28 Nov 07

Warning: Musings about animation work follow.

I stumbled on a DVD at Toys ‘R’ Us last week: Disney Christmas collection. For US $10, it has Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Pluto’s Christmas Tree (the one with Chip and Dale), and Small One. I’d never heard of that last.

So I popped it in, and watched ’em. Small One had a long intro, and then the final two credits came up and I snapped to attention:

Produced by Ron Miller

Written and Directed by Don Bluth

Ron co-directed The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid, and of course Don Bluth is Don Bluth, so I immediately perked up.

It’s an overtly Christian story, in which a boy in ancient Palestine tries to sell his favorite, sweet donkey, and nobody will buy it. He eventually seells it to Joseph and Mary, as Joseph’s the only one who sees the use of a calm, sweet donkey.

It’s a fine little concept, aimed at a half-hour TV slot. The early sequences of the boy and the donkey playing and working demonstrate their relationship beautifully. The character animation is flawless.

But this is directed by Don Bluth, so we have two full-length musical numbers in a half-hour film. The first occurs just after the boy’s father breaks the news that the donkey, Small One, must be sold. The boy (who looks exactly like Mowgli) then sings a sweet, quiet song about how much he loves Small One, despite the four minutes of previous animation demonstrating how much he loves Small One. After half a minute, I fast-forwarded through the song.

The boy then goes to the city, where a guard (differently designed and animated; looked more like a Fleischer character) directs him to a nearby shop. The animation becomes creepy and foreboding in the way that late 70’s/early 80’s animation could be (think The Secret of NIMH or The Rescuers). Turns out this is the shop of a tanner. The sequence plays a bit longer than necessary, but it’s effective.

The boy and donkey run into the street, where we hit our next musical number: the three wise men, as merchants, singing about how much they love to buy and sell things. They toss around coins, they dance, they squash and stretch in a classic Don Bluth way, and they have nothing to do with the story. The boy just watches this in shock and wonder, then moves on.

Perhaps Bluth was trying to convey the emptiness of commerce for commerce’s sake. But he does this again in the next sequence, where the boy tries to get Small One into a market, only to discover it’s a high-end Horse Market. The auctioneer and crowd mock Small One, looking only at his outward attributes and not his personality.

It works. It overstates its point a bit, but it’s an important point.

Then the boy, in despair, wanders to a quiet area, where Joseph steps up to him and asks if this donkey’s for sale. The boy sells Small One, we get a slightly tearful but upbeat farewell, and…

…we fade to a long shot of Mary and Joseph, with Mary riding Small One, then cut to a stable with a star shining down on it. The end. Oddly abrupt. We get nothing more about the boy.

It’s a shame. If you cut out the musical numbers and tightened up the other sequences, Small One would be a great little film. As it stands, it wears out its welcome.

A shame. Especially considering how much more work it took to make this worse than a shorter version.

Perhaps this is a good example of Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s dictum, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

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