Don Bluth made animation history by leaving Disney. Looking back, he has no regrets

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Don Bluth first found his “laughing place” — a term he uses to refer to an intangible mental refuge from the drudgery of existence — in the films of his lifelong hero, Walt Disney.

Today an animation legend in his own hard-fought right, Bluth, 84, recalls riding his horse into town to watch movies at the local cinema as a farm boy in Payson, Utah. Born within just a few months of the premiere of Disney’s first animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, his life has run parallel to the history of the medium in the U.S.

“Animation brought my spirits up. Everything about it said, ‘That’s where you should go,’” Bluth told The Times over the phone from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he has lived and worked for several decades.

Led by charming mice, adorable dinosaurs, determined princesses and myriad other fantastical beings, Bluth’s collection of animated features rivaled the output of Walt Disney Studios during the 1980s and ‘90s in their artistic quality, all of them magnificently hand-drawn, and, even more significantly for Bluth, in their thematic substance.

Of the 11 feature projects he realized over 20 years of intense dedication — often working with limited budgets and against the grain of the industry — some of the most illustrious include “The Secret of NIMH” (1982), “An American Tail” (1986), “The Land Before Time” (1988), “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989) and “Anastasia” (1997).

For the animator raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these wondrous fables were the manifestation of his divine purpose meant to be shared with the world.

“I discovered over the years that the more you give, the more you get. When you’re in the service of people and you help them out, there’s a source of joy that comes from that,” he said. “If I was going to make an animated film, I didn’t want to just make people laugh. I wanted them to have something to take home that could make their lives a little better.”

Compiled of professional anecdotes and innermost thoughts, Bluth’s recently released, tell-all autobiography, “Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life,” opens the vault of his memories in his own uniquely philosophical words.

“I’ve had such a wonderful life and one day I just said to myself, ‘I should write down a few things,’ not with the idea of making a book, but just for my own enjoyment, just to write down everything that’s happened in my life,” he explained.

In time, a friend suggested he should turn the inspired loose writings into a memoir and Bluth thought of it as an opportunity to disclose the greater truths he believes in.

“For years and years, all I’ve talked about is animation, the characters, and all the usual questions I get asked, but I’ve never revealed who I am, like the man behind the curtain in ‘Wizard of Oz.’ So I said, ‘If at my age I’m going to talk to people, I need to tell them exactly what I feel and what I’ve gone through,’” he said. “That spiritual part has a great deal to do with what I did in the movies, but I’ve never fessed up to that before.”

For a young and reserved Bluth, Walt Disney was an archetype of masculinity he could aspire to. Not an athlete or a physically imposing figure, but an artist with a vision that resonated with him. At 18, Bluth was hired by Disney’s studio as an in-betweener — the artist who draws the middle frames in animation to make the action smoother — on the gorgeous princess saga “Sleeping Beauty.”

Bluth saw Disney in the flesh on two occasions during his time at the studio. First from afar while hiding behind some bushes with friends as his idol shot an episode of the “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

“It was like meeting Santa Claus for the first time, a very legendary image,” Bluth remembered.

And once more after embarrassingly running into him and falling to the ground during a volleyball game. This time Disney spoke to him.

“I looked up and it was like the sun was behind him and I didn’t know who I bumped into, but then I heard his voice and he said, ‘If you will slow down young man, you’ll go a lot further.’ He stepped over me and walked on down the street.”

Despite his profound admiration for Disney’s storytelling prowess, Bluth never aimed to imitate him. “Everyone kept saying, ‘I’m going to be the next Walt Disney,’” he recalled of some of his colleagues. But he was convinced that if their motivation was strictly financial, and not guided by a strong work ethic and spirituality, they would fail.

“I didn’t want to be Walt. There was only one of those, and I’m me. I liked the medium that he worked in and I wanted to see if I could work in it and be successful,” Bluth said.

For 20 years, Bluth worked on a variety of Disney projects, including “The Sword in the Stone,” “Robin Hood,” “The Rescuers” and “Pete’s Dragon,” on the latter as the animation director for Elliott the dragon.

But in 1979, Bluth and several other animators solemnly decided to abandon the studio. Given the direction the operation was taking after its creator’s death in 1966, according to Bluth, they saw no other way to keep the art of animation alive and thriving. At the time the company was working on one of its biggest disappointments, “The Black Cauldron.”

“Someone asked me one time, ‘Why did you leave Walt Disney Studios?’ And I said, ‘Because Walt left Walt Disney Studios.’ I began to see that the magic he had created was crumbling. It became a corporation with lots of stockholders,” Bluth said. “I read that Walt said once, ‘The worst thing I ever did was go public.’ Suddenly you don’t have autonomy anymore. You’re beholden to the stockholders who really only want profits.”

On their own now, Bluth and about 17 others — including his most loyal collaborator, Gary Goldman, with whom he co-directed many of his features — taught themselves how to put a film together. They were animators learning to become storytellers and filmmakers. Their initial efforts to push animation forward, which had started in Bluth’s garage before their formal resignation from Disney, resulted in the short film “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.”

That calling card earned them the resources to make “The Secret of NIMH.” Bluth’s first animated feature as director was adapted from the book “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” under a newly formed studio, Don Bluth Productions — which changed names multiple times over the years.

“The cost to make ‘The Secret of NIMH’ hand-drawn was $6.5 million,” he said. “Not $150 million, not $300 million like today.”

Released during the emblematic summer of 1982, when “E.T. the Extra‑Terrestrial,” “Tron” and “Blade Runner” also debuted, “The Secret of NIMH” followed the desperate plight of a mother, Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman), to save her children from imminent death. She enlists the help from rats who were subjects of scientific testing.

“Those rats became intelligent, and with intelligence comes moral values,” Bluth said. “You can’t just go on being immoral if you’ve got intelligence in your head, there’s no wisdom in that. It seemed like a delightful story, and there’s a lot of conflict in it.”

With mature themes and impeccable craft, the film received critical praise, but underperformed at the box office. More than a decade later a follow-up to the same narrative was produced without Bluth’s involvement.

“What I really lament is that I would love to have done the sequel to ‘NIMH,’ but they said, ‘No, it’s ours now. We’ll do it.’ And it was not very good,” Bluth added.