the small one

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

I can’t actually confirm that Frozen co-director Chris Buck had a hand on The Small One, an animated short released 35 years ago this month. Only his Wikipedia entry connects him to the film, noting that it was uncredited work. And he’s not included in any extended credits to be found for the production, which is known to have involved other new recruits like Henry Selick and Jerry Rees. In one interview, Buck acknowledges that he was a trainee at the studio starting in the summer of 1978 but that his first assignment was as an “in-betweener” for The Fox and the Hound. Well, maybe he still breathed in an area in which Don Bluth and his team were making this little-remembered movie. If it’s not really either his short start or his earliest work for Disney, which he’s worked for on and off over the decades, just skip ahead to another possibility I’m featuring this week.

This is still a good time to look at The Small One, regardless. The anniversary of its debut will be December 15th, the date it arrived in theaters attached to a re-release of Pinocchio. The pairing seems a bit strange considering The Small One is about a cute little donkey, whose drawn appearance resembles the jackasses in the 1940 classic, and the latter is the stuff of nightmares. For kids to have gone from one to the other had to be disturbing. In the years since, the 26-minute short has aired on TV as a Christmas special but today it’s all but forgotten, possibly because of its religious plot. The donkey belongs to a young boy, who is forced to go into the city of Nazareth to sell the barely useful animal. After a difficult day in the markets and auction square, the duo are finally approached by a man who needs the donkey to carry his pregnant wife to Bethlehem. Hmm, wonder who that could be.

Perhaps Disney also had little love for the film because it was directed by Bluth just before he made his famous exit along with a team of other animators. But it was also a rarity for being so Christian themed — not that it would be odd to have something Christmas-related without the religious aspects. Some critics believed the late Walt Disney never would have approved such a specified piece. Interestingly enough, current DVD versions of The Small One feature some changes to the animation in order to limit the level of Christianity and some encouragement of criminality (and maybe potential Jewish stereotyping). For the former they’ve altered the Star of Bethlehem to look less like a cross, and for the latter they’ve changed lyrics to a song in which three merchants admit to cheating if they must — now they “work harder” if they must.

The version you can watch in full below is the original:

Buck continued to work as an animator at Disney through the release of The Black Cauldron, which he did one scene on, before which he also worked on the shorts Fun with Mr. Future and Sport Goofy in Soccermania and the feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the latter two of which he’s admitted to disliking. With the  20-minute Goofy short, which you can see below, Buck says it was too informed by an angle on merchandising and an incorrect athletic image for the beloved cartoon icon. “We were stuck trying to give the old design a new character,” he said in a 1990 interview. “It never did work for me.”

Going back in time a bit, if The Small One isn’t the first short Buck worked on (disregarding his CalArts shorts, that is), perhaps we can count his short start as being Doctor of Doom, a 1979 live-action film directed by his fellow Disney animator Tim Burton. The future Beetlejuice director also appears in the ten-minute black and white effort, looking like the perfect silent cinema villain who was born too late. Buck is also one of the on-screen actors, as “Pepe,” as are animators Harry Sabin and Darrell Van Citters and Frozen art director Michael Giaimo. All their vocals are dubbed, however, by animators Randy Cartwright, Brad Bird (doing Burton’s lines) and Rees, who is also the cameraman — in my favorite moment, you can see him in a mirror shot, so clearly it had to have been intentionally. Anyone else craving tacos after this one?

Watch in two parts, courtesy of Rees:


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