disney, everybody was trying to do what they thought Walt would do. Every time you opened a cupboard, there was his picture. 'What would Walt do?' I think you need living leaders working in the current environment. Walt was gone and trying to guess for a dead man wasn't productive."

Bluth, lean and youthful at 51, is quick to downplay his own role in the phenomenon that bears his name. He says that from the day they left Disney, he, Goldman and Pomeroy have been equal partners.

"Disney is a heroic figure (to kids), which is what we needed to become," he says. "Without a name, we would just be Acme Animation and we wouldn't have had a chance. When you create a heroic figure, that's what you're marketing, not just a production. We just decided to call ourselves Don Bluth."

When they left Disney, they put themselves on a crash program to complete a short film, "Banjo, the Woodpile Cat," that they had been working on evenings and weekends for five years. The film won critical awards and served as a resume that got them an assignment to animate a two-minute musical sequence for the feature "Xanadu," and the financing for their first full length feature, "The Secret of NIMH," an adventure story about a widowed farm mouse trying to save her son from the evils wrought by a race of intelligent rats.

"NIMH" got rave reviews, but then-MGM chief David Begelman wasn't convinced of its audience potential, and with very little advertising support, the film quickly disappeared from the market. Their second film, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," was disrupted and eventually canceled by the long 1982 animators' strike.

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