Six Distracting Things About Don Bluth Movies

I don’t want to give the wrong impression with the title of this article. I love Don Bluth movies for their incredible artwork and dark, mature themes (well, most of them).  When I watched them, especially Secret of NIMH, there was such a struggle and trauma on display that the battle of good against evil felt more real than anything I’d ever experienced with Disney.

So I repeat: This is not a slam on Bluth’s style, just more of an observation of the things that kind of pull me out of the movie and remind me that I’m watching something of his. Annoying as I find that, if you took any or all of these things out then you’d be taking out part of what made him unique.

Oh and before we begin: Yes, I know he worked for Disney for a while and there are some characteristics shared between his movies and the ones he worked on for Disney.

6. Glitter, Glitter Everywhere

Probably my nit-iest of picks, which is why I’m getting it out of the way early. I have no problem with seeing glitter (or “sparkles”) drawn as part of the clothing design or flying around a magical character. Bluth uses it in those instances, a lot, but he also tends to just make it a part of any surface to draw attention, or better capture the way water looks when light is reflecting off of it. Many times it looks great, but seeing that much sparkle makes me wonder “what in the world is in the water supply?”.

Perfectly acceptable glitter magic.
Water…so…sparkly.
Glittery magic owl breath with stars, hearts, and diamonds; this looks like a breakfast cereal instead of a villain I should take seriously.

5. Obnoxious Owl-brows.

Do owls have large eyebrows? Yes, indeed. Are they always white, bigger than the owl’s face and look like a bicorner? If you’re Don Bluth, they do.

Any time I’m watching The Secret of NIMH or Rock-A-Doodle and the owls in question show up on screen, all I can do is stare at their forehead until the story moves on.

Tell me I’m wrong.

4. Floppy Tongues

Unlike the the glitter, which is gorgeous but overused, or the Owl-brows that at least have their roots (ha) in reality, Floppy Tongue is so out of place and strangely animated that it’s the first one on this list that legitimately irks me.

Other animators draw characters with their tongues hanging out to show different emotions or a lack of intelligence. Bluth says “You know what this scene needs? Floppy Tongue!” and proceeds to draw everything from cats to birds to fish with tongues that suddenly grow 20 times their normal size and twirl around outside their mouths. It’s incredibly distracting and kind of icky.

Kind of cute.
Why is he doing that?!
This…what?
Oh come on! You couldn’t do a two-minute-long segment in someone else’s movie without Floppy Tongue? On a FISH?
Okay, I’ll give all those others a pass if someone can tell me why Bluth animated this character’s tongue to look like this while he’s supposed to be talking!

3. Bubba Lip

It can strike any species at any time. No creature is safe.

The afflicted are easy to spot, pitiable to behold. Do not mistake this for a simple case of allergic reaction or the healing of a removed labret; the truth is much darker. These unfortunate beings were born this way, their gargantuan lower lips taking over their face until their chin completely disappears. It’s disturbing enough to cause onlookers to question the wisdom of such a creator.

Bubba Lip is a real affliction, and it’s time we raised awareness.

Let’s stop this from happening to any toon ever again.

2. Featuring Dom DeLuise as Dom DeLuise

I have nothing against the man, God rest his soul. He was very likeable in his roles and as a child I found him comforting, like someone I wanted to be friends with.

Be that as it may, as a fan of voice acting I get quite annoyed when a celebrity is hired to just come into the studio and talk like he/she normally does. It’s a thing that happens, though, and I just have to get over it. Besides, he wasn’t bad.

But honestly Dom was in so many freaking Bluth films that it messed with my escapism when Jeremy, Tiger, Itchy and Stanley all sounded alike. I’m probably missing a couple of roles, but you get my point.

Left: Favorite Dom character as a child. Right: Favorite as an adult. I got angrier.

1. Rotoscoping

For those not in the know, rotoscoping is an animation technique where the animator traces over a live-action performance frame by frame.

It generally yields terrifying results, as Ralph Bakshii would love to show you:

GAH!

