Dark Imagery in Animated film: An Analysis of Don Bluth’s Works

Following the guidelines of the final project, I chose to look into the themes of dark imagery and the ‘happy ending’ in animated films. To better focus this topic, I chose to look at the most successful and/or popular animated films created under Don Bluth between the 1980s and the late 1990s. This gave me several films to look at, and in order to properly examine them in regards to the time that they were made and released I also compared them to films released by Walt Disney Pictures in the same time period.

Essentially, my research question was focused on looking into how Bluth’s films, despite being full of dark imagery, frightening scenes and depressing moments, were quite possibly the most successful animated films of the 1980s. In order to reflect on this question, I chose to contrast plot points and imagery in four of Bluth’s films between the darker moments and the happiest moments. In doing so, I was able to better convey the difference between those moments in the films as well as compare them to Disney’s darker themes and moments.

‘The Secret of NIMH’. Directed by Don Bluth, Aurora, Don Bluth Productions, 16 July 1982.

I chose to create a video essay for the final project, as the research question and overall theme of my project was largely focused on visual images. I wanted to find a way to convey my thoughts about these scenes and visuals in an easy-to-understand format, so I chose to edit together the clips I had chosen to form my argument in small sections. By keeping the films together, in a sense, I could more easily show the difference between the light and dark moments of each film respectively before moving on to the next.


I also chose to order the film clips in chronological order of when each film was actually released. I think that this helped to show the development of Bluth’s techniques and methods as both an animator and a director, as well as show how his films were influenced by other animated films in the mainstream (especially the influence of 1990s Disney films on 1997’s Anastasia).

‘Anastasia’. Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, Twentieth Century Fox, 21 Nov. 1997.

In the actual creation of the video essay, I began by watching each movie a few times and making notes on each in regards to the film itself and to Bluth’s other works. I then wrote my script and used Adobe Premiere Pro to edit down clips from the films and begin to organize how the essay would play through. I faced a few technical issues while making the video essay, the first being that some of my copies of the films (from DVD disks) could not be downloaded to edit on Adobe. At that point I had to compromise and find other ways to use the footage by recording the film playing and then using that to edit. It was really only an issue with An American Tail but I believe that I was able to still present the film in a decent manner given the issues. Another issue I had was with my audio recording process – despite booking equipment and recording spaces several times, I was constantly overruled by classes and the school itself and ended up having to record on a USB microphone in my room at home. Because of this, there was some background noise in the audio recording but I believe it is mostly unnoticeable. The only other issue I had between deciding on this project and finishing it was my misjudgment as to how long it would take. I believe that I originally thought the entire project would take between 6-8 hours, but with the technical issues and the simple fact that the editing from these films is very time consuming, my end time for working on this project is probably closer to twenty hours.

Despite the issues I had, I believe that by working on this video essay I was able to better my previous skills with the editing software in addition to becoming more familiar with it. I have never created a video that was this creatively open (most of my video editing and writing is done for journalistic purposes) so being able to explore my options and try new techniques was a rewarding experience.

I believe that the form of the video essay I have created better suits the subject matter than any other form I could have done. This particular research question is very visual-centric and therefore I needed to present it in an equally visual way. If I had simply written about the dark themes and contrasting happy endings within Bluth’s films, I don’t think it would have the same effect as seeing these things does have. With film, the form and stylistic choices have a great impact on the final project and the message conveyed in the work. This video essay is similar in that how it is composed, how the video clips are arranged, and how the script is written all affect the overall message and argument of the essay.

‘The Land Before Time’. Directed by Don Bluth, Universal Pictures, Sullivan Bluth Studios, 18 Nov. 1988.

The argument I posed in my research question was something that I personally had considered, and because I could not find very much in terms of academic works related to my question I chose to speak partly from my own opinion and knowledge. Given that critique is based on fact and personal thought, I did some preliminary research into basic information (film releases, success in mainstream industries, audience reactions, etc.) and then put it together with my own arguments and thoughts on the subject. I believe that my project makes sense when compared to the cultural practice of video-film critique, especially in the years since YouTube became popular. With there being a wide group of channels and creators dedicated solely to discussing and comparing films, often in a style similar to the video essay I have created, I think that my project is relevant in that sense. Culturally, the subject matter may not be of interest to the majority of the population; however for those who may be interested in it, it could be seen as a relevant question, especially since the animated film industry is so large today.

Finally, I believe that by looking at how Bluth in particular uses dark imagery contrasted against bright happy endings in his films, it becomes easier to understand his success in the industry. Many of his films focused on unpopular subject matter, and his devotion to traditional forms of animation gave his work a unique look when compared to other studios’ productions. Therefore, by examining Bluth’s films within a video essay, I believe it becomes easier to understand the aesthetic and story-based appeal to his films and then place them in the context of modern animation.


Works Cited

The Secret of NIMH. Directed by Don Bluth, Aurora, Don Bluth Productions, 16 July 1982.

The Land Before Time. Directed by Don Bluth, Universal Pictures, Sullivan Bluth Studios, 18 Nov. 1988.

An American Tail. Directed by Don Bluth, Universal Pictures, Sullivan Studios, 21 Nov. 1986.

Anastasia. Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, Twentieth Century Fox, 21 Nov. 1997.

The Little Mermaid. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Walt Disney Pictures, 17 Nov. 1989.

Beauty and the Beast. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, Walt Disney Pictures, 22 Nov. 1991.

The Black Cauldron. Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, Walt Disney Pictures, 24 July 1985.

Oliver & Company. Directed by George Scribner, Walt Disney Pictures, 18 Nov. 1988.

“The Secret of NIMH (1982).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0084649/?ref_. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.

“An American Tail (1986).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0090633/?ref_=nv_sr_1. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.

“Anastasia (1997).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0118617/?ref_=nv_sr_1. Accessed 24 Mar. 2017.

“The Black Cauldron (1985).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0088814/?ref_=nv_sr_1. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

“The Land Before Time (1988).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0095489/?ref_=nv_sr_1. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.

“Oliver & Company (1988).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0095776/?ref_=nv_sr_1. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.