Saturday, August 28, 2010

An American Tail (1986)

Title: An American Tail
Year: 1986
Rated: G
Run Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Phillip Glasser as Fievel Mousekewitz

Nehemiah Persoff as Papa Mousekewitz
Amy Green as Tanya Mousekewitz
Dom DeLuise as Tiger
Christopher Plummer as Henri
John Finnegan as Warren T. Rat
Erica Yohn as Mama Mousekewitz
Pat Musick as Tony Toponi
Cathianne Blore as Bridget

While emigrating to the United States, a young Russian mouse gets separated from his family and must relocate them while trying to survive in a new country.
Based on: Apparently an original story.
Setting: Shotska, Russia/Hamburg, Germany/New York City, 1885

Meet Fievel. In his search to find his family, he discovered America.

Andrew's First Viewing: Some time in 1993.
Jordyn's First Viewing: Some time in the mid 90's at my daycare.

Andrew's Comments
I remember this movie. I remember watching it all the time when I was a kid. Specifically, I remember watching the sequel, Fievel Goes West, more. I also remember enjoying that one more. But since this is a retrospective on the works of Don Bluth (and Bluth didn't do West), I will be covering this one instead. If it seems like I'm putting this on the B-team, it's partially because, well, An American Tail always WAS on my B-team; I watched it many times as a kid (and enjoyed it), but never to the extent to which I enjoyed the sequel. Part of it has to do with the cleaner animation in the sequel (which was, I think, done with the aid of computers, à la the CAPS system), but the sequel also enjoyed the simpler plot and more likable characters compared to Tail.

These aren't the droids you're looking for. Move along.

I talk of Tail having a more complicated plot than West. Oh does it ever. There are so many points visited and so many missed encounters with his family and so many throwaway characters introduced that, I won't lie, it was all I could do to follow this movie when I was younger. All I knew is that Fievel gets lost on his boatride to America ("There are breadcrumbs on every floor!") and tried to find his family.

I've always enjoyed the animation on this one more than in other Bluth projects, mainly because it seems a little cleaner than in some of his others. There is a lot less flailing, and the characters seem to have control over their mouths this time around. Bluth also seems to use better colors in Tail, and there are some really cool lighting effects too, such as during the opening sequence.

My one gripe with the character designs is the cats. They do NOT look like cats. They look like doggone WOLVERINES. And they roar like friggin' Mufasa from The Lion King. Maybe Bluth is making them seem tougher than they are because cats are the enemies of mice, but it makes no sense why these things would be kept as pets, and less sense why they all of a sudden turn into gambling, incompetent jokers in the second half of the movie.

Seriously, what
is that thing?

One thing I appreciated this time around that I missed as a kid was all of the historical stuff that it was paralleling. The movie takes place in 1885 when there was a ton of immigration to America, and that's basically a movie of what this movie is about: a Jewish experience of immigrating to America (which makes sense, considering the movie was produced by Stephen Spielberg, the most famous Jew in Hollywood).

What is surprising to me is the specificity of events, like how the movie starts out with the family celebrating Hannukah (a fact that was lost on me as a kid) and how it's quickly followed by a Russian pogrom (for those who were asleep in history class, pogroms were state-sponsored Jew-killings). The family also goes through Ellis Island, and there are small children mice who are put to work in sweatshops.

There's a pretty defined split between the characters that are memorable and the ones that aren't. For every main player that has stuck with me, like Papa, Tiger, and Warren T. Ratt, there are secondary characters that I totally spaced, like Bridget, Honest John (which sounds like they figured any minor character name that was good enough for Disney was good enough for them), and Henri, the pigeon who seems suspiciously like another flamboyant, singing pigeon in Thumbelina.

I kinda sorta remember her, but she really doesn't have much to do in this movie.

The voice talent pretty average, too. Tanya's is good (a non-annoying, but very youthful, character; a refreshing change of pace from the kids in the last movie), Papa's is great (the guy is absolutely huge with his character, and his filmography is pretty impressive too), Tiger is a large improvement over Dom DeLuise's previous role in The Secret of NIMH, but the rest is, by and large, pretty annoying. Tony's Bronx tough-guy accent and personality is obnoxious, Bridget's brogue isn't very convincing (I didn't even know she had one until I rewatched it), and Fievel is one of those "aw, isn't he cute because he's inept and little" kids that I find exceptionally aggravating.

