Dec. 11 – The Small One

Originally Premiered: December 15th, 1978

A boy and his donkey have difficulty parting ways…


The Small One premiered before a 1978 theatrical re-release of Pinocchio, and it was the last involvement Don Bluth 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.


I have no idea where Don Bluth and Disney got the balls to do this thing, given that there was already a well established Donkey-based Xmas fable out there. With a supremely similar ending no less.

Bluth is credited with a bit of the music too

But you know what? Thank God they did! This little gem is one of the most beautifully animated things I’ve ever come across in my third go ’round of writing up annual Christmas Specials. Plus, the look, characters, and music are all far closer to that “Ol’ Disney Spirit” than any of their feature films that came out around the same time.

Click to enlarge panorama

Even though not a whole helluva lot happens in the beginning, it’s an absolutely awe-inspiring sight to witness. And yes, this is coming from an arelegious heathen.

Time to wake up, Smally

I saw this for the first time at my most cynical point, possibly the world’s most cynical point, somewhere between puberty and the ages of grunge music. I hate imagining myself back then, but I remember catching The Small One on a free preview of the Disney Channel (back when it cost money and played classic stuff well worth paying for.)


I remember remarking to my then girlfriend (Hi, Meghan!) about how beautiful it was, how much it took me by surprised, how much it defied everything I thought I hated about religion, musicals, and family entertainment. And she was like “Duh! You’ve never seen that before?!” No… no I hadn’t. And because of you – who shall remain nameless in this sentence! – I wrongfully assumed I’d see it every year.

Establishing a playful relationship

Which I most certainly have not! I’ve never seen The Small One again unless I’ve deliberately sought it out for myself. I don’t care if that is due to the acknowledgment of the Jebus, Gawd, or “Teh Bibble” – that’s a fucking travesty!

Expect to tear up a bit

Come to think of it, The Small One is all about tragedy. Part of that’s due to this being Don Bluth’s final production for the Disney company. He clearly gets it. He wrote the music for chrissake! And he went on to make great shit on his own, don’t get me wrong. It’s just… the fact that he was made to want to leave the company, whose former essence he sincerely embodied and understood, and that this cartoon has now all but disappeared just brings a tear to my fucking eye.

The way Pixar’s regarded for effortlessly dragging emotions out of you? The one’s you thought you no longer had? That’s all at play in The Small One. Here you have a boy whose best friend in the whole world is a little runt of an ass. Or a smaller than normal Donkey. The boy (credited as “Boy” before you bitch at me!) takes special care of Small One (also his name – SHUT UP!)

Click to enlarge panorama

The 25 minute short takes its time and not a lot happens in the first half, but it does a phenomenal, exquisitely-crafted job of humanizing a feeble animal, and his blood-bound relationship to the boy.

“You know he eats as much as the other donkeys, right?”

They play together, they work together. The boy even compensates for the load bearing mule’s shortcomings by picking up after him, scooting him along, etc.

“Chill, pops! We got this!”

One day his father has had enough. Small One is clearly getting old. With his son pulling the lion’s share of the donkey’s weight, coupled with the fact that Small One eats the same share as burrow’s twice his size, this broke ass peasant has no other choice but to sell the lovable runt.

Making the tough call

The boy begs. The boy pleads. The boy cries. The donkey cries! To no avail. It’s a simple matter of putting food on the dirt (I didn’t see a table.)

Good God… *sniff*

To make things even more of a bummer, the boy agrees reluctantly, so long as he can take Small One to market and do the selling, in order to find his friend a new home. Or perhaps pocket a bit of the dividends. Sorry, I shouldn’t project.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East

We find the “Bethlehemy” (I’m avoiding spoilers) market riddled with horrible adults. At the entrance, the boy asks a Roman soldier where he can sell his beloved donkey, to which he dutifully complies. Unfortunately, the Roman soldier looks like this.

“Hello, I’m a terrible person”

And he sends him here.

Where no one but “a tanner” works…

Hint: He works with a knife…

And in case you were born sometime after Jesus H. Christ, here’s what a tanner does.

