The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
Games on TV and
The Big Screen
The success of the games created interest in many sectors of production. One area was Saturday morning television. The networks were interested in exploiting the popularity of video games and had several shows developed around them, like PAC-MAN. The Bluth games seemed an obvious extension.
Don's dislike of TV animation precluded the Bluth studio from having any real participation in the programs. Both games were developed into separate shows, by separate networks, and ended up in competition with each other.
DRAGON'S LAIR was produced by Ruby Spears and debuted in the Fall of 1984. The series was developed by Rick Merwin and Paul Dini. (Dini later went on to be story editor for numerous series including the popular TINY TOON ADVENTURES.) In a revised version of the development written by Merwin and Dini, the concept for DRAGON'S LAIR was described as, "DRAGON'S LAIR is a story of **quests,** of missions undertaken by Dirk the Daring at the behest of Ethelred, his king and father of the object of his love, Princess Daphne.
"In a line, DRAGON'S LAIR is a return to the CLASSICS. It is a classic confrontation of good and evil. It is a classic story of adventure - but DRAGON'S LAIR is in the mold of adventure stories that made you laugh, that made you cheer, that made you feel good from Fade In to Fade Out."
Along with Dirk, Daphne and the dragon (now able to talk and named Cinge), a number of new characters were introduced. These included Bertram, Dirk's faithful horse, who did not talk but did "communicate through a wide variety of facial expressions and noises." Squire Timothy was described as "a bit shorter than Dirk, and a good deal younger. He has a youthfully simple, innocent way of looking at things, and knack for knowing something is about to happen **before** it happens. In fact, if you transplanted MASH's Radar from Korea to the middle ages, you'd have Timothy." King Ethelred was Daphne's father and a "good king." Sir Hubert Blunt was "to Dirk what Bluto was to Popeye. He's Dirk's arch-rival and nemesis, a not-so-friendly competitor for the King's favor, for treasure, and for just about everything else in life." Other villains were to also come from the game including the Lizard King and Phantom Knight.
SPACE ACE was part of a one-hour series called SATURDAY SUPERCADE. Produced also by Ruby-Spears it consisted of four videogames in fifteen minute stories. Joining ACE was KANGAROO, Q-BERT and PITFALL. Ace featured the cast of Ace (and Dexter), Kimberley and Borf in various battles.
For these two series, the Bluth studio gave copies of model sheets used for the games. For TV some had to be altered. The most notable being Princess Daphne's skimpy outfit being converted to a more "covering" dress style. The studio also had script approval, but rarely bothered reading the scripts.
Both series received little notice among animation or game fans and ran only one season. Though they were no worse than other fare at the time, the waning interest in games had been discovered by the networks.
THE BIG SCREEN
The other major offspring from LAIR was the development of a theatrical feature based on characters in the game. The studio had received some interest in such a project so work began on DRAGON'S LAIR: THE LEGEND. Alan Dean Foster, who at the time had written numerous novelizations based on movies (STAR WARS, TRON, etc.) was contacted and participated in the story sessions.
Don described the film to a reporter during the height of DRAGON'S LAIR's popularity. "We're working on the DRAGON'S LAIR script now. I think we have a really good shot with the movie version. If the DRAGON'S LAIR name appears on a movie marquee, kids won't be threatened by it. They won't feel shy about going into the theater. Seeing SNOW WHITE might embarrass them, but DRAGON'S LAIR is already theirs.
"We figure we can fashion a really good DRAGON'S LAIR movie. We're pulling out all the stops. We're going to give them everything they want to see. Answer all their questions about our hero, Dirk, and his background. At the same time, we're not going to aim the subject matter at the nursery level. We're going to aim up."
However, rather than follow the path used in the game of dragons, dangers and a bumbling Dirk, Don developed a story of how Dirk and Daphne met as teenagers. The idea for DRAGON'S LAIR: THE LEGEND was an epic tale revolving around an evil, Horned King-like sorcerer named Mordrock, seeking to raise an army of corpses from a river of the dead.
DRAGONS LAIR: THE LEGEND
Teenage Dirk and his buddy Strun are peasants who live in the forest, adoptees of a weird old hag who is killed by one of Mordrock's minions. Strun is kidnapped and becomes possessed by Mordrock leaving Dirk to fend for himself.
In the woods, Dirk encounters Princess Daphne and her Teutonic aunt Brunhilde, who have disguised themselves as Gypsies to elude Mordrock. From them, Dirk learns of a legendary Knight who is the only one capable of defeating Mordrock. He sets off alone on a quest to find this warrior and meets up with the Seven Deadlies, a mob of motley dwarf trolls named after the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Lust, Sloth, etc. These vagabond thieves strike up an uneasy alliance with Dirk and accompany him to the deserted castle where the legendary Knight dwells. The Knight is a mysterious, burnt-out "ex-hired-gun" type whose human features (eyes, face, etc.) can't be seen through the darkness of his armor. He agrees to help Dirk slay Mordrock, opting to name his price at a later time. Here is where Dirk obtains his familiar uniform of chain mail and orange tunic.
By this time, Strun has become Mordrock, body and soul and has captured Daphne to wed as unwilling Queen of his evil reign. The Knight battles him in a terrific duel on an enormous mountain, ultimately cutting the villain down. But it turns out only Strun is killed. Mordrock's wicked soul oozes into the mountain and transforms into an immense, hideous dragon. The Knight extracts his price now - he bids Dirk to slay the beast and collapses into a heap of empty armor. Dirk manages to slay the dragon in the harrowing climax, but only to find Daphne has been killed. His love brings her back to life, and Strun finally expires with apologies to Dirk for his succumbing to Mordrock. Dirk, the peasant, has become Dirk the Daring through bravery and sacrifice. Fade out.
This somber spectacle had little in common with the lighthearted "thrill ride" atmosphere of the arcade game, in which even Dirk's grizzliest deaths were handled in a silly, "cartoonish" manner. Depicting Dirk and Daphne as teenagers involved totally re-designing them, leaving only their names and the film's title as clues to the source material.
Mordrock not only resembled a hornless Horned King in appearance and aspirations, he also had two large vultures who hunted Dirk and Strun down like the Gwythiants (flying lizards) in Disney's BLACK CAULDRON. Daphne's first appearance was to be in a brief nude scene as Dirk and Strun spy her from a trellis outside the window of her castle. The Seven Deadlies originated as a nameless band of thieving otters by Alan Dean Foster, but evolved into a hybrid version of Disney's Seven Dwarfs and the midgets in TIME BANDITS. (Foster later used the idea of thieving otters for a novel set in an animal world.) Various ideas were explored as to why Dirk didn't speak in the original game. These ranged from him being born mute to losing his voice due to a spell or event in the feature film.
A short film was produced to interest investors. It consisted of thirty or so lavish story sketches narrated in almost Biblical solemnity by the narrator of the original game's attract mode. Don frequently spoke of Michael J. Fox of FAMILY TIES as the voice of Dirk. (This was several years before BACK TO THE FUTURE.)
At one major studio, they showed the presentation and then described more of the story. As an added selling point, Bluth and crew showed the work print of LAIR II. The executive sat there for a second then stated they should turn LAIR II into the feature and forget the other one.
When the game market died, so did the interest in any LAIR project.
Shortly after the video game market began to crumble, the studio briefly dabbled in producing games for the home computer market. In fact, for a while a line of learning games for children was being presented to a number of major backers. None sold.
One game, largely designed by Dan Kuenster, starring Zorro did get completed. The game, ZORRO, was released with no real recognition to the Bluth studio.
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text and format © John Cawley