REVIEW: An American Tail
Produced by: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy; Steven Spielberg (executive producer)
Written by: Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss (screenplay), David Kirschner, Judy Freudberg, Tony Geiss (story)
Edited by: Dan Molina
Production Design by: Don Bluth
Music by: James Horner
Starring: Phillip Glasser, John Finnegan, Pat Musick, Cathianne Blore, Nehemiah Persoff, Amy Green, Dom DeLuise, Christopher Plummer, Neil Ross, Madeline Kahn, Erica Yohn
I got pretty excited recently when I discovered that this movie was coming out on Blu-Ray. This was a childhood favorite of mine, and I grew up pretty much singing a few the songs featured in the film along with Disney songs that have since proven to be far more enduring and are likely far more recognizable today – even if Community did that awesome reference to “Somewhere Out There” in that one episode. However, I only ever owned the movie on VHS, never upgrading to the DVD, and it got to the point where I decided I’d hold out for a hopeful Blu-Ray release. The patience paid off. Sure, it was a barebones disc, containing a sing-along and a theatrical trailer and little else, beyond an almost superfluous digital copy, but I finally owned An American Tail, once again, now in glorious HD!
It’d been a while since I’d seen the film when it finally arrived in my mailbox. I believe it was once part of the Netflix streaming catalog, as I had actually watched it once a few years ago, but even before that, it’d also been an even longer amount of time since I had seen this Don Bluth-directed classic, so I still had my nostalgia goggles on when I popped the disc in to my PlayStation and settled in.
The film, if you haven’t seen it, tells the story of a Jewish family of mice who emigrates from Russia, where they are ruthlessly persecuted, to America, where they dream of being treated as equals and finding nothing but safety and opportunity – and, particularly, no cats. Middle child and only son, Fievel, however, lets his curiosity and frequent disobedience get the best of him, however, and is suddenly separated from the rest of his family after being tossed overboard from the ship, only to wash ashore on American soil, where his family has already begun to try to settle in despite their grief. Fievel quickly learns that the idealized bedtime stories of America that his father told were heavily embellished. Fievel dodges conmen, escaping child enslavement, and struggling with being a homeless child on the street, all the while believing that, one day, he may be reunited with his family.
Yes, it’s a fairly bleak film for a family movie, and it’s not shy about touching on subject matter that will not likely go over the heads of children – I remember fully understanding the persecution and concept of poverty that the film portrays, and Don Bluth certainly had a gift for not talking down to children and presenting scary scenes in his films. (There are even a few attempts at some surprisingly macabre humor, too.) One thing that he never lets up, however, is a sense of hope, as Fievel’s path frequently just barely misses crossing paths with family members – even getting to sing a distant duet with his sister in the film’s most iconic and enduring sequence, “Somewhere Out There.”
After a while of not having truly sat down to watch the film, however, one thing I discovered about it is that, now, as an adult, how quickly I realized the film is quite uneven in tone and, really, how it’s much too short at 80 minutes to properly flesh out all these details. The constant pressure under which this film was made behind the scenes led to a lot of shortcuts and dropped scenes – people who complained about plotholes in The Dark Knight Rises will undoubtedly be infuriated by An American Tail’s frequent and sudden leaps through time and character development. Fievel’s story feels incredibly rushed, as if they only had time and energy to churn out the scenes that they thought would best appeal to audiences’ expectations from animated films – namely, musical numbers and silly sidekicks. An American Tail has a soundtrack filled with earworms, and a goofy sidekick character named Tiger, played by Dom DeLuise, appears seemingly only to belt out one of those songs and provide some unwelcome comic relief in what is really a very scary plot development. It all feels a little too sweet for its own good, something that may have been alleviated had most of the dropped scenes been completed and inserted into the final project.
If it sounds like I’ve grown disillusioned with the film, that’s not entirely true, however. Fievel is still an appealing character, one you can really attach yourself to and forgive for his faults (he’s a little kid, after all), and the voice acting throughout is fairly strong, even from the children. While some of the songs are a little trite, they’re still fairly entertaining and add some fun (if, again, not always appropriate) energy to the story, and James Horner’s score is gorgeous. The same can be said of most of the animation, which can be fairly inconsistent, but when it’s at its best, it still holds up strongly by the standards of the era – especially given the behind the scenes drama regarding budget constraints, pay disputes, and Steven Spielberg and the studios’ misunderstanding of just how time consuming animated films are to make. Backgrounds are frequently immensely detailed and lifelike, beautiful in even the grimiest of scenes, and character animation is expressive and fluid. And just wait until you see the spectacle of the final stand against the cats. It’s stunning.
A few aesthetic quirks can be forgiven over the course of the film – much of what’s actually there is on equal footing with or surpasses the stuff Disney had been putting out for about a decade or more around the same time. Something that I will never be able to get over, however, are the constantly shifting sizes of the cats. One minute they’ll be these gigantic, monstrous creatures, and the next they’re only about an inch taller than the mice, sometimes within the same scene. You might excuse it as a stylistic choice, especially given the nature of the film’s boring primary villain, but when characters go from being able to live comfortably in an apartment made out of a piece of luggage to towering over their mouse victims like giants, it’s more than a little distracting – it’s often infuriating and lazy.
I’m not disappointed that the film lost some of its magical spark. When you’re dealing with Don Bluth, who, for all his strengths, was never given the ability to work within a stable environment, you kind of learn to try to see all the positive in spite of the negatives. An American Tail frequently feels like a masterpiece that never quite got its due attention and was quickly rushed out to theatres. Given its ties to Spielberg, it’s easy to also see the film as being an experiment that was meant to help him figure out how to execute his next film, Empire of the Sun, a very similar but far more effective film that also follows a child who is separated from his family, goes through immense hardship and betrayals, and is then reunited.
An American Tail isn’t anywhere near as serious as that film, but neither is it as insightful or well developed as that often overlooked film. Nostalgia goggles or not, however, even with all its faults, I have a hard time calling An American Tail a bad film – watch The Pebble and the Penguin or Thumbelina if you want to see Don Bluth at his Disney-imitating worst – nor can I really even call it mediocre. It’s just that, knowing what he was capable of, it’s hard, as an adult, to not focus on what could have been. I guess the best way to describe it is “above average.”
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5