Director: Don Bluth
Produced by Don Bluth (producer) and Ron Miller (executive producer)
In this simple, sweet story, an unnamed Judean boy has the unfortunate task of having to sell his best friend, a playful but petite donkey named Small One. All the boy needs is to find someone willing to part with a lone piece of silver, but locating someone both wanting and worthy of the donkey proves to be a challenge. First, he encounters a dark man who is interested only in the creature’s hide, then an odd trio of shysters making marketplace deals left and right who are little help, and finally a “jolly” auctioneer who ridicules the boy and makes a spectacle out of the donkey. Saddened and low, the boy and Small One are approached by a friendly bearded man looking for a donkey to help his wife get to Bethlehem. The deal seems to please all parties: Small One gets a chance to prove his strength in a most important way, the boy can rest easy that his pal will have a nice home, and the traveling couple will be able to get to Bethlehem. Even if the ending is somewhat subtle, I’m sure you can guess why Small One and his new owners are following the bright star in the sky and it is a most satisfying conclusion to a cartoon filled with heart.
The Small One marked the directorial debut of Don Bluth, who had spent the preceding years animating characters on Disney films like Robin Hood, The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon. The short was released nine days before Christmas in 1978, attached to a reissue of Pinocchio. It would prove to be Bluth’s last Disney credit, as he left the studio in grand fashion nine months later, joined by eleven others in the same week. Since exiting Disney, Bluth has helmed a number of animated films, beginning at a time when studios not named Disney generally didn’t animate for theaters. He has given us such sequel spawning productions as An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, as well as, more recently for Fox, Anastasia and the CGI-heavy flop, Titan A.E.
This featurette is distinguished among the Disney canon not just because of the paucity of films of this length, but also because of its surprising religious theme. Truth be told, it hardly feels like a Christmas short until its closing minutes, but introducing this element impacts all that came before it and underscores the strong Christian nature of the film’s message. The short was adapted from a children’s book by Charles Tazewell (who did not live to see it made) and it is handled sensibly and effectively. Though some may fault it for being saccharine, I would wholly disagree. Compared to the typical glitzy Christmas specials of today, there’s a pleasant low-key mood present here, which is apparent from the tender melancholy of its opening and closing song. In that regard and in the fact that Small One acknowledges the true meaning of Christmas goes beyond thinking of others and being nice, the cartoon is reminiscent of A Charlie Brown Christmas. That’s no small praise, as I consider the Peanuts’ debut TV special perhaps the finest 25 minutes of animation ever produced. While I can’t quite say the same about Small One after just one viewing, it is definitely a compelling cartoon I intend to revisit often. Running time: 25:25 –by Luke Bonanno at UltimateDisney.com/DVDizzy.com
The Small One premiered before a 1978 theatrical re-release of Pinocchio, and it was the last involvement Don Bluth (above) had with the Disney company before creating his own studio, followed by the successful releases of An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven and Anastasia.
Characters voiced by: Sean Marshall (Boy); William Woodson (Tanner); Olan Soule (Father); Hal Smith (Auctioneer); Joe Higgins (Guard); Gordon Jump (Joseph).
Songs: “Small One,” music and lyrics by Don Bluth; “A Friendly Face,” music and lyrics by Richard Rich, performed by Sean Marshall (voice of Boy); “The Merchant’s Song,” music and lyrics by Don Bluth. Original music by Robert F. Brunner.
Selected Short: ‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ (1932)
‘it suggests on what shaky footing even the closest of relationships can find itself under economic duress and the convenient rationalization of charity’
A great American film of the Great Depression, producer Walt Disney’s Mickey’s Good Deed is both heartrending and sharply satirical. Mickey Mouse and faithful dog Pluto are homeless at Christmastime; while Pluto pathetically moans on cue, Mickey plays “O Come O Ye Faithful” on his bass fiddle as seasonally compassionate passers-by drop coins into his cup. At last Mickey and Pluto can have something to eat; but as they approach a restaurant, Mickey discovers that only nuts and bolts have been deposited into his cup—a ruse that allowed people to “give” without sacrifice. They merely played at having the Christmas spirit, and meanwhile Mickey and Pluto may starve to death.
By contrast, Mickey makes a real sacrifice, selling Pluto to a family of rich pigs (perfect!), hoping that Pluto at least will be well taken care of. (Pluto instead is abused by the spoiled little pig who had wanted him—and part of the abuse is sexually sadistic. Pluto is summarily kicked back out into the snow.) Mickey uses the money to play Santa, bringing toys to an immense family of kittens whose mother Mickey earlier glimpsed, through the window of her shack, crying at kitchen table. In an incredible image, Santa/Mickey, leaving, peers again through the window; the simulated long-shot shows the innumerable kittens each at play with a toy. The intricacy of activity suggests Heironymus Bosch.
Mickey has money left over to eat outdoors, his companion a snow figure of Pluto; but the real Pluto replaces the fake, filling the hole in Mickey’s heart.
In its fantastical and simplified way, Mickey’s Good Deed recalls Chaplin’s City Lights (1931)—and suggests on what shaky footing even the closest of relationships can find itself under economic duress and the convenient rationalization of charity.