March 22, 2010

Nostalgia Fix: Don Bluth, Ya'll.

A screen shot from the 1983 Star Wars arcade game, a space simulator in which you are seated behind the steering controls of an X-Wing Fighter. It's amazing that this is all that was required to take a seven year old's brain to untold planes of existence.

It was the year before the release of Van Halen's classic album, 1984; the year they called 1983. MJ's Billie Jean and Bowie's Let's Dance played incessantly on the radio, and arcade classics like Galaga, Centipede, Ms. Pacman, and Spy Hunter were the cutting edge of video game technology. War Games, Return of the Jedi, and Flash Dance lit up the silver screen, but there were no animated feature films to speak of that year.

Rewind to 1959. Walt Disney Pictures is pretty much the only studio releasing animated features for the screen, and Don Bluth gets his first (uncredited) animating gig with Disney on Sleeping Beauty, followed by another stint on The Sword in the Stone. Don Bluth, a Mormon boy hailing from Utah with an English degree from BYU, forged his way to the top of the Disney animation studio, and was an uncredited director of such animated flicks such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon, 101 Dalmations, & The Fox & the Hound.

From the animated classic, Rubbin' Hood. Ooh-da-lolly!

But Walt Disney's head was put in a freezer in '65, and Bluth watched the studio's films, written and run by suits in committees, steadily "lose their charm." In '79 Bluth left Disney, taking 11 other disgruntled animators with him, to start Don Bluth Productions. In 1982 they released Bluth's masterpiece, The Secret of NIMH. It was the first successful animated feature made by a non-Disney studio since the 1950s.

The Secret of NIMH

Some signature trademarks of Bluth's work are his snaggle-toothed cross-eyed toddler creatures ...

..and his blindingly electric lighting effects.

Back to 1983: The
youth of that era were well-submerged in all kinds of jerky and blocky video game fantasies, when out of nowhere Bluth follows up NIMH with an epic animated odyssey arcade game called Dragon's Lair. The heads of many an arcade rat exploded that day.

Back then, Dragon's Lair seemed to me a video game from some far-away utopian future. It was fifty cents a game, and nearly impossible to beat, but what this machine had to offer (vs. the rest of the arcade) was beyond compare, and I've never really lost that ache to be immersed in it. Bluth went on to release a less cohesive but equally interesting sequel to Dragon's Lair, as well as Space Ace, Bluth's nail biting 11 minute long metaphor for impotence and virility. Except with lasers and exploding space ships and shit.

Today, though Dragon's Lair is still prettier than what most games these days are offering, it's fairly obvious as an adult that on the gaming level it's a simplistic one trick pony, the idea that you are making "choices" for the hero is for the most part an illusion. But I still can't help but get all bent in the head when I play inside such a wildly imaginative and gorgeously rendered world, and I'm tickled that Bluth had spent a near equal amount of time animating all the horrible ways the hero could possibly die as he spent animating the actual adventure.

Being able to find and play Bluth's games after the slump in the arcade craze has not been that easy--- but I have managed to own the games in a number of formats over the last twenty years. I was thinking about the game just recently, and chuckled to myself at the thought of a Dragon's Lair App for the iPhone. Well lo and behold. It's obvious they've trimmed some video to keep the file from getting too big, and I even wonder if some scenes might be missing, but still, it's a marvel to be holding it in my hands again.

Titan A.E.

Bluth has done alot of stuff since his initial hot streak. He worked with Speilberg on An American Tail and The Land Before Time, both of which met with commercial success, neither of which I've seen in a very long time. His most recent work was the 2000 flop that closed down Fox Animation Studios, Titan A.E. (which probably isn't that bad and deserves another look from yours truly.) He has been shopping a feature length film version of Dragon's Lair around for a couple of years now, though to be honest, I'm hoping he might eventually let that idea go and think of something new. I'd rather Dirk remain as he is, a hero with no lines (who lets out a death curdling scream every time you lose concentration.)

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