Don Bluth The Disney Years: Small One
The Animated Films of Don Bluth
by John Cawley


THE SMALL ONE, another theatrical featurette, was released in 1978 with the theatrical reissue of PINOCCHIO. This is the closest Bluth ever got to his "own" production at the Disney studio. He was credited as Producer and Director.

Oddly, like PETE'S DRAGON, THE SMALL ONE's origin was another throwback to the Fifties. The story was announced to appear in the debut season of WALT DISNEY'S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR when the Disney TV series changed networks and went over to NBC. The Christmas tale had been popular for decades with many people remembering the annual rendition of the story by Bing Crosby on his radio show in the Forties and Fifties.

The film was brought back into production when one of the newer generation of storymen, Pete Young, discovered the book (by Charles Tazewell) in the Disney library. He worked on a board at home and brought it to Ron Miller. Young stated, "What struck me was the story's warmth. The relationship between the boy and the downtrodden donkey is very emotionally involving." Miller liked what he saw and thought it would be another good training film. To help polish the board slightly, Miller had veteran Disney board artist Vance Gerry work with Young.

Initially, it was announced that the director would be Dick Sebast, a live-action film maker. Sebast had joined Disney in 1973 and was one of the storyboard artists on THE RESCUERS. However, after RESCUERS was completed, Don was put in charge of THE SMALL ONE. He laid out the entire film and generally gave the animators the first and last drawing of each scene.

SMALL ONE is one of the rare religious oriented Disney animated films. (Others include the "Night on Bald Mountain/"Ave Marie" sequences in FANTASIA and the Johnny Appleseed segment in MAKE MINE MUSIC.) The short follows a young boy who must sell his favorite donkey to help feed his family. He goes to town (Nazareth) and finds the first buyer is the tanner. After he fails to sell the beast at auction, it seems his friend must go to the tanner. A young man stops the boy and buys the donkey to carry his wife to Bethlehem. The man and wife are Joseph and Mary.

The three reel film is a strange mixture of styles. No doubt due in part to the two separate groups involved in production: the younger crew under Don and the more seasoned members put on to assist. The first reel, with the boy playing at home with the Donkey and the trip to the city are treated somewhat lightly and are reminiscent of THE JUNGLE BOOK. (The boy looks slightly like Mowgli.) Reel Two, in the city, is generally slapstick with the auctioneer (resembling the cruel puppet master in PINOCCHIO) and three street sellers hamming it up. The finale is a strange combination of horror, despair and finally hope and resolution.

Two of the songs were written by Don, himself. Both "Small One" and "The Merchant's Song" showcased the variety of his music ability. A third song, "A Friendly Face" was written by the assistant director, Richard ("Rick") Rich. Robert Brunner, who had scored many of Disney's live action and animated features, provided the score for the short.

Elements that would become standard for Don's later films are apparent here. First are the touching scenes at the beginning where the boy and donkey are more than friends, they are family. Bluth frequently likes to show his friends as being very true and warm to each other. Partners in Bluth films are the type of friends who would sacrifice themselves for their friend.

Next is the re-occurrence of horror and a dark side. The tanner's shop is seen as a house of horrors with dark shadows, eerie potions brewing, and hanging carcasses and skins. This is oddly offset by the end in which by sheer hope and inner desire the plot is resolved. It is more than merely luck that Joseph comes along in time to save the donkey from the tanner's knife. It is an unabiding faith that right will overcome all obstacles.

Also more visible is Don's desire to capture realism by using extensive rotoscoping. For example, the boy's father was based on footage shot of Disney special effects' artist Dorse Lanpher (who would later join Bluth for THE SECRET OF NIMH and other Bluth features). The character even resembled Dorse at the time. At one point in the live action shooting, Dorse forgot his directions and slightly slapped himself in the forward in a standard "what an idiot" reaction. Don requested the animator to use the action. Though it does not really follow the dialogue's content, Don liked the spontaneity of the movement.

The short debuted with a fair amount of fanfare. Ironically, Bluth's first semi-solo effort was released, and thus compared directly to, a film featuring the epitome of the classical animation he was trying to emulate, PINOCCHIO.

Both THE SMALL ONE and his earlier work overseeing PETE'S DRAGON's animation allowed Bluth to begin establishing his own crew of talent. These were other Disney studio employees who agreed with Bluth's vision of animation.

As expected, there were those at the studio who felt Bluth's direction was wrong. They felt that trying to increase the quality of animated features was the proper goal, but that by merely duplicating Disney's past was the wrong way to do it. This group felt the studio should go in more modern directions. Many of these people were coming from animation schools that preached the "free spirit" of animation and emphasized experimentation or wild exaggeration.

The Disney studio soon became split along lines of projects, direction and creation of animated features. In some ways this echoed the Disney studio of the Forties when animators thought Disney's continuing attempt to create more and more realistic animation was wrong. Many in this Forties group eventually broke away and were key to the start of the stylistic UPA studio. Ironically, this time it would be those who wanted to follow the Forties' Disney philosophy that would break away from Disney.

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