An American Tail: Fievel Goes West – (1991)
Director: Phil Nibbelink, Simon Wells
Starring: Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, John Cleese
Screenplay by: David Kirschner, Charles Swenson, Flint Dille
Goodbye, Don Bluth; hello… uh, someone not named Don Bluth! Due to creative differences between Bluth and Steven Spielberg, the latter was forced to rely on another former Disney animator, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of H.G. Wells, Simon Wells, to direct this sequel. Sounds like an odd combination to be sure; indeed, financially, this movie bombed at the box office.
Was it because it sucked? Probably, although it was also up against The Addams Family (future CHILDHOOD REVISITED feature) and Beauty and the Beast, so it didn’t exactly have an easy time during its theater run. Still, there does seem to be a small, cultural following, or more appropriate, a small, cultural appreciation of the movie. However, there seems to be another small following that dislikes the movie, due to the fact that it simply isn’t “Bluthian”. So, now it comes down to this: is this a good film or not? Does the first movie win this battle, or is this an example of the few times that the sequel wins the day? I shall decide, and my decision will be law.
NOSTALGIC LENS: I have to admit I enjoyed this movie more than the first one when I was young. The animation was quite lovely, and I adored the music in particular; unlike other animated films, where the songs seem forced in as a time-waster and Oscar bait, Fievel Goes West maintained an exciting energy with their songs that truly appealed to me—and this is from someone that tends to hate music in his movies. Overall, I had fun with it, which netted several rentals from my neighborhood video store.
DOES IT HOLD UP: Aside from the transitions, which neither movie does well in an capacity, I have to say this: everything that the first movie fails at the second one does well, and everything the second movie fails at the first movie does well.
From a nostalgic standpoint, I can see why I would watch this movie so often as a child; however, it’s hard not to notice its flaws. The most glaring one is the sound. Fievel, our main character, again, fluctuates wildly in tone and delivery, as if recorded from two wildly different sound studios. Mama Mousekewitz sounds completely different from the first movie (despite being voiced by the same person), and some of the minor character voices are just all over the place. The odd thing is that the voice work is genuinely good; even Jimmy Stewart, who Spielberg personally coached, did a decent job. It just seems more like when the dubbing was placed, the recordists never bothered to fine-tune all of it—just some, but not all.
The story, plot-wise, is actually quite similar to the first one. A mouse family, disappointed with the life they currently live in America, grabs an opportunity to take a trip out West to start anew. Tone-wise, however, Fievel Goes West utilizes a wackier, somewhat sillier execution of events, which works perfectly sometimes, and falls short during other moments. As I mentioned previously, Bluth’s animation is not that clean nor strong; but he at the very least somehow manages to create an atmosphere, an overarching “sense” that works. Such a feeling, however, doesn’t exist here; instead, this movie reminds me a bit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and its penchant for goofy moments among serious ones, minus Zemeckis’ careful control.
Let’s look at the movie’s opening scenes:
It’s surprisingly strong for something so loose. The individual cuts here are somewhat smoother and more coherent than the first one, and the slow disintegration of Fievel’s fantasy is strangely potent. In fact, the opening scene and the final scenes of the movie are incredibly well done, invoking a more genuine movie-specific atmosphere over that broad Bluthian feel.
It’s not a feeling that lasts long though:
(Note about sound: at 4:22, that sure cannot be Glasser. Or maybe it is, after a good swift kick in the balls).
The chaos here is sloppy and random, and once again, Fievel’s youthful bravery seems unbalanced. He challenges the giant cat to a fight, only to realize he bit off more than he can chew. But, er, shouldn’t he have realized that beforehand? It’s not like that children’s desire to fight King Kong suddenly goes away after realizing how big the ape is. Hell, the size tends to get kids to want to fight him MORE. (Stupidly, or course, but all the same). Oh, and apparently the hat that Papa gave Fievel in the first movie can turn inside out in a cowboy hat. In Soviet Russia, cowboy hat wears your hat? I got nothing.
Chaos is not this movie’s strong suit. Tiger in particular has a number of incidents where he runs into dog after dog after dog; aside from the fact that the dogs aren’t anthropomorphized like the cats or mice (something that always grinds my gears in animated works), the over-wrought efforts to make it crazy just come off overbearing and goofy. It’s worth a chuckle but ultimately what could have been funny just falls flat.
However, there is one very, very bright spot: John Cleese as Cat R. Waul. He’s absolutely gold in this movie, if you can tell by the second clip. His causally delivered commands and his British-to-Southern drawl are hilarious; and it only gets better from there. He draws a line between idealized sophistication and animalistic instinct, but neither goes into the extreme, like say, Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, which works beautifully here.
Waul’s plan ultimately delves into talking the mice to move out West, where they will be manipulated not only to build the town, but also to be blindly ensnared in a mousetrap, to be made into mouseburgers. Yum. Fievel finds out (thanks to his indomitable desire to run into the nearest dangerous situation), but falls of the train thanks to Chula the spider (a IMMENSELY forgettable character if I ever saw one. Not even John Lovitz, who voiced the arachnid terribly, could make him stand out.). Fievel lost in the desert is actually a nice couple of scenes; you really feel bad for the little guy, despite the fact that it’s essentially his own fault.
There’s also a few enduring moments with Tanya, Fievel’s sister. She longs for the stage but her voice is not appreciated by New Yorkers; but out West, Cat R. Waul is absolutely enamored by it (“Dreams to Dream” I think is a better song than “Somewhere Out There,” but it may be because it’s sung better here.) He convinces Miss Kitty (the female cat from the first clip) to prep her for the stage; Tanya breaks out and performs an amazing choreographed version of “The Girl I Left Behind”, and wows the audience and herself. There’s a theme of solidarity here, of cats and mice working together; and while Waul exploits it in order to ultimately eat them, Kitty and Tiger seems to genuinely believe in the idea. Tanya also in times learns about the artificiality of fame. Or something—that lesson doesn’t come off that clearly.
There’s also a couple of very mediocre-to-stupid scenes involving mirages, Tiger confused as a god by Indian mice, and a montage of Tiger learning how to be a tough dog by a Wylie Burp, voiced by the late James Stewart (man, it’s unfortunate that so many older actors pass away after voicing a cartoon character). Still, it “works” somehow, especially in the context of a young Fievel trying to desperately convince everyone of the danger, but no one believing him. I can understand that feeling; and that concept — of children and their relationship to real, genuine threats (and the adults that will/won’t listen) — segues perfectly into my next two movies.
IN A NUTSHELL: Other then adoring Cat R. Waul for the most part, I can’t really say this movie was that good. Neither the first one nor the second one wowed me in any way. They’re the same, but different, and it’s really hard to judge them in relation to each other. Both films have really great moments and really terrible ones; both have great technical aspects and shitty ones. If forced to choose, I’d have to say I’d prefer Fievel Goes West, if only because of the charismatic villain and the somewhat catchier music (although to be honest, it isn’t as good as I remember it).
August 31st: Jumanji
September 7th: The Goonies