The songs are also pretty "eh;" the only one that I really appreciated was "Somewhere Out There," and the in-movie production of it is GOSH-AWFUL. "Never Say Never" and "We're A Duo" are not so bad (perfectly serviceable, but nothing to write home about, though judging by what little I've seen of Thumbelina, I might have to not be so picky...), but "There Are No Cats in America" has literally haunted me for years, and that chorus is just as annoying as ever. I must say, though, that the verses are much better executed than I remember; the first two verses definitely peter out at the very end, despite their strong beginnings, but I really dug the Irish Catholic tenor mouse in the third verse. Of course, that was before the stupid chorus came back in and spoiled the effect.

Do yourself a favor and check out Linda Ronstadt's (much better) version instead of this one. Unless you really like listening to little kids trying to force a note.

And for all of the events and random crap that happens during this movie (an believe me, this movie is jam-PACKED with characters to meet and plot points to check off), the major conflict is a total anti-climax: the mice build a giant murderous-looking mouse to frighten off the cats so that they can take the slow boat to China. The cats aren't even a problem (the American cats, anyways) until like halfway through the movie. Why this is treated like a huge plot point is beyond me.

Overall, though, I found it fairly entertaining, but I think nostalgia carried me a good portion of the way. The historical parallels were fun to make now that I'm all grow'd up, the score is pretty good, the animation is a step-up from The Secret of NIMH, and the overall story is pretty heartwarming (the basic story of a boy finding his family is a good one, and the resolution for that story is a satisfying one) but for the most part, it just isn't terribly itch-scratching on an I'm-Watching-This-For-The-Whole-Of-Its-Parts-level. Most of the non-family-finding storylines are superfluous, the songs aren't very memorable (at least, in the right sort of way), and the I'm not sure it has the age boundary-crossing appeal of some of the best in animation.

That said, I would still recommend An American Tail to those who haven't seen it. Fievel is an icon for kids like me who grew up in the 90's, and the overall experience is one worth having, especially to those who are interested in Ellis Island.

Jordyn's Comments
Okay…An American Tail. This is the one I remember everyone LOVING. This is the one I remember being the cream of the crop, the crème de la crème, the best of the best, the crème of the best. I, like with all these movies, was rather quite impartial to it as a child. I liked Fievel Goes West a whole lot more. A whole hell of a lot more. I couldn’t exactly remember why until a few nights ago when Andrew and I sat down to watch the first movie centering on Fievel and the Mousekewitz clan.

First off, Fievel is about four years old mentally, whereas in the sequel, he’s probably about eight or so. I don’t hate children, mind you, but my tolerance of them as of late is as thin as butter scraped across too much bread. :-) So, I don’t mind Tanya, she’s okay. But fucking Fievel, man! Oooh, his hat is too big and he has Dopey sleeves and a high pitched, horrendously off key singing voice, I’m supposed to love him, right? Right!?

In movies/TV/books, I usually hate the character that everyone is supposed to find funny/cute…other examples include Gurgi from The Black Cauldron, B.E.N. from Treasure Planet, Stitch from Lilo and Stitch...some Don Bluth examples include Jeremy from The Secret of NIMH, Bartok from Anastasia and EVERYONE in A Troll in Central Park. Oh, and let’s not forget Jar Jar Binks.

Oh, I get it! He's supposed to be adorable!

All right, so I know they differ from Fievel, because he is the main character and those others are sidekicks…and all of these little shits have irritating speech impediments and fuck things up for the hero(es) on numerous occasions. But doesn’t this kind of apply to Fievel? Let’s think about it….

Okay, so we start in Shostka, Russia in 1885 during Hanukkah when Papa Mousekewitz gives little Fievel his grandfather’s…(uh, great grandfather’s?) hat. It’s too damn big for him and he obviously lacks the maturity to own such a treasure, but it’s Hanukkah, so what the hell? Then there’s some kind of uprising where all the Jew mice (or maybe just mice mice) get chased by Cossack cats (which look more like wolverines) and the family decides to head to America, because everyone knows…THERE ARE NO CATS IN AMERICA AND THE STREETS ARE PAVED WITH CHEE-EESE!

