Since 1983, gamers have struggled valiantly to maneuver Dirk the Daring through a castle full of creepy crawlies in the classic arcade game Dragon’s Lair. If successfully rescuing Princess Daphne has seemed a nigh impossible task to even the most skilled player, the game’s creators are embarking on an even greater mission — creating a feature length prequel to Dragon’s Lair that will bring traditional hand-drawn animation back to the big screen. And from the looks of things, they just might manage it.
With hours left before the end of their Indiegogo campaign, animation veterans Don Bluth, 78, and Gary Goldman, 71, are in an understandably celebratory mood. “The words, ‘This is happening!’ have been bandied about this room here,” a delighted Bluth says from his office in Arizona.
“We’ll be doing a lot of smiling for the next 21 weeks,” Goldman chuckles, contemplating the road ahead with equal parts awe and anticipation.
Fans have ponied up more than $475,800 to help the duo create a “sizzle reel” and story treatment to get potential investors interested in backing Dragon’s Lair: The Movie, which Bluth estimates will cost $70 million. If it gets made, Lair will mark the duo’s first animated film since 2000’s sci-fi adventure Titan A.E., whose lackluster performance at the box office coupled with the industry-wide shift towards CGI saw Bluth and Goldman virtually retire from animation altogether. In October 2015, they turned to Kickstarter to generate some momentum for the long-dormant Lair feature, which fans have been inquiring about since the ‘70s.
“When we went the Kickstarter route, we really didn’t know much about what we were doing,” Bluth says, referencing the early closure of their initial campaign, which fell woefully short of its $550,000 goal. “What was wonderful is that Indiegogo actually called us up and said, ‘Guys, come over here — we’ll show you how this is done,’ because they knew we were making mistakes.”
The restructured campaign set a lower goal of $250,000, which it surpassed earlier this month. “It’s the same as our career making movies,” Bluth says. “You just jump in. You learn to swim by getting into the water.”
That kind of tenacity has served the duo well over the course of their decades in Hollywood. Bluth and Goldman began their careers at Walt Disney Studios, animating films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977) before growing frustrated with the increasingly corporate and creatively stagnant environment. Their decision to defect from the Mouse House and establish Don Bluth Productions in 1979 sent shockwaves through the industry and lead to the production of their first feature, 1982’s The Secret of NIMH. It’s lavish animation, darker tone, and emotional storyline proved them to be skilled filmmakers, but underwhelming box office receipts redirected their attention towards smaller projects.
Dragon’s Lair was the result of this shift. With its humorous hand-drawn hero and detailed environments, the game’s groundbreaking visuals and lighthearted tone made it a massive hit. It remains today one of only three video games housed at the Smithsonian Institute. “When you’re making a product, you don’t know whether it’s going to fly or just be a turkey, and when we were making Lair we had no idea it would be popular,” Bluth recalls. “It was just something to keep the crew busy while we were waiting for the next feature.”
They would go on to produce several in the years to follow — An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and Anastasia being their most successful — but thoughts of a big-screen adaptation of Lair lingered. Pitches were made to both Steven Spielberg and Bill Mechanic at 20th Century Fox, but as Bluth recalls, “No one took it seriously or did the research to find out if there was interest in the world to see such a movie. This crowdfunding experience is really telling us that there is. It says something when people are willing to part with their money.”
In spite of the support they’ve received in recent weeks, some have questioned why legends in the business would need to turn to crowdfunding at all, given the game’s continued success across some 70 platforms. “It made a lot of money in the sales of the arcade machines,” Goldman explains, “but the money that came from the quarters put in there belonged to the arcades themselves. We used the money that came in from Dragon’s Lair to do Space Ace and we used the money that came in from Space Ace to do Dragon’s Lair 2, and in the middle of that, our distributor went back into bankruptcy and left us standing there holding the bag and we didn’t get it done for four more years.”
Bluth also points out the importance of the cardinal rule of investing: “ ‘Never put your own money into showbiz!’ That’s the first and second rule of showbiz and I’ve learned from that old expression.”
Having now met their stretch goals to hire a writer for the development of their pitch, Bluth’s attention is focused on generating a compelling narrative and expanding on Dirk and Daphne’s infamously one-dimensional personalities. “I do feel a bit of pressure over how to imbue in these characters traits that make them interesting, while at the same time staying loyal to what the game was. I think that humor is the thing,” he says, remembering his days at Disney. “I’m going to go back to something that Walt said years and years ago, which was, ‘When we entertain on the big screen, we have to give audiences something about life that they’ve gone through — an exaggeration of it or a caricature of it, but something that they will recognize.’ So the story really has to touch the soul of the audience.”
While it’s a safe bet that fans of the game invested on Indiegogo to see their favorite characters up on the big screen, it’s equally likely that animation enthusiasts stepped up to the plate to help support a style of filmmaking that’s been abandoned by the major studios. “Maybe on a deeper level,” Bluth muses, “there’s interest to see if it’s possible to actually bring it back or have a renaissance of traditional animation, because right now there is a glut of computer animation. It’s everywhere and I think there’s room for both. I mean, when oil painting was all the rage and someone did a watercolor, no one said, ‘Well, we can only choose one!’ I think we need to remind people of what traditional animation looks like because it’s been a long time.”
Goldman has already been approached by a variety of colleagues excited to lend their talents to Lair. “There’s a ton of traditional animators in L.A. that did not cross over to CGI that are chomping at the bit to get involved. We’ve gotten emails from people saying ‘I’m here and I’m ready to work!’ and these are veterans who have worked at Disney and Dreamworks. There’s even animators in Florida and also people in Spain that worked with us, but we’d like to keep the production here in the United States. We live in Phoenix and we love to have them all in-house.”
So, as Indiegogo backers and fellow animators cheer them on, the duo once credited with revitalizing the animation world are hoping to do so again, some 35 years after they first made waves. The big question is whether or not investors and distributors believe a 2-D film will have mainstream appeal. “It could go either way, we know that,” Bluth concedes. “And yeah, it is going to be difficult, but you know what? At the same time, it’s a tingling kind of buzz that we’re feeling and I hope that spirit of fun translates up to the screen.”
The bottom line is, as he puts it, “I’m excited once again to pick up the pencil.”
The Dragon’s Lair: The Movie Indiegogo campaign can be found here.
More information about Don Bluth is available at his website.