Thursday, July 29, 2010

An American Tail (1986)

An American Tail is Don Bluth's masterpiece. It was the greatest piece of work to come out of the most rebellious animation filmmaking career in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and seen today, it has lost none of its power to make you marvel, make you laugh, and make you weep. Yes, it is a manipulative film, and yes, it enswarms us in an environment that seems almost unspeakably hopeless before it finally climaxes in an ending that is warm and uplifting. But when a lost, young little mouse peers down into a gutter, hears a familiar tune of violin music and happily squeals, "I'm coming, Papa!" in hopes that he will be reunited with his parents, I dare anyone watching not to smile.

For Bluth, the film came at a time when artistic integrity was at its highest, but a box office hit was badly needed. Most people are already familiar with the story: Bluth and his colleague, Gary Goldman, were former animators from Disney, where they had been working for veteran director Wolfgang Reitherman on Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (both 1977). All three were considerable films, but they were also sorely lacking in the classical styles of animation and narrative storytelling of Disney's golden age. Bluth and Goldman were particularly dissatisfied with Reitherman's habit of cutting corners and recycling sequences from earlier films—as when sequences from The Jungle Book were pulled for The Aristocats, and sequences from the latter were thus pulled for Robin Hood. This was the sort of generic style that dominated the studio in the 1970's; some of the movies were good, but the days of strictly professional animation were over. Bluth and Goldman had, essentially, watched Disney crumble before their eyes.

By the 1980's, Bluth and Goldman had had enough: midway through the production of The Fox and the Hound (1981), they packed their bags, walked out on the studio, and took several animators with them. And even though The Fox and the Hound turned out to be an impressive film, nobody was prepared when Bluth and Goldman joined forces with United Artists and Aurora Productions and brought forth The Secret of Nimh (1982). With its dark storyline, wretched villains and illuminating images, The Secret of Nimh was truly a classical motion picture. What it did not do was connect with audiences.

Teaming up with Steven Spielberg and David Kirschner (who had previously worked for Jim Henson), Bluth sought to change all that. Kirschner had been developing a story about a Jewish family of mice immigrating to America, and Spielberg brought to the story memories of his own ancestors and their escape from tsarist Russia during the pre-Bolshevik years. The hero, named after Spielberg's own great-grandfather, would be called Fievel.

An American Tail is set in 1885, in Shostka, Russia. Under the house of the human Moskewicz family live the Mouskewizes, headed by Papa (Nehemiah Persoff), Mama (Erica Yohn), Tanya (Amy Green) and Fievel (an exceptional Phillip Glasser). Played over the opening titles, which are abound with giant snowflakes swirling through the air on a cool winter's night, is James Horner's enchanting musical score, melancholy in its description of a failing Motherland and yet triumphant in its signaling of America—the new world. On this Hanukkah evening, Papa's gift to Fievel is an oversized blue hat. It seems too big, but Papa is insistent that it be passed down: "It belonged to me, my father, and now it belongs to you."

There is an anti-Semitic raid on the village by the cossacks. Houses are burned down, cats are unleashed, and Fievel, disobeying his parents, rushes out into the open to save the day. Just barely surviving a "crash" between two cats steaming towards each other like trains, Fievel returns home in one piece—only to find his home in pieces. As he and his family set sail from Hamburg to America the very next day, he is in awe of everything: the ocean, the ship, the city, even the pigeons. Onboard, he accidentally knocks an apple core into a barrel of water and is awed by a pack of herring nestled safely at the bottom. Such sights are casual to the rest of the Mousekewizes, but to the eyes of a young mouse they are nothing short of extraordinary.

For Papa, who was orphaned by cats as a child, the voyage will be a relief because, he assures everybody, no cats reside in Gilded Age America. Their destination sounds like paradise, indeed, but those feelings quickly subside later that night, when Fievel, riding a bar of soap up to the ship's flooded deck, is accidentally swept away by streams of water. Before Papa can grab a hold of his hand, Fievel is carried off the ship by waves of Poseidon and is deposited into the middle of the ocean. In the first of many shots that will evoke past images from Bluth and Goldman's work on The Rescuers, we see Fievel traveling along the shores to America inside an empty bottle.

This is only the beginning of Fievel's truly remarkable odyssey in the land of opportunity. He first meets Henri (an unrecognizable Christopher Plummer), a pigeon who is in the process of helping build the Statue of Liberty and, although French, is something of a nationalist. When Fievel is certain that he's never going to find his parents, Henri pipes up: "Je m'excuse, pardon, but did you say... never? So young, and you have lost hope! Ah, this is America—the place to find hope!" Not nearly as nice is the film's villain, Warren T. Rat (John Finnegan), a scheming cat in disguise who leads the Mott Street Maulers gang of sewer cats; he claims that he knows where Fievel's family is, but then drops him off for hard labor at a Dickensian workhouse.

Kinder friends are found in Tony Tomponi (Pat Musick), who escapes with Fievel from the workhouse, nicknames him "Fillie" and, basically, assumes the role of Fievel's fearless chaperon. Bridget (Cathianne Blore) holds political rallies against the cats, falls in love with Tony and offers Fievel a room for the night, resulting in the film's now-famous "Somewhere Out There" sequence. Gussie Mausheimer (a hilarious Madeleine Kahn) is the richest mouse in town and insists that her wealth equips her with power and knowledge ("Money's not everything. I know because I have money and everything"), but it is only through Fievel's advice that she hatches the plan to release a "giant mouse of Minsk" onto the Mott Street Maulers. Honest John (Neil Ross) is modeled off of Boss Tweed and yet for some reason shares the same name as one of the Pinocchio villains.

