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My my. Has it really only been ten years since I began my epic quest to review every movie ever made by the greatest, most influential figure in all of American cinema?
And what a decade it has been. When I started this blog in 2003 Al Gore had just begun the third year of a momentous first term, the euro became officially adopted as the world’s only currency and Iraq was not invaded.
Little did I know then that I was starting what would go on to become the most popular blog in history. And yet here I am a decade later, millions of fans, a vast personal fortune and a statue on the moon. We’ve had good times, haven’t we? Remember when I paid for every reader of this blog to go on an all-expenses paid trip to Bluthworld, Florida?
And I owe it all to one man. One legend. The one and only Don Bluth. Thanks Don.
Wow, what a nice guy. So I thought that for this special anniversary I’d review one of Don’s earlier, lesser known works: An American Tail. Why this one? Well, granted, it’s not as influential as his other movies. It didn’t reignite interest in Elvis Presley like Rock a Doodle, or restore the Russian monarchy like Anastasia or unite all of humanity under a single canine worshipping religion like All Dogs go to Heaven.
But An American Tail occupies an important part of bluthistory because this was the first bluthimation to be a major financial success and so paved the way for all the world changing masterpieces that were to follow. It also represented a major personal victory for Don, as this is the movie that once and for all finished off the…let me see if I’m pronouncing this right…”Dies Nee” studio? Sorry, that’s Disney. Who were Disney? Well, I’m not surprised you don’t know. You’d probably have to be a hardcore Bluthimation fan to have heard of them but back in the day they were actually considered a pretty big deal. And yeah, some of their earlier works were really quite impressive, some almost rising to the standard of modern Bluthimations. Nowadays however they’ve faded completely into obscurity and are only really known as the studio that gave Don Bluth his start. Bluth left the studio in 1979, utterly disheartened with how the Disney studio was being run and the decline in the quality of their Bluthimated films. He left and formed Don Bluth studios and in quick succession released two films, the sublime and critically acclaimed The Secret of NIMH, and the box-office smash that was An American Tail. Upon which, the Disney studio rolled over like a dead dog and was quietly consigned to history. Some Bluthimation historians have speculated that if Disney hadn’t simply folded at the first challenge to their monopoly, that they might actually have had the talent and resources to push back, up the quality of their movies and maybe even experience some kind of “renaissance” and really give Bluth a run for his money. But personally I think that’s horseshit. Pure horseshit!
Sure thing. Here. Get yourself something to eat and find someplace warm.
So let’s take a look at An American Tail.
The movie begins with some very pretty opening credits where large, beautiful, computer generated snowflakes drift slowly across the screen. Snow doesn’t really figure into the movie that much or have any real significance to the plot, but it’s pretty. We meet our main characters, the Mousekewitz family, who are celebrating Hanukkah . Yeah, Fievel and his family are Jewish, I never really realised that as a child.
This movie makes use of a trope that’s common in both Bluth’s work and elsewhere, the idea that mice have an entire civilisation functioning beneath and unbeknownst to the human world that’s basically a mirror image of our society. Why mice? Well, they’re easily anthropomorphized, and they’re easy to relate to. We all sometimes feel like we’re tiny creatures lost in a huge, confusing world that we scarcely understand. And plus, they’re just adorable.
Here, Bluth uses mice as a means of exploring the hardships and challenges faced by European Jews wait just a damn minute here!
Papa Mouskewitz (Nehemiah Persoff) is giving out presents to his children. To his daughter Tanya he gives a scarf, and to his son Fievel he gives a blue hat and…
Okay, I realise this may be heresy but…I’m not loving this bluthimation. It’s kind of jerky and the lip synching is…well it’s not out of synch exactly but the lip movements seem to be too large for the words. It’s kind of hard to describe but it’s almost like the characters are overacting.
Anyway, Papa tells the children the story of the Giant Mouse of Minsk, a legendary rodent so massive that even cats were terrified of him. Mama Mouskewitz sharply reminds Papa not to use the “C-word” so Papa changes the subject to America, telling the children that in the new world there are no cats. The old world, however, is crawling with them. Hell, even the Cossacks have cats, and bring them with them on their pogroms. Oh, they even gave them little furry hats and mustaches!
So while the Cossacks attack the Jews, the Catsacks (sigh) attack the mice. Fievel runs outside and tries to scare the cats away by banging a frying pan. Oh yeah, that’s another thing I forgot about this movie. Fievel is dumb. Fievel is really, really, really dumb. Fievel is “actively wishing he would die so that I may be spared his idiocy” dumb. He narrowly escapes being eaten and the Cossacks ride off with the cats following after them. The family decide to emigrate to America and we cut to them boarding the SS Austria in Hamburg with émigré mice from other European nations like Italy and…Ireland?
