DUBLIN, Ireland — It's been more than 12 years since Don Bluth and 16 colleagues shocked the world of animation by walking out of Walt Disney Productions, complaining that the studio's traditions of producing "classical animation" had been abandoned.
In those 12 years, animation has enjoyed a significant revival in creative terms and Bluth and his colleagues, despite fluctuations in their fortunes, have survived as major players in the field. Such films as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Bluth's own "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time" and Disney's "Oliver and Co." have all made healthy profits.
Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," which has grossed more than $100 million so far and become the first animated feature to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, may be the culmination of this upward trend. Indeed, it might seem that Disney animation is now firmly back on the track from which Bluth believed it had diverted when he quit the studio.
Over lunch at a neighborhood restaurant near his studios on the banks of the Liffey shortly before last week's release of his new feature "Rock-A-Doodle," Bluth said he believes the revival at Disney is good for the entire animation business, and that "Rock-A-Doodle" will reap the benefits.
The story of "Rock-A-Doodle" revolves around a rooster named Chanticleer, who believes crowing each morning makes the sun come up. He loses face among the barnyard animals one day when the sun rises without him; in disgrace, he heads for the big city and pursues a career as a rock 'n' roll singer, dubbed "The King," and very much inspired by Elvis Presley.
"Rock-A-Doodle" seems to follow Bluth's avowed intention to make films that deal with moral concerns. "I like to give an audience a little 'take-home' that they can think about later," he explained. "I'd like parents and children alike to go home from our movie and say, 'You know what? I know what that means.'
"When I saw 'Bambi,' I remembered the phrase 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.' Thumper said it. And I still try to do that each day. I do something I was taught by a little rabbit."
One might expect such a traditional message from Bluth, a practicing Mormon who tithes his income to his church, and who says quite straight-faced: "I think Don Bluth Entertainment as a studio would like to support the efforts of parents in raising their children."
Yeah, sure, but who in the animation business wouldn't say that?
"Well," says Bluth, "so many of my contemporaries want to be cute and make movies which are vicious or scary. A lot of times, that's simply indulging yourself." He doesn't name names; clearly, Thumper's advice carries weight.
Bluth first found the story of Chanticleer when he was reading the works of 19th-Century playwright Edmond Rostand, who also wrote "Cyrano de Bergerac." "Here was a story about a man who had lost faith in himself, and starts to believe his whole life had been a sham," he recalls. "I don't cry easily, but I was moved. Then I started thinking about 'Man of La Mancha,' a broken-down old man who sees what he wants to see, so he becomes a great knight and windmills become giants.
"All this was more complicated than we could give to an audience of 4-year-olds, so we twisted it around and tried to tell it to children--if you lose your self-confidence, you can't do a thing. But if you have it, you can do anything. And we told it in a silly cartoon kind of way."
Basing Chanticleer on Elvis, says Bluth, "seemed appropriate. He was a rooster, he strutted, and that was Elvis. Elvis was my big hero growing up. And then again, Elvis was another guy who was connected to his mother and his family. He never got over his mother's death. We didn't parallel that exactly with Chanticleer, but with him too, being a rock 'n' roll singer is a mask--everything on the outside is sunshine and roses, and underneath was a broken heart."
To reinforce the Presley parallels, Glen Campbell (who played as a session guitarist on some Elvis records) sings Chanticleer's vocals, and the Jordanaires--Presley's original back-up singers--lend support.
The film was completed in 1990 and was exhibited with reasonable success in Europe last year. The Samuel Goldwyn Co., its U.S. distributor, opted to delay its release until now so it could be marketed properly. It opened Friday with less than rave reviews.
Bluth, who is not known for mincing his words, has publicly crossed swords with two of the most powerful entities in Hollywood--Disney and Steven Spielberg.
About Disney, he thinks the walkout of himself and his 16 colleagues has indirectly led to Disney's current resurgence in animation. "I had no idea of the impact it would make (when we quit)," he said. "At the time we said, 'Either (Disney) wakes up because of this, or it'll be No. 2 in the field to us.'