The films of Don Bluth have been a much more reliable source of franchise than I would have ever imagined. The Secret of NIMH got a sequel, though it took 16 years; An American Tail got three sequels, one of which played theaters; All Dogs Go to Heaven, despite being wildly perceived as a failure, had a theatrical sequel, a TV series, and a feature-length finale for that series; The Land Before Time, infamously, got 13 sequels by the time they stopped, more than 27 years after the original was in theaters, assuming they have stopped (meanwhile, I still can't get anyone to listen to my pitch for Rock-a-Two-dle). But only once did Bluth actually have anything to do with the production of one of the things himself, and it is a sad sign indeed that the man who once had lambasted Disney for losing its way should be compelled to make his own version of the worst thing that ever happened to Disney, the direct-to-video franchise extender.

The film in question is Bartok the Magnificent, released in 1999, and widely understood to be a make-work project to keep Fox Animation running before production started on Titan A.E. It's nominally a prequel to his first Fox film, 1997's Anastasia, though I'd argue that thinking of it in those terms makes Bartok even harder to enjoy than it would be on its own. It is a bad piece of storytelling no matter what, but it is out-and-out deranged as anything resembling a precursor to that film. That being said, it's easy enough to keep the two projects separate. The only point of contact between them is Bartok himself, the small white bat with voice like a Borscht Belt comedian, provided by Hank Azaria. When last we saw him, it was 1926, and he was the reluctant minion of an evil wizard, who eventually turned... not "good", since he never actually does anything positive to help the protagonists of Anastasia, but he at least decides that being evil in unappealing. This is enough for the Bartok the Magnificent VHS and DVD covers to refer to him as a "hero".

Now... well, that's just damned hard to say. When, exactly, is "now"? The data the film gives us is that the Romanov family has come to power as rulers of Russia, using the title Tsar, though the situation the film describes seem to indicate that we're still in the period of the Grand Duchy of Moscow rather than the Tsardom of Russia. And that would, by itself, rule out the Romanovs. Meanwhile the current ruler is the adolescent Ivan, still reigning with a regent, which simply never happened at all; there is no possibility that the character in the film is any historical Ivan Romanov. We can squint very hard and imagine that he is Ivan V, which would put this in the last quarter of the 17th Century; we could also suppose that he's meant to be Ivan III ("The Great") or Ivan IV ("The Terrible"), both of whom were Rurikids rather than Romanovs; this puts the film not later than the middle of the 16th Century. It is also possible that Bluth and co-director Gary Goldman, and writer Jay Lacopo, simply didn't care and knew their target audience didn't know, and picked "Ivan" because it sounds sufficiently Russian. Either way, the setting is visibly at least 200 years before the Russian Revolution, which makes Bartok impossibly old, assuming he's meant to be the same Bartok. Given that this Bartok isn't the familiar of a demonic warlock, but instead travels from city to city putting on shows, it actually makes things easier if we don't make that assumption.

The show in question is a little song-and-dance number in which Bartok declares himself "Bartok the Magnificent", on account of all the monsters he's slayed. And as the climax, he subdues a slavering bear that has started threatening townsfolk. The bear, obviously, is Bartok's accomplice, named Zozi (Kelsey Grammer, returning from Anastasia as a different character), and it's honestly hard to tell from the way the musical number unfolds if the audience knows this or not. I mean, given that they accept as being thoroughly beneath comment that a talking bat has a traveling musical show, it's not clear what they're willing to believe.

Anyway, one of the audience members is Prince Tsar Ivan (Phillip Van Dyke), who throws a valuable ring into Bartok's hat, thoroughly enraging the regent, Ludmilla (Catherine O'Hara). Based on their subsequent conversation, one would imagine this is because the ring has some special importance, but this never turns out to be the case. It's just a way of confirming that Ludmilla is unpleasant, as though her relentlessly angular design, purple color scheme, and O'Hara's snarling performance didn't let us in on that particular secret. The very same night, Ivan is kidnapped, with the only piece of evidence pointing to the witch Baba Yaga (Andrea Martin, also an Anastasia vet with a much larger role this time); seeing an opportunity to rid herself of this turbulent bat, Ludmilla arranges to send Bartok on a quest to find the prince.

Thus far, Bartok the Magnificent has been fairly dumb, but essentially fine. It immediately ceases to be once Bartok and Zozi arrive at the witch's lair; Baba Yaga is happy to let Bartok have the prince, but first he has to go on a series of repetitive missions to find rare magical items, in sequences that largely consist of one comic setpiece. Now, including end credits, Bartok the Magnificent ends up clocking in at just 68 minutes - thank God for that! But it leaves precious little time to have an opening and closing sequence in Moscow plus a three-part fetch quest, and the obvious reveal that Ludmilla is a super-secret villain in a conflict that needs to be revved up from a standstill well after the film's halfway mark. Not to mention that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have provided five songs that have to be fitted in there, somewhere (in the end, four of them appear in the film's third - two of them within the first five minute!). Given Bluth's historical inability to manage narrative flow, it's hardly surprising he's not the man for the job, and Bartok ends up feeling less like a story than a collection of story ideas, loosely assembled into a feature-like shape.

The film tries to sell this by pitching everything as a flighty, goofy comedy, with Azaria's oddball accent taking us so far outside of the realm of any sincere reality that we accept that we're just here to enjoy the silliness. And I suppose that's enough, if you do enjoy the silliness. I found that Bartok was to be tolerated more than enjoyed in Anastasia, and making his comic stylings the focus of their own movie leads to more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There's not much to compensate for it, either: the songs are thin and unmemorable, and while the performances are admirably energetic - the film has a well-stocked cast, also including Jennifer Tilly and Tim Curry - they're not really funny, other than Martin.

The real tragedy is that it's so uninteresting to look at. Anastasia was, after all, arguably Bluth's most polished and elaborate animated feature - not as atmospherically moody as The Secret of NIMH or The Land Before Time, but richer in its coloring, vaster in its scope and ambition to create a space and inhabit it. And the impending Titan A.E. was, if nothing else, a tour de force of pushing the 2-D/3-D hybrid form as far as it dare go in 2000. Fox was willing to throw some money at Bluth and Goldman, that is to say; but Bartok the Magnificent was a direct-to-video film, when all is said and done. And it is very obvious where the budget was saved. Rather than doing the whole thing at a single level, the filmmakers indulged in a few extremely involved CGI-sweetened objects and spaces, and a few more places where certain characters (especially Bartok and Ivan) had more involved shading techniques and fuller volume. This means that we very often have relatively smooth, beautiful animation with lush colors occupying the same frame as cheap, crude scribbling; we also often have crowd scenes of about a quarter of the people moving and the rest standing rock-still. The gulf in quality between Ivan and Ludmilla is particularly stark; in not one shot do they appear to exist in the same aesthetic universe, or even just the same lighting conditions.

The film that emerges from this is a showcase for both the best and the worst of what Bluth and Goldman's animators were up to, generally simultaneously (maybe not "the worst"; the budget means almost no time for secondary actions to be animated, which means that for the first time in his career, a Bluth-directed film is almost entirely free of distracting, busy movement that makes all of the characters look like they're on a caffeine binge). This is, to be sure, enough to recommend it over most DTV animation of that unholy era; the fact that it has any highs at all is something that even most of the Disney sequels can't claim. But even at his best, Bluth tended to use beautiful animation to paper over the problems with his storytelling, and this has some extra-bad story problems to overcome. To be clear, all of this means that Bartok the Magnificent is still the second-best Bluth film of the '90s, but that's not a great thing to be second-best at.