To my knowledge Bluth never created anything quite that horrifying, but actually accomplished some impressive human animations with them.

Still he used this technique often, and it wasn’t always so smooth; for example, the tractor in the Secret of NIMH. I don’t know what everyone else sees, but my mind can always pick out the uncanny quality of rotoscoping and it doesn’t sit well. It just makes things look out of place. As a child who didn’t understand why I sensed that something was wrong, it was very unsettling. To his credit, that added to the eerie quality of his movies.

Wait…

No….
Please, no. It can’t be…
NOOOOOOOOO!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!
Sweet naked Thor, there’s no way that thing isn’t rotoscoped!

That means that the Giant Mouse of Minsk is based on a real thing that has really been in existence! All of these years? Oh my God, please excuse me while I go throw up and crawl into the fetal position for the next two weeks.

15 comments

  1. The only Bluth film I’ve seen is Titan A.E., which I did not care for. While my main issue was with the script (and therefore not necessarily Bluth’s fault), the poor integration of the cel and computer animation also got on my nerves. Though it should be noted that combining the two is difficult to do well.

    • I hadn’t seen Titan A.E. until about two days ago. It’s easily my least favorite Bluth film (admittedly I haven’t seen A Troll in Central Park or Bartok the Magnificent).

      I think I’ve seen you mention Netflix before, so if you’re a user look up Secret of NIMH (my favorite) and All Dogs Go To Heaven, which are streaming. The Land Before Time and An American Tail are great, too, but you’ll have to find those on DVD.

  2. You’re totally right about the glitter. Bluth also has a penchant for making supposedly sympathetic characters look really grotesque (cf. Nicodemus) that turns me off his stuff too. His creations tend to be a bit spastic too, as if the love of animation is so strong that everyone has to have extra frames of bounciness inserted.

  3. I’m glad to see that the glitter wasn’t just a personal nitpick of mine.

    As for grotesque sympathetic characters, I can’t think of any others besides Nicodemus. While I can’t say I would have chosen that look for him, it definitely didn’t turn me off of his work. If anything, the amazing visuals and creepy/grotesque character designs in that movie made it stand out in my mind as something truly unique when everything else I was watching was ultra fluffy feel-good cutesy stuff.

  4. Bubba Lip was the first one that came to my mind before reading this list (except I didn’t have a name for it). That’s how I always picked out a Bluth flick: the distinctive mouth-motions. I saw Titan A.E. back when it was first released on video, but I didn’t even know it was Bluth until I saw that villain saying “We don’t like your attitude!” and the way his mouth just flopped about there tipped me off instantly.

    And the Giant Mouse of Minsk… yeah, I couldn’t even look at the screen whenever that thing was on. I vaguely recall seeing An American Tail in theaters, so I can only imagine what the experience must have been like for me as a four-year-old seeing THAT on a giant movie screen.
    “Release the weapon!”
    Okay, but let me hide behind the couch first.

    • Titan A.E. is an oddity to me. I didn’t really see any of his style in it until the characters ran across a guard they were trying to trick. That guard looked like he could have been an extra in A Troll In Central Park, but up until then no one else had any Bluthy traits. It’s one of his weaker films, in my opinion, what with the overused CGI (that end scene? AWFUL), lackluster voice acting (Drew Barrymore? AWFUL) and generic 90’s rock soundtrack.

      Also, I would be joining you behind the couch for the Giant Mouse of Minsk. I, too, usually had to look away whenever it was on, though the sound effects were still scary enough.

  5. All excellent points about a master of his craft who was still far from perfect.

    Another “Bluthism” that always bothered me are his “songs with no point”. In any musical, the song should either advance the plot or explain the inner dialogue of a major character. Disney usually gets this right. The opening song in “Beauty and the Beast” tells you all the backstory you need about Belle. She is bookish, doesn’t really fit in with the townspeople, and spurns the advances of Gaston. In the Lion King, “Just Can’t Wait to be King” tells you that Simba is, at this point, rather spoiled and selfish.

