When Disney is your competition, you can stay an underdog no matter how successful you get. Don Bluth, the animator and filmmaker behind movies like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time, has seen his relationship with the House of Mouse go through a journey worthy of his on-screen heroes. A childhood spent in admiration, a youthful stint in its trenches, a journeyman’s alienation from its changing values, a master’s confident competition, a legend’s scabbed-over acceptance of defeat. In defining himself in relation to Walt Disney and his company, Bluth was and remains the ultimate David. In the face of such a corporate Goliath, it’s impossible not to be.
Bluth’s hardline stance on traditional hand-drawn animation only solidified his position as an industry oddity. Rare are Hollywood icons so artistically principled that they’d rather fail than change. Those values made Bluth into a martyr, a cult figure fighting the good fight with a fanbase fueled by nostalgia and respect. His new memoir, Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life, draws parallels between the faith-driven, uncompromising filmmaker and the entertainment industry at large with an uneven mix of personal detail and professional curtain-peeling—and refrains from putting him on the cross.
A devout Mormon, Bluth is noticeably hesitant to open up about his faith, even at 84. Perhaps there’s still a sense of shame surrounding his decision to leave Disney’s bullpen as a teenager in order to go on a missionary trip to Argentina. Perhaps there’s a deeper intimacy he feels protective of after a life unwittingly spent in the spotlight. Using both his faith and a “talking to my reflection” device to frame his inner fluctuations of pride and self-doubt, Bluth finally connects the dots between his deep religious roots, his art and his storytelling.
Of course his animal heroes reunite with family and with promised lands. Of course his tales favor the kind of clear-cut morality of fables and parables. It doesn’t absolve his movies of critiques that they can be derivative or overly simple, but it does explain why he might find that approach appealing beyond its formal familiarity. As Bluth constantly reminds us, he doesn’t take his faith lightly—be that praying at the altar of hand-drawn animation, or of the Latter-day Saints. He repeats the point so often and directly that it seems clear that he’s quietly needed to do the same to a secular Hollywood set for six decades. This self-deprecating seriousness reflects a sentiment running through his life.
Bluth went his whole career chasing the world-changing power wielded by Walt Disney. But coming in during the Golden Age of Animation’s decline left him adrift; he was weaned on and trained for traditional animation, finding his professional stride just as Disney died of lung cancer and the company began cutting corners. After working on films spanning Sleeping Beauty and The Fox and the Hound (with the aforementioned gap for proselytizing and earning his college degree), he saw the Nine Old Men losing power and their teachings losing sway over the next generation. He left Disney to strike out on his own because of a stubbornness backed up by faith—a dogmatic devotion to an art style and the (perhaps unfounded) belief that if they just stuck with it, they could brute-force their way out of the animation dark ages.
Somewhere Out There spit-shines the relatively nasty story of Bluth’s exit from Disney—the animator poached enough Disney employees for his new endeavor to delay Fox and the Hound for a year; then-CEO Ron W. Miller called him a “cancer”—with his squeaky-clean voice. It’s no coincidence that one of the book’s warmest anecdotes involves a teen Bluth overhearing Walt Disney screwing up a live-action segment (“Damn! Son of a bitch. I can’t remember the fucking lines.”). “If Walt could swear, so could I,” Bluth writes. It’s endearing and sweet, but indicative of elements that keep Bluth from being a compelling literary force: An idolatrous love for Disney the man, and a Flanderized style sucking the drama out of the juiciest insider gossip. When Michael Jackson calls, frequently, at 2 AM, Bluth finds the most tepid, non-committal way to discuss the controversial and deeply strange King of Pop. When Steven Spielberg considers poaching Bluth’s employees after The Land Before Time, Bluth barely comments on the betrayal.
These frustrations are mirrored by the simplicity of the memoir’s early sections (farm life and first kisses) and the repetitiveness of its meatier segments (the same stories of struggle, pride, failure and positive thinking). With unconcealed workaholism, Bluth barrels through his feature films and videogames like a man racing towards a final act that’s yet to come. We no longer hear of the crushes, the near-engagement to his mentor John Lounsbery’s daughter. What little personal insight remains is plastered over with drawings and complaints, personal pleas to his readership to support his form against the onslaught of Pixar, Dreamworks and the overwhelming power of CGI. Bluth’s last feature was 2000’s Titan A.E. Running a small theater in a Scottsdale strip mall might be personally fulfilling, but robs an industry of his abilities. But it doesn’t seem to want them, and it probably doesn’t deserve them.
Bluth’s case is not unsympathetic, but it is deeply depressing. One of animation’s old guard is stuck crowdfunding, a shining example of an entertainment industry’s disinterest in institutional knowledge and expertise. Like stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, Bluth has his devotees, but Hollywood moves ever forward. That’s where profit lies: Over the next horizon line, with the next social media star. Only critics, historians and craftsmanship diehards look back for anything other than IP to mine. Bluth has solidified his legacy with those groups, not as a Disney-like figure, but as an artist whose legacy stands opposed to Disney: A principled figure who loved his work more than his industry, with more interest in creating than thriving. His memoir may be a simple and bittersweet one, but it reveals a clear heart and a rigorous faith, in art and in those that love it.
Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life is out now.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.