CHILDHOOD REVISITED – AN AMERICAN TAIL


Burn, Baby, Burn.

Burn, Baby, Burn.

An American Tail – (1986)

Director: Don Bluth
Starring: Phillip Glasser, Nehemiah Persoff, Dom DeLuise,, John Finnegan
Screenplay by: David Kirschner, Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss

Don Bluth is a god among animators. I’m not sure why; I’m not an animator. I’m not even an artist. My intuition is that Bluth, who worked for Disney on The Rescuers, managed to escape the clutches of the Disney Corporation and begin his own animation studio, which made slightly darker, more serious toned films that ran counter to Disney’s family fare. It’s the ultimate success story I suppose; however, there is a line I often think about when Bluth is mentioned. To paraphrase: “Don Bluth makes the best films to ever go bankrupt.”

Remember, now: back in the early 90s and 80s, animation was hand-drawn (sort of) and while Disney remained king in the medium, Amblin and 20th Century Fox both tried to knock the juggernaut down a few pegs. While The Land Before Time (future CHILDHOOD REVISITED feature) managed to beat, say, Oliver and Company, his other films (Rock-A-Doodle and A Troll in Central Park, anyone?) failed miserably. You can’t win them all.

But at one point he and his studio were riding high; his second movie, An American Tail, made 84 million worldwide. Not bad for a person who cribbed notes from his earlier Disney work, huh? But, does it still hold up in this day and age?

NOSTALGIC LENS: “Papa! Papa!” Yeah, I remember a lot of this being yelled around, but nothing much else. I know that song “Somewhere Out There” was a hit, or something, and the hideous song “There Are No Cats in America” song as well. As for the details of this movie, I can’t recall a single one.

DOES IT HOLD UP: In the credits, Bluth not only directed this, he also designed and story-boarded it. I do wonder how that session went? “So, we have this, and this, and…. Well, something-something, I don’t know– then cut to the next scene.”

I’m sorry to admit that this movie, unfortunately, doesn’t hold up that well at all. Part of the issue, it seems to me, is that Bluth put a lot of stake on what I would call “animation of moments,” where his animation styles tend to reflect mood, atmosphere, and tone over fluidity, continuity, and coherent storytelling. In other words, the guy’s perfect for experiment, independent films; but for a theatrical release? I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt.

I sense the approaching stampede of animators and artists typing furiously at the comment section, probably with a lot of curse words in there. To which I reply: at the very least, I do understand why Bluth is so admired. He does portray mood, atmosphere, and tone very, very well; how else can I explain that, while not enjoying the actual story told in the movie, I was genuinely choked up at the end when Fievel finds his family (if you think that’s a SPOILER, then you have no idea on how movies work.)

Here me out, though. Check out the opening scene.

A couple of things to note: the awkward editing of the first scene inside the house; the laziness of the triple animation of the Russian cats at 6:12 – 6:15 (not to mention why the Cossacks would bring cats with them as well), Fievel’s insane, sudden boldness to try to drive the cats away by banging on pots and pans. A lot of things are wrong here. Like, you’d think every mouse in 1885 Russia would be adequately scared of insane, violent cats. And don’t tell me that Fievel’s just being brave and naïve; if that’s the case, then Anne Frank would have came down from that attic and just whipped some Nazi ass. Also, the cut from their burning house to the boat scene is glaring; while the shot in my chosen screenshot is damn good, the cut itself is sudden. Were they always planning to go to America or was the move forced on them? It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but nitpicking is derived from a weak screenplay in the first place.

Beyond that, though, Fievel isn’t just a curious kid with an uncontrolled sense of adventure; he’s actually kinda retarded. The scene after this has him curious to see big fish (versus the herring in the barrels), so he purposely looses his hat to run out on the deck in the middle of a HUGE STORM. The scene is set up so awkwardly that instead of looking like unbridled curiosity gone wrong, it comes of as just a conglomeration of bad parenting, moronic childish behavior, and an abundance of no-one-giving-a-shit-itis. It’s a tricky ground to be sure; you have to try and play the metaphorical game, to reflect both the close-knit family element that immigrants created on the boat versus the “every man for themselves” ideal that also purveyed in that era. Here, it comes off as neither, which just appears to be a sad, sad excuse to get Fievel lost.

While talking to aspiring animators, it’s interesting to note how many of them love Bluth but also mention how they can’t tell a good story. Well, it’s certainly clear why. Fievel can’t tell time but his favorite book is The Brothers Karamazov. These are the kind of things you need to watch out for, folks.

