Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 20, 2015

Recent Watches: An American Tail: Fieval Goes West (1991)

“An American Tail” was successful enough to briefly make Fievel Mousekewitz a recognizable cartoon mascot. The movie was a hit and the toys were popular. The character even held down his own playground at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. You’d think Spielberg and Don Bluth would want to capitalize on the success of the first film by making a sequel as quickly as possible. However, that sequel, “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” wouldn’t premiere until five years after the original and without Bluth. The sequel didn’t match the box office grosses of the first, relegating Fievel’s further adventures to the direct-to-video market. As a kid though, I didn’t care about any of that. “Fievel Goes West” definitely spent way more time in my childhood VCR player then the original “An American Tail.”

Story wise, the film follows many of the same dramatic beats as the original. The Mousekewitz are now living in the slums of New York City, which run in contrast to their dreams of America. Fievel, meanwhile, dreams of adventures among the cowboys of the wild west. His desires line up with his family plans when they’re told new opportunities exist out west. As the family travels by train to the frontier, Fievel is lost, his parents fearing the worst. Once there, the Mousekewitz realizes the Wild West can be just as tough as the big city. You’ll notice, this is roughly the exact same story outline as the original film. Both movies even feature cats tricking the mice into working for them, eventually planning to eat the mice. The sequel certainly didn’t take any chances on the narrative.

Maybe the reason the sequel resonated with me more as a kid is because it’s much goofier then the relatively serious original. “Fievel Goes West” is full of goofy sight gags. While wandering the desserts, Tiger hallucinates a buffalo skeleton leaping up and dancing. Fievel is attacked by a bird, which is comically dispatched. The key to defeating the film’s villains is a maneuver called the Lazy Eye, which involves the face freaking the fuck out. If “An American Tail” was like a softer version of “Secret of NIMH,” the sequel is more akin to a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Matching the movie’s lighter tone is its vastly different visual style. The animation is much smoother, featuring more computer-generated flourishes. It’s flashier and shinier then the painterly style Bluth employed on the first film. As a kid, this appealed to me more. As an adult, it seems to take away much of the movie’s grit and style.

“Fievel Goes West” is superior to the original in one way. It has a way better villain. The original’s Warren T. Rat didn’t make much of an impression. The sequel upgrades to the - pun incoming - Cat R. Waul. A refined villain, wearing a top hat and sporting a monocle, Waul is an intellectual who plans to gain the mice’s trust before eating them. The most important part is that he’s voiced by John Cleese. Cleese brings a lot of humor to the part, his sophistication contrasting comically with his rough henchman. Mostly, Cleese is effortlessly entertaining in a part that doesn’t call for a whole lot. More baffling is the bad guy’s main henchman. A spider, who also has the punny name of T. R. Chula, the character baffles incoherently in a high-pitched voice, wears cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat, and spits elaborate webs. The spider is voiced by a helium-assisted Jon Lovitz, who is unrecognizable.

Another high-profile voice is James Stewart as Wylie Burp, another pun, the disgraced dog sheriff of the western town. The iconic actor was 83 years old when the movie came out and mostly retired at the time. The film would provide Stewart with his slightly embarrassing final screen credit. The actor sounds tired and old, though he still does his best. Burp’s interaction with Fievel and Tiger makes for some decent moments. It’s a cute joke, casting the western star as a washed-up sheriff. Dom DeLuise returns as Tiger, whose character has a silly subplot. His girlfriend leaves him, he gets lost in the desert, and he winds up being worshiped as a god by the local Indian mice. Dom is as lively as ever in the part and at least Tiger contributes to the plot.

My favorite part of “Fievel Goes West” surprised me. Like the original “An American Tail,” the film is a musical. None of the songs are as memorable as those from the first. “Way Out West” is a not-as-memorable variation on the first film’s “There Are No Cats in America.” “The Girl You Left Behind” is pretty catchy though. One sequence features a memorable usage of “Raw Hide.” A subplot in the film concerns Fievel’s sister Tara wanting to become a singer. She achieves that dream when Cat R. Waul is touched by her singing and hires her as the entertainment in his saloon. The subplot adds an extra layer to the movie’s villain. It also heavily features the song, “Dreams to Dreams,” which is gorgeous, sweeping, touching, and way outshines any of the other songs in the movie. The melody is so powerful that it actually feels a little out-of-place among the rest of the movie’s goofiness.

“Fievel Goes West” had the misfortune of opening the same day as Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” probably the defining movie of the Disney Renaissance and one of the biggest hits of the year. A silly slapstick mouse western was totally dwarfed at the box office by Disney’s monster success. The film’s underwhelming performance more-or-less sunk Spielberg’s plan to establish his company as a rival to America’s primary animation studio. Oh well. The movie is goofy and not as effective as the original but it definitely has its moments. [6/10]

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