For the second time in two years Don Bluth is going up against Walt Disney by opening a new animated feature on the same day to do battle throughout the Christmas season.
"Doing battle" is not the description either Bluth or Disney would use, of course. They paint a more amicable situation where both studios prosper and strive to improve the product. And to some extent that's true.But it is also true that Disney wears the crown as film animation's king, and Bluth would like to take it away. And these two entities are the only animation studios in heated competition. Other feature-length cartoons pale in comparison with the detailed beauty of the films Disney and Bluth turn out.
As for success - measured, of course, by the amount of noise made at the box office - last year Bluth's "The Land Before Time," which opened on the same day in November as Disney's "Oliver & Company," was a very capable challenger. Though Disney managed to win out by earning a few extra million dollars, it was nearly a photo finish.
"Land" racked up $47 1/2 million to "Oliver's" $53 million; both films did exceptionally well, leading industry watchers to conclude that families who went to one and enjoyed it probably went to the other as well. And maybe even went back to both.
In other words, rather than playing against each other, the two films helped each other out.
Will the same thing happen this year, with Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and Bluth's "All Dogs Go to Heaven" opening on the same Friday?
We'll soon know.
Don Bluth's history has been well-documented: As a disenchanted Disney animator he defected in 1979 to do his own films, hoping to spur theatrical animation back to the "classical" fully animated style that Disney had allowed to wane with "The Fox and the Hound" and other late-'70s efforts.
Bluth's first lone effort was "The Secret of NIMH" in 1982, but the film flopped at the box office.
Then followed forays into arcade video games such as "Space Ace" and "Dragonslayer," and eventually a partnership with Steven Spielberg, who came up with the story for and produced Bluth's first certified hit in 1986, "An American Tail." "The Land Before Time" last year, was also produced by Spielberg.
One of Bluth's fellow Disney defectors, John Pomeroy was in Salt Lake City last weekend. Pomeroy, a high-ranking member of what is now Sullivan Bluth Studios, located in Dublin, Ireland, is co-producer of "All Dogs Go to Heaven."
During an interview Saturday in his suite at the Marriott Hotel, Pomeroy repeated the history of the studio's founding, and said the plan is for Sullivan Bluth to release an animated feature annually for a time, then, when they are able, two a year. Eventually the company will also be involved in live-action films, commercial production and the marketing of arcade games.
"All of this, of course, will be used to help support our animated feature-length movie projects so we always have plenty of cash flow to make that happen," Pomeroy said.
But there will be no shortcuts on animation quality. "More than anything we try to make it a visual feast for the eyes. We put in all the details like cast shadows underneath the characters, rim lighting and even the little girl has blush on her cheeks."
The impetus for "All Dogs Go to Heaven" was simply the title rattling around in Don Bluth's head for several years, according to Pomeroy. "We added the components of Damon Runyonesque characters and the little girl."
There is also a tiny fleeting detail in the film that pays tribute to animation's heritage and the studio where Pomeroy and Bluth began - a Mickey Mouse silhouette on a clock in a scene where dozens of timepieces hang suspended above the clouds in heaven.
"The average age in our ranks is between 19 and 27, so they're like a college fraternity. They're pretty young and they like to put in their little gags every once in awhile. I didn't actually know about that until a reporter told me about two weeks ago."
Next up is "Rock A Doodle," scheduled for release in November of 1990, followed by a children's story about a baby whale and a "strange little fantasy about a troll."
Not scheduled, however, is the sequel to "An American Tail," which Pomeroy said Spielberg will do elsewhere.
And Wednesday it was announced that Hanna-Barbera, the animation company responsible for "The Flintstones," "The Jetsons," "Yogi Bear" and others, will do a prime-time television movie for Spielberg - "An American Tail, Part 2."