OMG – he’s a LEATHER DADDY! (Click to Enlarge)

What follows is a parade of the worst adults you’ve ever seen. All refusing to pay a fair price for Small One, or leading the boy into a humiliating situation. You’ve got the greedy bankers. Which you could point out as Jewish stereotype…

Just try and remember this guy also made American Tail

And a barritone voiced chap, who sounds a helluva lot like an uncredited Thurl Ravensoft, voice of Tony the “GRRRREAT” Tiger and the singer behind How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (Because it is, just trust me)

“Your donkey’s a three-decker sauerkraut sandwich…”

Which all leads to a horrible auctioneer…

“I’ll give you one silver piece just to publicly abuse him”

Who takes it upon himself to embarrass the young boy in front of all, then abuse the hell out of the aged Small One. That’s just poor business sense when your gig is fetching the highest bidder for livestock, man!

Welling up…

The boy and Small One run off broke, humiliated and terrified figuring their best option right now is just to curl up in the fetal position until they’re both dead. Fortunate for them, somebody kind shows up.

Okay, I’m full bore sobbing now

I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but this nice fella is the guy whose wife cheated on him with God.

Joesph Christ

Not only does he agree to pay the asking price for Small One, and even admits he’s worth more. Joe, lets call him, sees the potential beyond Small One’s size and age, and vows to take good care of him.

Goodbye forever

Besides, Joe’s got a pregant wife in desperate need of a Bethelem barn.

Again, I’n not a Christian and this is wholly affecting

Maybe “barn” is the wrong word. Would you prefer manger?


Are you kidding? The title of the special is basically the name of Christ’s car! Can you read between the lines?! Literally, I mean. In addition to cutting out a couple “cheat ’em to the bank” lines sung by the arguably Antisemitic money grubber trio, The Small One also had a couple of lines of light added to that abundantly clear cross at the end since its 1978 premiere.

Zip. Kringle wasn’t even alive yet!

Wonderful, heartbreaking, gorgeous. I cannot recommend The Small One enough. Ignore the religious aspects, and if you’re that much of an ardent atheist, just consider the ending an overlap into a famous point in history. Or a fable. This practically lost-to-time Don Bluth special is as warm as a roaring Christmas fire, and probably the most representative piece of “Disney Magic” we’ve ever covered on A Cartoon Christmas. Pick it up soon before Disney completely disavows its existence.

The Small One is easy to come by for now, via the Disney Animation Collection Vol. 7: Mickey’s Christmas Carol, although I imagine that’s going to go out-of-print very soon. You’d be wise to pick it up ASAP, as you can see by everything else related to the Christian Donkey fable.

7 thoughts on “Dec. 11 – The Small One

  1. Ho goodness… This looks like it’s gonna be a helluva lot of Christmas magic. Thanks Chris! You always take the cynicism right out of me with pieces like this. Merry Christmas, you sappy old wop. Don’t ever change.

  2. Wow. I haven’t seen this, but between the description, screencaps, and my experience with Bluth, I feel like I have a pretty good sense of this piece’s tone. As a strict materialist it is even refreshing to see Christian concepts treated both directly and lightly. I prefer a little more ‘tree and santa’ in my xmas fair, but I really enjoyed this entry.

  3. I was also emotionally affected by the end to this, even though we live in times where everyone and everything is jaded and ironically detatched and there’s no reason in sight to be otherwise.

    This also kickstarts Don Bluth’s history of having protagonists earning the **** out of their happy endings after enduring horrors no human or animal should ever go through. We’ll see that again with Ms. Brisby, Fievel and Littlefoot.

  4. Watching Small One as a child is one of my best memories of Christmas. If I’m remembering correctly I believe my parents bought the vhs for me and I watched and treasured it for years after that year. Over the years I had somehow managed to forget this beautiful gem and that is why I’m so glad that you wrote this article on it to remind me of what I had forgotten. Thanks, Chris! Yes, Kevin, long live Don Bluth indeed.

  5. i cried, watching this, because i know what it feels like to be that close to an animal, and have to part with “said’ animal. i had a soulmate who was an animal. that ate with me, slept beside my face, licked my tears. you are right, this is true disney’s magic, before pixar and other computer animated crap came out!!!!!!! i purchased this immediatly after watching it online somewhere. love and peace for sharing. xoxoxox

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