BANJO THE WOODPILE CATMedium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Don Bluth Productions
First Appeared: 1979
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Banjo the Woodpile Cat was merely a short cartoon, longer than the average one-reeler but lacking a substantial enough story to sustain a feature, even with a villain shoehorned into the plot at one point during its production. It wound up as a featurette, not enough to headline a theatre bill but about the right length to serve as a half-hour TV special. But it also served as the trial run that launched a major
new animation studio, which quickly made a name for itself with such features as An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven
Banjo had its origin in the desire of animator Don Bluth, who apparently had a bright future ahead of him at Disney, to better himself. In 1972, he and a few other Disney animators, decided to make a film on their own initiative, where they'd learn about more than animation. With it, they'd perform all the jobs in film production, right to the point of shipping the final product out the door.
For a story, Bluth drew on his experiences as a boy, growing up on a farm in Utah. A family of cats lived in their woodpile. One day, a kitten disappeared without explanation, as cats usually do when they go missing. A few weeks later, it was back. He and his brothers spun yarns about what it might have been doing. The story wound up an urban pet adventure, like 101 Dalmatians or The AristoCats. Sort of like Gay Purr-ee or Lady & the Tramp, only seamier.
Banjo was a kitten living in a woodpile on a farm in Utah. He decided to run away from home, fleeing his father's wrath after a dangerous experiment intended to prove (or disprove) what they say about cats always landing on their feet. An opportunity suddenly presented itself in the form of a truck about to leave for Salt Lake City, and next thing you knew, Banjo was wistfully watching the only home he'd ever known, receding in the distance.
At first, the bright lights of the city were all they promised to be. Banjo even tried beer. But a near miss in a massive traffic accident (which he'd caused) made him think home might not be so bad after all. That night, when rats chased him away from the shelter he sought in the rain, he was pretty sure of it. Later, as he shivered inside a tin can barely big enough to hold him, Crazy Legs entered his life.
Crazy Legs, who was right at home in the city, listened sympathetically to Banjo's plight. He suggested Banjo try to find the truck he came in on, but meanwhile, let's sample the city's night life.
They did, and Banjo barely managed to find and board the truck in time. But he did board it (tho it meant a tearful goodbye to Crazy and his other newfound friends), got home, and lived happily ever after. Proving, one again, as if the viewer hadn't seen the principle in action in The Wizard of Oz, (only tenuously related) that there's no place like home.
A nice little story, as far as it goes, but it lacked the element of real danger. Thinking Banjo might work as a feature, Bluth and company tried inserting a villain, tough guy Rocko (no relation). But Rocko worked better as a mere bully than a deadly menace. It was also suggested that as a TV special, it would benefit from being tied to a holiday, so an attempt was made to revamp it into a Christmas special, but that didn't work either. In the end, it was decided to finish Banjo as a featurette, and look for a stronger story, that could be geared to feature production from the beginning, as their next project.
The whole thing was a classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story, right down to being produced in Bluth's garage. It wasn't just the initial group who benefitted from the experience. Other animators, not just from Disney but from all over the industry would drop by to see, and many would ask to be put to work. Even the voices were mostly by people who hadn't worked in cartoons before.
Banjo's voice, for example, was Sparky Marcus, whose other voice roles, such Richie Rich in the show Richie shared with Scooby Doo, all came later. Some of those who did other characters never did get into voice work on a regular basis. The only exception was Crazy Legs, who was voiced by Scatman Crothers (Hong Kong Phooey).
They missed their first deadline, Christmas 1977, but had it ready for release as a half-hour featurette two years later. It ran Christmas Week, December 21-28, 1979, at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre, thus qualifying for an Oscar in 1980. But it wasn't until May 1, 1982, that it reached the full public in the form of an animated special on ABC, just two months before The Secret of NIMH, the new studio's first feature, was released.
Later in 1982, there was an attempt to market Banjo as a character in several children's books. Studio personnel also developed a daily newspaper strip about him, but it wasn't picked up by any syndicates. But irrespective of any commercial success the character may have, Banjo served as a valuable learning experience for its creators.