Watch Don Bluth's Short Film That Proved He Could Make The Secret Of NIMH

From an early age, animator Don Bluth was a great admirer of Disney and has said in interviews that as a child, he would practice drawing by copying old Disney comic books. This childhood activity led to him being hired by Disney to work on their feature film version of "Sleeping Beauty" in the mid-1950s. After a stint doing missionary work and animating for various TV shows, Bluth returned to Disney in the mid-'70s to work on the company's version of "Robin Hood." Bluth worked on various animated features for Disney, eventually rising to the role of animation director for the 1977 film "Pete's Dragon." Over the course of working for Disney, however, Bluth became kind of disillusioned with the way the company owned all of their animators' work, and how animators were all trained to draw and animate the same way. Bluth left Disney in 1979 to form his own production company. 

During the final four years of his employ at Disney — during the production of "Pete's Dragon" and "The Rescuers" — Bluth was, in his spare time, inviting his friend Gary Goldman and various younger animators to back home to his garage studio to work on a short film in secret. Bluth must have been motivated by production on this underground short, as he was eventually emboldened enough to quit in the middle of "The Fox and the Hound," a film that was delayed because of his walk-out. 

He, Goldman, and his animators completed the short they had been working on, and sold it to various TV networks as an animated Christmastime special. The short was called "Banjo the Woodpile Cat," and you can watch it below. 

Banjo the Woodpile Cat

"Banjo the Woodpile Cat" is a 26-minute short about an irascible talking kitten named Banjo (Sparky Marcus) who causes mischief to the point of damage. When he nearly kills one of his sisters, Banjo's father (Ken Sansom) sends Banjo out to fetch a beating switch intended for Banjo's corporal punishment. Rather than be beaten, Banjo takes to the road and treks into the big city (actually Salt Lake City where Bluth lived) where he runs afoul of the human traffic. He eventually falls in with numerous city cats before locating a truck that will drive him home. When he returns home, all is forgiven. 

Like much of Bluth's work, "Banjo" appears on its surface to be a lighthearted and delightful romp, but soon skews into darkness and sadness. A lot of Bluth's films, especially in the early 1980s, emerges as dank, scary, or tragic. Even the Spielberg-produced "An American Tail" from 1986 is mostly about how sad the mouse characters feel in being separated. "Banjo" isn't so much an adventure as a survival story.

The character animation in "Banjo" is first rate, and it's certainly a sight better than a lot of Disney fare from the 1970s. If one notices a "shaggy" visual style in 1970s Disney animated fare, it's because the studio had taken to using an animation technique called xerography, which would allow for the photocopying of animation cels. It was a great way to save money, but also a great way to make a film look cheaper than it was. "Banjo," as its origin story would belie, looks like it was painstaking hand-animated over the course of four years. The story is detailed on various animation websites, as well as in the Los Angeles Times

The Secret of NIMH

"Banjo," as it turns out, was the ideal proof-of-concept that Bluth needed to gather the wherewithal to make an animated feature film of his own. For the next few years, Bluth would work on a feature based on Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 novel "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH." The completed feature, released in 1982, was called "The Secret of NIMH," it proved to be an intense, shadowy antidote to Disney. This was during a time when Disney's animation studio was floundering; the '80s, with bombs like "The Black Hole" and "The Black Cauldron, is certainly Disney's biggest flop era.

"NIMH" stood counter to that. The film followed an anthropomorphic mouse named Mrs. Brisby (perhaps "Frisby" sounded too much like "frisbee," the role played by Elizabeth Hartman) as she needed to trek from her cinder block home — at the advice of a terrifying owl — to find medicine for her child, ailing from pneumonia. In her quest, she discovers an enclave of rats who reveal that they, along with Mrs. Brisby's dead husband, had been genetically enhanced in a local lab. These are not mere anthropomorphic rats in clothes, but enhanced rats who have learned to make use of human technology. Those are some pretty intense notions for a kid flick. 

According to Goldman, speaking with Traditional Animation in 2012, Disney took a look at "Banjo the Woodpile Cat" while he and Bluth were working on it ... and they didn't offer to buy it. Disney passed on "Banjo," and they passed on Bluth. A rival studio was born, and Bluth made some pretty striking, and amazingly animated feature films throughout the '80s. 

Disney's loss was everyone else's gain.