Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1986)

2. An American Tail

“The Secret of NIMH” won Don Bluth critical recognition and a devoted fan base. Due to the costly nature of the animation and the film’s limited theatrical release, it didn’t make much money. Following the film, Don Bluth Productions actually filed for bankruptcy. The company would bounce back, by co-creating the cult classic video games “Dragon’s Lair” and “Space Ace.” Soon, Bluth’s film would attract the attention of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was looking to get into animation and, impressed with Bluth’s work, selected him to make Amblin’s first animated feature. “An American Tail” would lead Bluth to the wide commercial success that had alluded him up to this point. The film would become the highest grossing Non-Disney animated feature.

Near the end of the 1880s, the Mousekewitzes live in Russia. They are persecuted by the local cat population. The father regales his children, Fieval and his older sister Tanya, with stories of America, a place where there are no cats. After a group of feline Cossacks ransack their village, the Mousekewitzes finally head for America. On the boat ride over, Fieval is seemingly tossed overboard. He survives and arrives in New York not long after his family does. The boy discovers America is not exactly what he’s dreamed of, all the while trying to be reunited with his family.

“An American Tail” was a collaboration between Bluth and Spielberg, with Bluth and his team developing upon the more famous director’s ideas. Spielberg initially suggested setting the film inside a world of funny animals. Bluth, however, preferred to set the film in a mice society that co-existed along side man’s. This marked the third time the director would do this, after his work on Disney’s “The Rescuers” and “The Secret of NIMH.” (Coincidentally, Disney would release “The Great Mouse Detective,” which does something very similar, the same year.) Though set in a similar world as “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail” is a very different story. It’s much cuter and softer, far more cartoonier, with much lower stakes.

“An American Tail” is not just the story of a cute little cartoon mouse. The Mousekewitz are obviously modeled after Jewish immigrants. Fieval’s parents speak in stereotypical Russian-Jewish accents. The film seems to open on one of the nights of Hanukkah, as the family is giving gifts out. When the child is assumed dead, there’s obvious Jewish writing on his memorial. The family flees persecution in Russia, to find a better life in America. Is comparing the fates of the Jewish people to cartoon mice in good taste? It’s hard to say, though Art Spiegelman was doing the something similar around the same time and even considered suing Spielberg and co. “An American Tail” follows the immigrants experience. They struggle finding work. Their dreams of a new life in a new land are not exactly as they imagined. Persecution exists on both sides of the ocean. Yes, there are cats in America. The film doesn’t comment on the immigrant’s plight much, mostly drawing superficial comparisons. However, it does add a little extra weight to the story.

When Spielberg first reached out to Bluth, he told him to make something “pretty.” The director and his team of animators definitely fulfilled their end of the promise. “An American Tail” is visually gorgeous. As in “The Secret of NIMH,” the film’s action takes place against lush, painted backgrounds. The snow-covered fields of Russia in the winter are beautifully animated. The swirling black ocean is dark and ominous, moving like a dream. New York at the turn of the century is lovingly created, full of rich detail. The character animation is also fantastic, as the cast springs to life in a way that’s both cartoony and realistic. Animation wise, “An American Tail” is a masterpiece on the same level as “The Secret of NIMH.”

Story wise, it’s a very different beast. Though appropriate for kids, “NIMH” was a surprisingly mature and dark story. “An American Tail,” on the other hand, is… Cute. Fieval would eventually become the mascot of Spielberg’s Amblimation company. Even throughout his first film, he feels a bit like a mascot. The character talks in a voice that’s very cutesy, almost irritatingly so. The separation from his family is entirely his own fault, as he insisted on exploring the deck of the boat during a thunderstorm. The movie’s humor also stays on a very cute level. There’s a character with a funny voice, a typical “cats vs. mice” narrative, and a series of goofy comic relief sidekicks. “The Secret of NIMH” was a kid-friendly film. “An American Tail” is just a kid’s film.

Let’s talk about those cat villains. Populating a movie about cartoon mice with bad cats is not an especially bold move. As in “NIMH,” the cats are sometimes portrayed as giant monsters, that destroy the mice cities the way Godzilla crushes Tokyo. As the movie goes on, the felines begin to be characterized as gangsters and swindlers. The movie tries to get at something deeper here. Warren T. Rat is actually a cat that disguises himself as a rat, in order to earn the confidence of the mice. After gaining their trust, he plans on feeding the mice to himself and his cohorts. Perhaps the movie is commenting on people in a position of power, landowners and bankers, taking advantage of naïve immigrants for their own gain. However, any attempt at subtext can’t move pass the shallowness of the cartoony “cats vs. mice” storyline.