    Bluth sometimes got this right (“Somewhere Out There” still brings me to tears) but so many of his songs are so random and pointless that they just interfere with the flow of the story. Perhaps the most famous example is the “big-lipped alligator moment” (thanks Nostalgia Critic) in All Dogs Go to Heaven. Even as a child, I didn’t understand why this giant, flamboyant alligator dancing on a giant clam had anything to do with the story, especially as this song occurs right before the climax of the film.

  6. It was Nostalgia *Chick* who came up with the BLAM, but since she unveiled it during a guest spot on Nostalgia Critic’s show I’ll let it slide.

    But just this once!

    I absolutely agree about the musicals; songs just weren’t his forte. Some of the numbers in Rock-A-Doodle are really enjoyable, but Bluth must not have agreed because he had the narrator talking over the good ones.

  7. I just rewatched that episode (The Ferngully one, hilarious) and you’re absolutely correct, Nostalgia Chick came up with it. My apologies, I meant no disrespect for the Chick!
    Anyone unfamiliar with Nostalgia Critic or Nostalgia Chick should check out their hilarious reviews of bad nostalgic films. The language is usually NSFW, however.
    They also have PLENTY to say about Bluth’s later films.

  8. I’ve only seen a handful of his films (all of which I saw as a child).

    I constantly find myself bemused by the power of Bluth’s animated films to simultaneously scare and intrigue me at the same time.

    As a kid I was scared shitless of the Cossack cats in American Tail.

    The bell on Land Before Time’s soundtrack that opens the earthquake scene early on in the film was so eerie that virtually any ominous bit of a soundtrack can spook me (I even get this when listening to certain songs by my favorite bands, like the start of ELO’s “Eldorado Finale” when the choir comes in or the 3-track end section of Queen’s “Made in Heaven” album [and by that, I mean the ‘end’ of the album plus the extra track tacked on to most CD prints]).

    Parts of Secret of NIMH I still have a hard time watching.

    And I’m pretty sure that my childhood fear of the MGM logo had something to do with seeing it at the start of nearly every VHS tape of a Bluth film we had at my parents’ house (Land Before Time had the MCA logo over a starfield–which creeps me out a little just thinking about it).

    Funnily enough, we didn’t have All Dogs Go to Heaven at home as a kid (probably because my parents caught on to the not-so-kiddy themes that are depicted in the film) and that one still left a few scars nonetheless from various partial viewings.

    And yet I felt compelled to buy most of these on DVD (All Dogs was given to me by my sister along with about 2 boxfuls of DVDs she decided not to keep when she moved to New York–one of, like, 3 kids movies tops in those boxes, and the only animated one; I still haven’t seriously thought of buying Land Before Time).

    Maybe it’s a little of the old ‘facing your fears’ psychotherapy, I don’t know.

    I will say this in Bluth’s defense: These are well-made films. And I love his ability to make even the grimiest, grittiest location in a film look awesome, fun and realistic.

  9. Or the fact that everyone walks to a musical beat like they’ve go their own personal soundtrack in their heads?

    I was rewatching ‘An American Tail’ recently and everybody seemed to do that!

  10. Hahahaha. Yeah. I love Don Bluth’s work, but I’m not blind to these frequent traits. Never bothered me though. 🙂

  11. I’m late to this party, but we’re watching The Land Before Time, and I needed to see if anyone ever critiqued the Bluth style. I couldn’t put my finger on why Don Bluth animation bothers the shit out of me. I think it moves beyond Bubba Lip and tongue flapping, but these are validly annoying.

    Somehow the fluid, jiggly way every character moves just sets my teeth on edge.

    • BRUH. I literally googled “don bluth characters move weird” and this was the result that Google came up with. I’ve been trying to understand why that weirds me out so much, but the “fluid, jiggly way” is absolutely spot-on. It’s like everyone is on sliders. I noticed it a few years back when I was rewatching All Dogs Go to Heaven (the best one ♥) and then started seeing it everywhere: Anastasia, Fievel, the Land Before Time. So odd that you noticed it too, I wonder who else it’s been bothering since childhood but they can’t figure out what it is?

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