So the Mousekewitzes travel from Shostka to Hamburg, Germany to hitch a ride to the states. (Which is a long fucking trip). During a storm in which Poseidon is bitch slapping the shit out of the ship, stupid little Fievel wants to see some fish, so he PURPOSELY tosses his hat up the stairs to chase after it. This causes a chain of events that separates Fievel from his family and propels us into the plot of the movie.

1,200 miles.

Okay. I get it. We need a goddamn conflict, and having a simpering, baby mouse in a foreign country is pretty good. But why, why, couldn’t his hat just fly off his damn head? It’s a storm! It’s entirely plausible! But now I can’t respect or pity this stupid rodent. He did it to himself. It’s his own damn fault.

So, then the plot is underway and Fievel goes on his own little odyssey meeting a myriad of characters, including Henri, the pigeon who single-handedly built the statue of Liberty. He is suspiciously similar to Jacquimo, a character we will soon meet in 1994’s Thumbelina. I’ll wait until that blog to get into that, but I must say, Don Bluth sure loves his homosexual French avian friends.

What you see here is a total waste of having Captain Von Trapp in your movie.

Fievel meets some people and some shit happens with cats, because it turns out, there ARE cats in America. I don’t want to get into all that, because frankly, I found it boring. In fact, what really gets my blood boiling about this movie (other than Fievel fucking himself over) is that poor excuse for a romance this movie has.

On his little adventure, Fievel meets Tony Toponi, a character which must be an inspiration for Newsies. He is wise cracking, street smart, and decidedly Bronxian. Within 1 minute and 18 seconds, (No, I am not fucking kidding you. I went back and timed it), he sees an Irish girl mouse (who, just in case you were confused about her heritage, has red hair, a green dress, and a brogue), becomes infatuated with her, gets her to reciprocate, and they kiss. ALL IN 1 MINUTE AND 18 SECONDS.


What is this? The love at first sight Olympics? At least save the first kiss for the end! What’s wrong with a little sexual tension? What’s wrong with making them work for it a little bit? Fuck! If I didn’t know that Anastasia was coming, I would claim that Don Bluth has the worst understanding of fictional romance of anyone. EVER. Plus, there’s also the fact that Tony looks to be about 12 or 13 and Bridget is 15 or 16. Ick!

Moving on…dear God, please! How about the songs? I liked the songs. “Never Say Never” is still stuck in my head, although it’s also quite suspiciously similar to a certain gay song sung by a certain gay bird in another Don Bluth movie. I liked “There Are No Cats in America” too, replete with its pre-90’s, pre-politically correct ethnic stereotypes. It’s cheery! Yay! And, after my years of listening to soft rock stations, how could I not love the Oscar nominated “Somewhere Out There”? I do. Very much. But the Linda Ronstadt version, because that little kid version might be “sweetly cute” but it makes my ears bleed.

As for animation, you know I’m not picky. Maybe it was our Netflix viewing streamed from Andrew’s Xbox, but it looked less detailed than NIMH. And there was some weird scale issues. Tiger looked HUGE compared to the other cats. And the villain, Warren T. Rat, who poses as a rat, but is really a cat…what the hell? That must be the smallest fucking cat ever. The song sequence of “A Duo” was a pretty big mind screw.

Um, yeah, what's even going on in this clip?

Overall, I enjoyed most of An American Tail. It was quicker paced than NIMH. I liked how “historically accurate” it was. I put historically accurate in quotes, because it seems more like the myth of immigration in America than fact. They stuck in some stuff like the changing of hard-to-pronounce names to simple ones at Ellis Island. There’s also some comparison of Warren T. Rat to Bill the Bucher, but obviously, it’s still kid friendly. Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg do a good job of putting some adult themes into a kids’ movie with out making it too complex or like a history lesson.

But again, this movie suffers from trying to find its tone. It’s supposed to be a family friendly flick, but it’s far too immature in some places for adults, and not mature enough in others to keep me from rolling my eyes. It is really hard to please everyone, but some how, Disney and Pixar manage(d) just fine, and I can’t fathom why Don Bluth struggles so much.

"There Are No Cats in America" - Nehemiah Persoff, Johnny Guarnieri, and Warren Hays
"Never Say Never" - Christopher Plummer (Henri) and Phillip Glasser (Fievel)
"Somewhere Out There" - Phillip Glasser and Betsy Cathcart (Tanya)
"A Duo" - Dom DeLuise (Tiger) and Phillip Glasser
"Somewhere Out There" (End Credits) - Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram

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