The movie further attempts some light social commentary with the character of Honest John. A politician, John is shown as a functioning alcoholic. He helps people out but mostly in order to secure their votes. The movie also makes some light jabs at the social movements of the time. Madeline Kahn plays Gussie Mausheimer, a German immigrant who is the richest mice in the city, using her money as a way to further all mouse-kind. Kahn portrays Gussie as a less-ribald version of her “Blazing Saddles” character. In other words, someone with a silly voice who mostly does good despite being rather smug and self-assured. These elements add extra color to the film but none of them probe deeply enough to be considered genuine satire. Perhaps asking for that is asking too much of a kid’s cartoon.

Though generally a much cuter, softer affair then “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail” is not without moments that may be too tense for very young children. The opening scene, where the cats destroy the mouse village, is surprisingly intense. While traversing the ocean, Fieval decides to explore the ship. The ocean seemingly comes alive, a black figure that looks halfway between a manta ray and the devil emerges from the water to batter the ship. It’s an interesting way to visualize the tidal waves. While wandering the streets of New York, Fieval is nearly trampled by a marching horse, its hoof beats reverberating through the ground like an earthquake. The little mouse is nearly crushed inside a phonograph before being tossed out a window. The moment that also spooked me the most as a kid is when the mouse takes to the sewer, in hopes of finding his family. A swarm of cockroaches fills the tunnel, nearly devouring Fieval, before the insects are eaten by some sort of monstrous fish. “An American Tail” acknowledges death and isn’t without its dramatic weight.

The biggest difference between Bluth’s second feature and his first is that “An American Tail” is a musical. Despite Papa Mousekewitz frequently playing on his fiddle, it’s still slightly jarring when the characters bursts into song. “There Are No Cats in America” is the first song-and-dance number. It’s catchy, even the lyrics are too cartoony and the sequence is full of ethnic stereotypes. The next song, “Never Say Never,” is a lot better. Though full of the kind of “don’t give up on your dreams!” lyrics you’re used to hearing in kids’ movies, the song has a nice melody. The song is helped by Christopher Plummer’s vocal, which are strong and full. The weakest song belongs to Fieval and Tiger, “A Duo,” which establishes their friendship. Though the sequence is full of colorful animation, the song is forgettable and interrupts the film’s narrative flow. The soundtrack’s breakway pop hit was “Somewhere Out There.” It’s no wonder why. The lyrics are nostalgic and touching while the melody is sweeping and gorgeous. The same could be said of the James Horner’s beautiful score, which makes his recent, unexpected passing felt all the more.

A little dramatic touch that I like about “An American Tail” is one detail of Fieval’s journey. His entire motivation throughout the film is finding his family. Unbeknownst to either party, the two frequently pass each other, unaware that the other is so near-by. While the Mousekewitz are in the crowd at a political gathering, Fieval hides behind the podium on-stage. One scene has them literally passing each other. It’s a nice bit of irony and adds an extra layer to the film’s theme of family. Yep, like many other kid’s cartoons, “An American Tail” is about the importance of family and the bound between parents and their children. This is emphasized in the film’s penultimate scene, when Fieval is left alone with a group of bitter orphans.

On his adventure, Fieval meets quite the collection of supporting characters. My favorite is probably Tony, a loud-mouthed, boisterous kid that’s slightly more worldly then the recent immigrant. Pat Musick’s vocals are definitely memorable. Making his second appearance in a Don Bluth film is Dom DeLuise. Similar to Jeremy in “Secret of NIMH,” DeLuise plays the movie’s wacky comic relief sidekick. Tiger is a cat that doesn’t want to eat mice and quickly forms a bound with Fieval. The character is simplistic and slightly irritating but DeLuise’s performance is lively nevertheless. I also like Cathianne Blore as Bridget, Tony’s love interest and a social progressive.

“An American Tail” would become Bluth Production’s first major financial success. It would out-gross that year’s Disney animated feature, the similarly themed (and superior) “The Great Mouse Detective.” For a time, it would hold the title of most successful non-Disney cartoon. The movie would establish Bluth as the Mouse Factory’s most important rival. Which is a shame that it’s not a more groundbreaking piece of work. The movie is visually beautiful and is certainly entertaining, full of many striking and memorable moments with a fantastic musical score. Even if it pales in comparison to Bluth’s first feature. [Grade: B]

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