But I digress. More awkward moments abound in this movie, including a bit scene where a fooled Fievel is conned into working for some brutish mouse (the job itself is never made clear); so, Fievel just escapes. That’s it. It really does happen just like that—and something-something, I don’t know– cut to the next scene. The set of scenes after Fievel and Tiger’s musical number is goddamn atrocious; again, something-something I don’t know. I never noticed the importance of segues before; now I know. Transitions are important. Also, the sound cues are pretty bad. I couldn’t tell the difference between the score itself and an important cue in the middle of the movie—which lost me so much that I had to rewind it and re-watch it two more times to understand what happened.

But I’m harping so much on the bad that I should mention some of the good. The character models are nice—if a bit jerky and inconsistent. The voices are a delight and fit well, and I enjoyed some the character themselves; especially a drunken Honest John (oh, yeah, he’s Scottish), a overly friendly Tiger (voiced by a RIP Dom DeLuise) and Tony “da New Yoik o’phan” is nice if wholly underdeveloped. The music isn’t great but it’s not horrible: hell, “Never Say Never” is a nice song and it works pretty well animated (On the importance of segues, please note 0:49.):

And yet, even despite all this, including the myriad of asinine plot points I haven’t been able to touch upon, I still found myself smiling, laughing, and really feeling for Fievel’s predicament. (Give credit to voice artist, Glasser, for sure.) The last ten minutes are heart-wrenching and beautiful, and pretty much worth the mediocrity that comes before it.

IN A NUTSHELL: I was hoping to be genuinely surprised by this movie, given my older sensibilities, but alas, I was actually disappointed. Don Bluth clearly utilized a number of Disney-esque styles, movements, and animation tips and techniques but missed out on the storytelling lessons. I have no problem with the darker, deeper story told here; I just wish it were told well. It comes off more like a comic than a movie; but again, some parts are great, and for that, it should be commended.

August 24th: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West
August 31st: Jumanji

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  1. #1 by redfoxfan on August 16, 2009 - 11:05 pm

    Am I a horrible person if I have only seen the sequel, Fievel Goes West, and not the first film An American Tail?

    Reading this…I’m thinking maybe.

  2. #2 by KenCougr on August 17, 2009 - 12:30 pm

    I think you hit on my major complaint with Bluth’s stuff. He is/was all about the visuals. The technique. Set that mood. Make that action go and work. Most of the work he produced emphasized the Scene and had not enough concern about how that scene fit in with the whole.

    Pretty stuff, if you like the huge-lipped, rubber-mouthed, floppy-arm character thing (And I don’t). Animation Technique was an A. All the actual storytelling stuff… nnnnot so good.

    I enjoyed “Fievel Goes West” WAY more. I’ll be waiting to hear your take on that one.

  3. #3 by Trish on August 19, 2009 - 9:53 am

    OK, I am a Don Bluth fan… but I am *not* a Don Bluth apologist (something inside me died the first time I watched “Rock-A-Doodle” as a lass). That said, I must warn you that, for all his flaws, you are going to miss him like crazy when you watch “Fievel Goes West”. (“WHY is he going out west? There’s no reason for him to be out west!!!” XD )

    Love the website!

  4. #4 by Heidi on September 12, 2010 - 9:23 am

    You forgot to mention the abundance of rotoscoped animation, including the creepy-as-hell giant mouse at the end (terrified me as a kid, and after watching it recently, STILL is absolutely terrifying). Also, bluth could create amazing environments, like the (once again, creepy-as-hell) house of weird, but after creating part of it would just use a watercolor wash as the rest of the background. Then there’s fievel washing up on to the torch of the statue of liberty . . . which is clearly shown in the next scene as way above where any wave but a tsunami would reach. Or the fact that the cat gang leader has to be the smallest cat ever to disguise himself as a rat (he is shown barely larger than Fievel in the beginning of the movie) but is a full-sized cat later on. (nevermind the size differences, I’m pretty sure none of the animators had ever seen a cat before in their lives. They all looked like pug-nosed wolves). There were disappearing objects (and babies), historical inaccuracies, and the whole thing felt like the animators (and storytellers) didn’t remember what they had done from one week to the next.

    All that being said, its still a movie that I watched over and over again in my childhood, and will probably always hold a special place for me.

  5. #5 by kjohnson1585 on September 15, 2010 - 12:41 pm

    Heidi

    All good points, especially the last one. Despite those narrative and animation flaws, it still has a watchability about it that’s truly engaging. Animators who admire Bluth should be at the very least aware of his mistakes here.

    And I had no idea the mouse-monster was rotoscoped. Wonder what they worked off of – a cheesy animatronic model?

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