Who Framed Roger Rabbit? deserves more credit than any other single movie for ending the era. But even though it came out in the summer, the two major Hollywood animated features that followed it for the holiday season are still very much products of the pre-Roger Rabbit world.
For instance, before Disney got back on course, the great hope of animation was ex-Disney man Don Bluth. A Disney veteran who finally got fed up with the way the studio was tarnishing its legacy, Bluth eventually decided that if Disney wouldn’t live up to its founders’ standards, he’d do it himself. And he did, first with the literally homemade TV special Banjo the Woodpile Cat and then with his masterpiece The Secret of NIMH. Steven Spielberg was equally interested in reviving Golden Age-quality animation, just as he’d revived so many other genres of his youth. So he snapped Bluth up to adapt a fictionalized version of his grandfather Fievel’s emigration into An American Tail and his pre-Jurassic Park dino flick, The Land Before Time.
Time lived up to Bluth’s remit of bringing audiences everything Old Disney provided and New Disney denied them: evocative backgrounds, detailed animation, and the dark subject matter and imagery that tattooed so many of those classic movies on children’s brains. Spielberg pitched it as “Bambi with dinosaurs,” but if anything, it’s willing to hit harder than Bambi ever did. The death of Bambi’s mother may have shaken millions of children, but it happens offscreen and is never mentioned again. The baby “long-neck” Littlefoot’s mother isn’t nearly so lucky. We see her eviscerated onscreen by a “sharptooth” (T. Rex) (a scene that was even more graphic before Spielberg decided he’d rather take a million-dollar loss on the completed footage than traumatize his audience). Littlefoot stays with her right up to the moment she passes on, and his grief defines his whole character.
Over the course of the movie, Littlefoot accumulates a caravan of other tiny dinos on their way to the Great Valley, the last oasis in the wasteland of prehistoric earth. (Fantasia’s “Rite of Spring,” and especially the extinction sequence, was obviously also an influence.) The Land Before Time is a great film, which is no small achievement since all the main characters are fucking awful. Bluth and crew did an admirable job creating realistic children; unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten real children can be obnoxious little shits. Worse, both Petrie the pteranodon and Duckie the duckbill get the lazy kiddie writer’s special: obnoxious verbal tics instead of an actual personality (repeating words for Duckie, broken English for Petrie).
Worse, the designs are almost painful to look at. Somehow, Bluth managed to create characters who were both too cartoony-cute and excessively detailed at the same time. They’re like Cabbage Patch Kids designed by Madame Tussaud: for some reason, they all have distractingly fleshy humanoid ears; in some shots, Duckie seems to be wearing a plastic human nose. And then there’s Littlefoot, whose head is colored like he’s wearing a buzz cut. The character animation, usually one of Bluth’s strengths, is also off. His signature mouth-first style looks downright grotesque on these characters. There’s a weird disconnect between the characters’ exactingly accurate body shapes and their cartoony movements — something that only becomes a strength with the huge but disturbingly fast Sharptooth.
So how does something so central as character fail to sink the whole movie? Partially it’s because, while the leads may be hideous, everything around them is bleakly gorgeous. No one in animation uses colors quite like Bluth, and his team’s combination of dramatic, craggy landscapes and psychedelic colors is enough to make you believe you’re looking back millions of years and beautiful enough I’d happily stare at them for much longer than Land’s brief runtime. And ugly as he is, Littlefoot’s journey is still deeply moving — enough so that Disney seems to have ripped it off wholesale for The Lion King, from the scene of the child sleeping next to the dead parent’s body to the apparition in the clouds.
Speaking of Disney, they found room in between coproducing Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with Spielberg to squeeze out the all-animated, all-Disney Oliver and Company. Adapting Oliver Twist with a kitten as Oliver and a pack of stray dogs as the pickpockets, the movie’s as good evidence as any that, like the man said, it’s always darkest before the dawn. These survey articles often require wading through a lot of mediocrity, but I don’t if I’ve ever outright resented a movie for wasting my time as much as this, probably because it tricked me into giving it a fair chance by occasionally peppering the runtime with some great character animation.
But that’s about all it has to offer, and it shows how far Disney had sunk on the eve of its revival. They used to be leading the industry, but in 1988 they were following. The hot dog seller who Oliver and Dodger bond over robbing looks like he was lifted from a Ralph Bakshi movie. Bluth’s go-to comic relief Dom DeLuise appears as Fagin.
It’s hard to imagine the notoriously-brand-conscious Disney putting their name on such a shoddy product just a few years later. While their competitors were working to make every frame perfect, Oliver and Company’s first animated scene is barely animated at all, which, combined with the uncomfortably realistic background character designs, gives the impression of a New York inhabited by shuffling corpses or mannequins. Characters grow or shrink between scenes, and the water is disturbingly viscous.
The only way Disney was leading was in technology, and that doesn’t help at all. After a tryout with the clocktower fight in The Great Mouse Detective, Disney goes all-in on CGI backgrounds here, and every one sticks out like a sore thumb. The technology was primitive enough that the animators had to trace over the simulations. But even under a coat of ink and paint, the back-and-forth between 2D and 3D images never stops being awkward, especially since the software still hadn’t evolved past the unnerving straight lines and sharp, blocky forms of the Super Nintendo days. It can’t help but feel like cheating when Akira and Roger Rabbit were doing much more complicated 3D “camera” moves with nothing higher tech than a pencil and paper.
And then, of course, there’s the story. It’s probably unfair to expect more than a Cliff Notes version of Dickens’ novel; it would have been nice if Oliver could have at least been more than the Cliff Notes of itself. I swear I missed half the climactic chase scene when I looked away for a second to take notes. The same sequence has to set a new record for faking out and then undoing a character’s death.