Got the pandemic doldrums out there? Looking for the cure? How about we take the cult classic LaserDisc arcade game Dragon’s Lair and make it into a movie? This comes with Ryan Reynolds signed on for the lead, because he has to be in everything now. But there’s a catch. When the news was trending back March 28th-ish 2020 on Twitter (days ago as of this writing) this was the collective reaction to the catch:
— Elton Portilho™ (@eltonpot) March 28, 2020
Yes, live action. Not only that… but… sit down for this one… it’s being done by Netflix. Because nothing ever goes sour with a Netflix adaptation, am I right, guys?
Granted, if the mangling of Death Note is any indication, Dragon’s Lair should be more at Netflix’s level. At least Dragon’s Lair has a simple plot: fight dragon, save princess. Even Netflix can’t screw that up!
Well, OK, but the point is that Dragon’s Lair isn’t special for the story at all. What makes Dragon’s Lair special is the animation artwork of one beloved, beloved man in geek fandom, Don Bluth.
The Cult of Don Bluth
Don Bluth’s current home site is a marathon of IndieGogo fundraising for projects related to a Dragon’s Lair revival in any form. He was most recently featured in an episode of Nostalgia Critic, which we might as well post here because that explains it better, and also because it’s hilarious:
So the upshot is that Bluth has been itching to make a feature length, 2D animated movie about Dragon’s Lair. Which again, is the simplest of simple stories with a knight fighting perils to rescue a princess. It is his animation, and the fantastic voice acting, that brings this world to life. In that video you catch a couple of other games from the LaserDisc era, animated by one and the same.
But there’s so much more to Don Bluth than the games. He was part of the Disney animation team from the earliest years, and had an on-again / off-again career there and at Filmation. Being unhappy with how Disney managed things (one could hardly blame him), he founded his own studio at the beginning of the 1980s. The first feature length production of Don Bluth Studios was an overnight blockbuster: The Secret of NIMH (1982). We’ll let Nostalgia Critic again discuss his theory on the theme of this film:
Now, this is some pretty sturdy material for a kids’ cartoon. This gets into Watership Down and Animal Farm territory. While we mention those two, I’ll just whisper Book of the Dun Cow and move along. The Secret of NIMH was itself based on the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and a pretty faithful base at that. I’m pointing this out to note that NIMH set the pace for the rest of Bluth’s output. He based his animated feature on quality literature. Disney based their animated features on sappy filters of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Not all of Don Bluth’s Studios output would fare so well. His next three productions, An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), were all hits to varying degrees. Later films like A Troll in Central Park (1994), The Pebble and the Penguin (1995), and Bartok the Magnificent (1999), performed in the range of “dismal” to “box office bloodbath.” But it bears mentioning that during those earlier successes, that was Bluth directing, animating, and producing – in the cases of NIMH and Dogs, writing too.
And he was beating Disney! That’s right, the undisputed kings of feature animation were releasing films to compete head-to-head with Bluth, and Disney was getting scrubbed and hung out to dry by their former animator. But the later output was not Bluth’s animation. Once Bluth turns over the drawing board to anybody else while he sits back to just produce and direct, everything goes straight to pot.
In the interim, Rock-a-Doodle (1991) was the only feature with Bluth producing, directing, writing, and animating, which was also a failure. That’s a bit tragic, because you can see Bluth losing his nerve, which drove him to “fix” the wrong thing. Whatever is wrong with a Bluth movie, it isn’t the animation.
Don Bluth has maintained critical and popular acclaim to this day, even through the duds. We haven’t even gone into his extended work, such as short films and music videos, or his layout and design work in TV on The Archie Show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or a bit of hippie culture insanity known as Groovie Goolies.
What this all points to is that a Netflix adaptation of Dragon’s Lair sans Don Bluth animation doesn’t seem to have a lot left to support it.
Now Explain LaserDisc Games?
Right, we barely saved room to talk about the technology end. As we just barely touched on in our arcade era spiel, Dragon’s Lair was one in a long line of LaserDisc technology brought to the arcade. The problem was that the technology merely made it possible to play short bursts of video on quick demand. It didn’t allow interaction. Thus, games had to be played in a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, with tiny lengths of cinematic feedback played depending on actions. They were interactive movies, for the most part.
Which explains their nature. Since they couldn’t use sprites or our later wire-mesh frame renderings, they were severely limited in the kinds of games they could host. Even though the cinematic clips were above and beyond the finest graphics of the time and even a close match for our present graphics now, they were abandoned after a short run in the ’80s due to being far too expensive to make and being nigh-impossible to port. Only lately have game consoles caught up to the point of being able to bring the likes of Dragon’s Lair to the home gamer.
Later on DVD games like the Myst series which we covered used a similar concept, taking advantage of better technology integrating the cinematic cuts with the actions of the player.
This poses a question by association: Were LaserDisc games overrated? With the exception of the Don Bluth games, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who remembers any of the others. Cliff Hanger, Badlands, Road Blaster, and Firefox are barely known. Cliff Hanger even used the animation of – brace yourself – Hayao Miyazaki, while Firefox (no, not the web browser, silly) was based on a Clint Eastwood film about a repo man for war planes. Honestly, even the Bluth games vanished from arcades by the end of the ’80s. Every LaserDisc game was popular until it broke down for the first time and the arcade owner got a look at the estimate cost to fix it.
How Could This Story Have Played Out Differently?
Don Bluth first started drawing for Disney studios in 1955, the same year Disneyland park opened. He was an assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty. He even broke off to form his own company and was beating Disney at their own game for awhile. Walt Disney himself, as I’ve written elsewhere, was no business genius.
In an alternate universe where Don Bluth was born first or had one more hit than Disney, or something, their positions could have been very well reversed. What would a theme park built by Don Bluth look like? It would probably have a lot more leggy princesses in it, that’s for certain.