Full Title: Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life
Author: Don Bluth
Publication Date: 2022
Publisher: Smart Pop Books
Pages: 374 pages
Hello again everyone, and a happy new year to you! I hope you enjoyed the holidays. To kick off 2023, I wanted to review one of last year’s most eagerly received new releases; the Don Bluth autobiography Somewhere Out There. With Anastasia being the only Don Bluth film to have ever had its own art book, there was a gap in the market for fans of his work who sought to learn more about the creation of his films (although some of his other books, like The Art of Storyboard, offered tantalising glimpses into the production process). Now that the animation visionary is north of eighty-five, this was the perfect time for him to look back and reflect on his tumultuous and game-changing career.
We open with an appropriately fairy tale-like prologue in which Bluth narrates his own conception as if he were a character in one of his own stories, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. His recollections throughout are often framed through an internal dialogue he has with his reflection in the mirror, providing a humorous insight into his thinking as he grows and matures. Some fans (including myself) may not be aware of how religious Bluth is, with his devout Mormon faith playing a major part in shaping his life and art – not to mention this book – but it was touching to see how his beliefs inspired him and kept him humble through the years.
The first of the book’s three main sections is “Act I: The Stage is Set”, which covers Bluth’s childhood from chapters one to nine. We hear tales of his time growing up on farms in Texas and Utah, milking cows and riding his horse to the movie theatre, all the while trying to reconcile his identity as an artist with the traditional expectations of being a man. Bluth recalls with warmth his first crushes, his blossoming passions for art and music, and his earliest experiences with animation – including the 1944 re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which first came out just a few months after he was born, and his first informal animation “lessons” with ex-Disney artist Wetzel Orson “Judge” Whitaker (1908-1985).
Late in his school years, Bluth and his family moved yet again, this time to the glamorous world of southern California, bringing him within reach of his animation dreams at last. There are some fabulous anecdotes, such as the time he received a biscuit from Betty Hutton as part of a scavenger hunt, and the day he appeared as a background extra in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) while it was being shot at his high school (nobody had yet heard of Hollywood newcomer James Dean). After graduating, Bluth made an initial attempt at higher education with a short stint at Brigham Young University (BYU) back in Utah, studying English there to please his parents. However, it wasn’t long before he dropped out to return to California, desperate to pursue his dream career at Disney. His first of three stays at the Mouse House began in 1955 when he was just 18; within six months, his talents had gotten him noticed and he quickly rose to the position of assistant animator under John Lounsbery, doing work on Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Given the high point at which we leave Bluth in the first act, “Act II: The Greatest Treasure a Man Can Acquire” begins in a rather surprising way. After only a year or so at Disney, Bluth’s church suggested that he undertake a Mormon mission, an offer which he eventually accepted, although not without a great deal of internal struggle. I must admit, as something of an atheist myself, I struggle to understand his motivations here; I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to walk away from his dream job, and it’s easy to question the necessity of it from an outside perspective. Still, Bluth’s mission to Argentina seems to have done him good, overall, broadening his horizons and igniting a new passion in him for stage direction (something he would return to much later in life).
The rest of this section covers Bluth’s interim years in the 1960s, during which he completed his studies at BYU and returned briefly to Disney for summer work on films such as The Sword in the Stone (1963), and his eventual full-time return to animation in the 1970s. In the late sixties, Bluth was hit by a double catastrophe when Walt Disney, a personal hero of his, passed away, followed shortly thereafter by the collapse of his relationship with Lounsbery’s daughter. The combination of these tragedies devastated Bluth (he apparently even toyed with the idea of suicide, before his brother brought him to his senses), but he soon pulled himself together and began to delve back into the world of animation. Unable to face Lounsbery at Disney just yet, Bluth instead took a job at Filmation, Inc., which paid well enough for him to provide for himself and his family. He even started a musical group around this time called the New Generation, needing something creatively stimulating outside of his day job.
However, the failure of Filmation’s Journey Back to Oz (1970) convinced Bluth that the time was ripe to return to Disney once more, where he began work under Frank Thomas in 1971. This would be Bluth’s longest period at the studio, working on films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), even getting a chance to direct the animation of Elliott in Pete’s Dragon (1977). At this point, though, directing was not yet his forte, so he resisted further calls to rise up the ranks. It was during this time that Bluth also met future collaborators and long-time friends Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, then both new hires at the studio.
Of course, as any follower of Bluth’s knows, this last run with Disney frustrated him, with executive meddling and cost-cutting in the post-Walt days hampering the studio’s creative output. After first declining the opportunity of directing The Fox and the Hound (1981), Bluth then made the infamous decision to leave Disney altogether – for the final time – on the day of his forty-second birthday in 1979. It had a far greater impact than his previous departures, not least because he took with him a large group of other young artists who shared his convictions, right in the middle of production on the aforementioned Fox and the Hound (which had to be delayed many months). The news sent shockwaves through the industry, making this one of the most fascinating parts of the whole book.
