Christmas Review Part I - The Small One
Ah, Don Bluth. One of the most daring animators of our time, he was a former animator at Disney before leaving to start his own animation studio. Since then, he has created some unique, but nowadays underrated, animated films that were a different pack compared to what we’re accustomed to from Disney. His most popular films include An American Tail, The Land Before Time (the first one), The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and the animated Anastasia.
When he still worked for Disney, he worked on one of his first animated projects: a half hour featurette that carried the Disney charm as well as some of the realism and emotion we would have eventually identified in his later films. It is simply called The Small One.
First released in Christmas 1978 with the re-release of Pinocchio, the story is about a young boy in Israel (who was unnamed, by the way) who ventured out into town in search of someone who would purchase his donkey friend, who, of course, was named The Small One. Now, the first time you would hear about him, would you have thought that he’s named that way because he was young or a midget, especially compared to the other donkeys that the boy and his father looked over? Quite the opposite, actually. The Small One was really just old, weak, and barely managed to do any of the work that the other donkeys did so well. That was also the reason the boy wanted to sell him in the first place: his father asked him to do so because of his age and condition, which really hits you hard when you realize just how close the boy and The Small One really were. The boy, despite his misgivings and protests, decided to go ahead with it, anyway, because he knew and assured The Small One that, somewhere out there, there would’ve been someone who would take him in and care for him.
The next day, they both went out into town in search of the perfect customer who would take The Small One in. In doing so, however, they encountered a few bumps in the road. This included running into a person who, while showing interest in buying him, turned out to be a tanner, a trio of arrogant men who had sneaky motives on how to secure things for themselves, and an auctioneer who scoffed at the idea at buying The Small One and mistreated him and the boy. It got to a point where in the end, there was no one in town to buy The Small One, and all hope seemed lost for the two of them.
That is, until one kind man approached them and agreed to buy The Small One from the boy. And who was that man?
That’s right, Saint Joseph was the guy who approached them about the Small One. And so, after a bittersweet goodbye between the boy and The Small One, they parted ways as the boy went on home and The Small One rode off into Bethlehem carrying Mary, pregnant with the Lord, Jesus Christ, on his back.
As you can tell, what you would see in this featurette isn’t the kind of animated filmmaking you’d expect from Disney. While it did have its lighter moments, it wasn’t afraid to veer into uncompromising and/or mature territory. Let’s face it: the story was about a boy trying to find success in selling his best friend off, albeit begrudgingly. That’s something you don’t hear every day. Also, like I pointed out, this featurette tied into the story of the Nativity. I don’t know if this is true of most family films, but I think they’re pretty sensitive about portraying explicit religious themes, probably because they didn't want to alienate some of its audiences.
Ultimately, however, these are the qualities that I admire about the Small One. The uncompromising and mature elements of this featurette demonstrated for us that what went on in the story, religious or not, were all just parts of life. Also, because The Small One was old, he and the boy carried the featurette through by showing how important it is to acknowledge what’s best for each other. Their strong friendship and their determination to at least get the job done demonstrated it perfectly for both children and adults alike. And, frankly, I’m all for family films showing religious ties. It would teach other people who may not share the same religion as what the film shows about that religion, and it could amount to something of an educational experience for them.
But now, for a brief moment, let’s talk about the lighter elements of the featurette. The boy and The Small One did go into a couple comedic hijinks of their own, while a good remaining portion of it was taken up by the obnoxious trio who constantly showed them up. And yes, they occasionally were funny in expressing how sneaky they could’ve been, as they themselves summed up with these lyrics:
We never, never fail when we go to make a sale,
we...simply cheat a little if we must.
Of course, while I’m still on the subject, I should also point out that on the DVD releases of the featurette, the lyrics were changed so that the trio would instead have sung:
We never, never fail when we go to make a sale,
we...work a little harder if we must.
Normally, I would've taken umbridge with this kind of censorship, but the more I thought about it, I felt more torn about it. I mean, the latter lyrics just implied that they were merely showoffs whereas the original lyrics did emphasize the deception of the trio's antics. From what I've read, of course, the edit went through probably because Disney was fearful it would've portrayed Jews, which the three men were, in a negative light. Part of me thinks that's understandable, but the other part of me still feels like this was pointless. And, to be clear, I doubt it's pointless in how watered down it was as much as it is pointless in how little difference it made. When you look closely at how the men were animated and how they expressed themselves, we would've still caught on that they were up to no good compared to the boy and The Small One. So, in a sense, it made the censor also feel harmless and not inflict much hindrance onto the story (unlike other forms of censorship I know of).
In fact, that's something I should also mention about the featurette: the animation. I love just how crisp and smooth it all was, and how it carried a sense of fluidity that emphasized the actions of the characters. The backgrounds were also nicely colored, as they emphasized the right mood and tone of each environment explored throughout the featurette.
I don't know what more I can say about The Small One. It's just a terrific, strong, and underrated Christmas special, and I find it a shame that it didn't get so much as an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film, because this would've really deserved it. If you're like me and you share my tastes in the whimsy of Disney, the emotions and ventures of Don Bluth, and the inspirational atmosphere of the Biblical stories, then please, check this out, especially at Christmas time. This is the kind of entertainment that I think families would get a kick out of more than they would think.