Tiger, however, is the most interesting character who crosses paths with Fievel. As voiced by Dom DeLuise, the character is obviously an animated variation on Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, but no matter—the character is effective. He and Fievel meet after Fievel is captured by the Mott Street Maulers and thrown in jail; Tiger, it turns out, is the most gentle member of the gang and actually shares much in common with this little mouse. It's a sweet moment when Tiger sobs over losing his own family members ("eight brothers... ten... sisters... three fathers!"), and Fievel reassures him, "Don't worry! You'll find them!" And for some reason I can't help but think of Brando's orange-peel scene in The Godfather when Tiger enthusiastically declares, "I like mice!" and Fievel, unsure of what to make of this, bursts into tears (as Tiger explains, he's not fond of red meat—he eats broccoli). DeLuise had also worked with Bluth on The Secret of Nimh as the voice of Jeremy the crow and would work on several of Bluth's later pictures, but his performance as Tiger remains my favorite.

As per Bluth's commitments as a student of classical animation, the animation in An American Tail is fully detailed—he does not cut corners. Characters have shadows that stretch far and wide. Special notice is also taken of Fievel's young age and, therefore, his difficulty adjusting to a life of running around and maintaining control; we often see him struggling to keep his pants from falling down, not for comedic reasons, but because it maintains a sense of realism. If we were to assume that young mice could walk and talk much as the youth of humankind does, then why would they be any more in control of such simple tasks as fitting into a set of oversized clothes? The key here is that Bluth knows this, and in order to allow younger audiences to empathize more with Fievel is it absolutely necessary to give him such human qualities. And, yes, it makes for more fascinating animation.

There is some of Spielberg in the movie, too, if you know where to look. The behemoth moon that rises above Fievel during the "Somewhere Out There" sequence is one of the telltale signs, as is the Spielbergian shooting star (which previously makes an appearance in both Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). The theme of a child on an odyssey to find his parents is one Spielberg would use a year later in Empire of the Sun (1987). Also, Fievel has the typical brattiness displayed by most of the child characters in Spielberg's films of the 1980's (including those he executive-produced). For example, when other mice in the streets are fleeing from a supposed cat threat, Fievel stands his ground because, as he proudly reminds everyone, there aren't any cats in America—he is then swallowed alive by the first cat he sees. Another scene, in which Fievel looks miserably into the window of a school where mice children are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, is inspired by one of the memories of Spielberg's great-grandfather, who, being Jewish, was not allowed to go to school. Had Spielberg not tampered with the final cut of The Land Before Time (1988), he and Bluth probably would have made a great team in the decades that followed.

Bluth (1937- ) is recognized as one of the finest animators working today. With The Secret of Nimh, An American Tail, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), his ability to deliver one magnificent film after another soared throughout the 1980's. I've struggled more with his 1990's output, although I remain a staunch defender of the underrated A Troll in Central Park (1994) and have even greater affection for Titan A.E. (2000), which I considered a return to strong form. Bluth hasn't made a movie since then, although there is talk that he is planning a film adaptation of his Dragon's Lair video games. He should do whatever he is most comfortable with. He's earned it.

Much has been said about how the film might have been too "depressing" for children. I don't think it's a depressing film so much as I think it just happens to be a little more raw than most children's films are; it does play with our emotions, as when Fievel somehow passes his family members in select scenes without seeing them, but the technique works, as it finally leaves us pining for Fievel to find his family. So dangerous is his adventure that at one point, towards the end, Fievel is washed down into a bleak Orphan's Alley, where poverty-stricken mice laugh at him, call him "trash" and even try to persuade him into believing that his family does not care about him. And that's when Fievel explodes: "You're RIGHT! They don't care! And if they did, they would have found me! Well, if they don't care, I don't care! I don't care if I never see them again!" Though we can hardly blame Fievel's parents for losing faith so soon, we certainly can't blame Fievel for being angry, too. It is a painful moment when he regards the dampness and ugliness of the Orphan's Alley, and is ready to give up. "This is my home now," he says.

An American Tail is not an easy, relaxing entertainment. It is something braver, and better. Both times when I've watched this film, I've found myself welling up when Fievel and Papa, reunited, jump into each other's arms in the closing scenes. It's a joyous moment, and the film warrants it for a very, very good reason: Fievel does find his family. He has made new friends, he has defeated the cats, and he has worked harder than anyone else to achieve his goal. Most importantly, in the process, he has grown up. "My son," says Papa, "now, you are a mouse." It is the most fitting final words of wisdom in a film that earns its tears.


  1. I still think I'd side with The Secret of NIMH -- it's just so unlike anything I saw as a child -- but this is at least a very close second.

    One small nitpick, however: "a hilarious Madeleine Khan" is redundant.

    God I miss her so much.

  2. The only thing about The Secret of Nimh that I think could have been improved on is the deux ex machinima at the end, when Mrs. Brisby somehow rescues her children from drowning in the mud from the amulet; one part of me admires that scene because it's visually powerful, but on the other hand I thought it was a rather cheap way to rescue the kids! But the majority of Bluth fans consider it his best film, and I got no reason to complain.

    I actually didn't realize until a few years ago that Madeleine Kahn was no longer with us. I miss her and DeLuise both.


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