And so, at last, we come to “Act III: Windows of Heaven”, with these last fifteen chapters getting into the real meat of the thing – Don’s independent career. From the 1980s through to 2000, he created the many beloved classics we know him for today (along with the occasional misfire), which I’m sure is the main point of interest for many nostalgic fans like myself. In order, this section covers the making of The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), Rock-a-Doodle (1991), A Troll in Central Park (1994), Thumbelina (1994), The Pebble and the Penguin (1995), Anastasia (1997), Bartok the Magnificent (1999) and Titan A.E. (2000).
It’s a wonderful tale for animation fans, full of ups and downs, financial struggles and critical highs, featuring encounters with such luminaries as Carrie Fisher, Julie Andrews, Michael Jackson and, of course, Steven Spielberg. There’s the big move to Ireland with Morris Sullivan for the production of The Land Before Time (which had to be infamously recut to retain a family-friendly rating – and no, the uncut version officially does not exist), and the tragedy of Judith Barsi’s murder during production on All Dogs Go to Heaven, followed shortly afterwards by the sudden death of director Victor French, who had been collaborating with Bluth on Rock-a-Doodle.
I must say, Bluth is remarkably forgiving about some of his less-than-encouraging encounters with his heroes; there’s a particular moment in an Irish pub with Roy E. Disney which surprised and rather saddened me, but Bluth doesn’t seem to bear him any ill will, which I respect. Other moments – such as his struggles to direct a recalcitrant Burt Reynolds – are a riot, and some – such as his brief foray into live-action shooting on the set of Rock-a-Doodle – are downright frightening.
The tales of his financial difficulties in the nineties are told with honesty and even optimism, though it’s still painful reading for fans, especially as he recounts a lawsuit with his Belgian investors which threatened to sink his studio, or the butchering of The Pebble and the Penguin by its new distributors. Luckily, the intervention of Bill Mechanic of Fox allowed Bluth to end the decade on a high note, relocating once more to Arizona for the production of the hugely successful Anastasia (although by that point, they had to search the world for animators, as all the best local talent had been scooped up by either Disney or DreamWorks – something which actually pleased Bluth, as he watched the industry being revitalised).
After dashing off Bartok the Magnificent to keep the lights on (it was the only direct-to-video sequel to his works that Bluth was involved in), Bluth and Goldman then inherited the ill-fated Titan A.E. from Art Vitello, with minimal time or cash to turn it around. Before it was released, Mechanic was fired from Fox, and his successor – Peter Chernin – had no interest in the sci-fi adventure, leaving it high and dry. Fox then chose to nix the new studio entirely, favouring instead the new CGI upstart Blue Sky, so with the change in technology came the end of Bluth’s filmmaking career (at least to date).
With the days of traditional animation apparently at an end, Bluth returned to staging theatrical productions and even took up teaching his craft on the internet. He talks about the possibility (still as yet unrealised) of a live-action Dragon’s Lair film (based on his own popular 1980s arcade game), and in a lovely chapter towards the end, he recounts the nostalgic story of a return trip to Disney – nearly forty years after his dramatic departure – where he was met with respect and admiration from friends old and new. He also talks with joy about seeing the stage adaption of Anastasia and being touched throughout all these more recent experiences to see the powerful effect his work had on younger generations.
In his epilogue and acknowledgements, Bluth gets very religious again (Jesus is included among the thanks), but his passion and energy for life and art are truly inspiring regardless of faith, especially for a man in his eighties. It practically goes without saying, but if you’re at all a fan of classic animation, this is a must-have. It’s the best resource you’ll find to learn about the making of Bluth’s works, but more than that, he’s also a warm, engaging and often very funny writer, weaving his memories together with the skill of a born storyteller and making this an entertaining tale in its own right. You’ll definitely want to check it out if you can.
Thank you so much for reading, and here’s to a new year of animation – one in which hopefully, I will soon be returning to full-length film reviews after an embarrassingly long gap. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
Buy it on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Somewhere-Out-There-Animated-Life/dp/1637740530/ – UK
https://www.amazon.com/Somewhere-Out-There-Animated-Life/dp/1637740530/ – USA
5 Replies to “Book Review: Somewhere Out There”
It’s still on my TBR; I can’t wait to read it!
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I checked this out from the library recently — in fact, I finished it just before turning it in on its due date — and I must admit, I have a newfound respect for Bluth after learning about his career and his creative ideals straight from the horse’s mouth.
Mind you, as a proud Jew (with additional roots in Islam and Mazdayasna [I believe you’ve heard the latter called Zoroastrianism], which I am intent on connecting with), and as someone who believes that the concept of God only exists as a moral guide to mortals, I could have done without any reference to Christianity.
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It’s good to hear people still patronise libraries; I must admit I don’t go to mine very often, but they don’t have a wide enough selection for my tastes (and I already have far too many at home waiting to be read).
Yes, I’ve always wanted to hear more about his struggles as an independent creator, although I too could have done without the at times preachy tone.
One thing that helps for me is to search through a loaning service in which many different libraries participate, if the item I’m searching for is unavailable at any of my home city’s branches.
Do any of the libraries in Britain have something like that?