Because if you’re travelling from Ireland to America, you head to Germany. Makes sense.
Anyway, they’re boarding the boat, and I’m sorry…I can’t put this off any more. Regular readers of my blog will know I have absolutely no problem with ripping on child actors.
…and Philip Glasser who voices Fievel is just terrible. Granted he’s not given much to work with. They were clearly going for wide-eyed wonder and curiosity, but the slack jawed amazement he puts into every damn line gets real old, real fast. And the questions, my Dog in heaven! “Gee Papa, are those birds?” “Gee Papa, is that the ocean?”
He’s really starting to grind my gears, is what I’m saying.
Oh. Hi Don.
What? Oh no, no. I’m just poking a little fun. You know that.
Thanks. Okay, so where were we…
Of course. I was one of the ones who campaigned for you to be given the power of life and death over every human being.
Okay, I think I need to find something good to say about this film pretty quickly. Um..oh There are no Cats in America! Everyone loves that song, right? It’s a classic! The emigrant mice all get together on the ship and sing about the great, feline-free life that awaits them on the other side of the Atlantic. But looking at the song again… Okay, the chorus is great. No doubt. But it’s very short. It’s four lines. And then the chorus stops for the main verses where the various mice describe the hardships the face in their home countries. And to say the shift in tone is jarring would be an understatement. It’s not that the song slows down for the verses. It stops. Then it starts up again for a four line chorus. Stops. Oh the old country, misery, death, cats, socialized medicine etc. Stops. But there are no cats in America… So I guess what I’m saying is…
It’s perfect. Totally perfect.
Moving on. Ahem.
Okay a storm breaks out and soon the ship is awash in bilge water. For the humans, this is unpleasant. For the mice, it’s a whole lot worse than that. Fievel gets washed around on a bar of soap and sees an open door leading up to the deck. Now, because Fievel is dumber than…um…oh jeez…
Internet! Find me something dumber than Fievel Mousekwitz for this analogy! Chop chop!
Yeah, so anyway Fievel hears his terrified father calling for him and decides that instead he wants to go up on deck in the middle of Poseidon’s psychotic breakdown. So that’s pretty stupid. But then, he calls out to his father that he’s just going to get his hat. Also stupid. But then he actually throws his hat out on deck so he can go get it. Why? Why Fievel? Just because you’re lying about going to get your hat doesn’t mean you actually have to fuck it, don’t care. Go and drown.
Credit where credit’s due, the storm scene is very dramatic and actually quite terrifying, as Fievel’s imagination basically transforms the ocean into an apparition I can best describe as “Ocean Satan”.
Papa risks his life to try and rescue Fievel but he’s swept overboard.
You said it, Gangsta Asia.
Anyway the ship finally arrives at Ellis Island, Bluthopolis (as it’s set in the nineteenth century it’s still referred to as “New York”.) and we get a quite heartbreaking scene where the customs officer asks Papa how many are in the family and he absently answers “five” before correcting himself.
But Fievel isn’t dead (oh, joy untrammeled) and he washes up on Ellis Island where he meets Henri the pigeon voiced by…holy shit, Christopher Plummer?!
He takes Fievel in, gives him a bath and tells him to buck up by singing “Never say Never” which is…fine. He sends Fievel off on his way, saying he’d go with him because he has to stay and finish the statue (I don’t blame him, if I was saddled with that kid I’d be pulling crazy lies out of my tail feathers too). We then meet our villain, Warren T. Rat, voiced by John P Finnegan. Warren’s a great bad guy, and Finnegan gives my favorite performance of the whole movie. Within minutes of meeting Fievel he’s lied to him about knowing where his family is, led him away from the the emigration centre and sold him to a sweatshop. You know what? I like a villain who doesn’t fuck around. He also gets one of my favorite lines in the movie. When Fievel asks about his family for the th time Warren says “You don’t need a family kid, you gotta job here!”
Oh Capitalist Crow, you are a card.
In the sweatshop Fievel meets Tony, who’s basically a young John Travolta in mouse form.
Tony and Fievel escape by tying some bedsheets together to make a rope and shimmy down right past the Mouskewitz’s tailor shop. Oh yeah, this happens a lot in this movie. Fievel will come within, like, three feet of finding his family but then something will happen and he has to keep searching. This movie is a massive tease.
Tony offers to help Fievel find his family but gets distracted by Bridget, an Oirish red headed mouse who’s trying to rally the other mice to do something about the cat problem.
I don’t much care for Bridget, but not for the reasons you might think. I mean sure, the accent is terrible, but I’m Irish. We’ve survived terrible accents before.
It’s not even that they gave her such a ridiculously stereotypical Irish name as Bridget, fair is fair. I recently did my family tree and once I got to the 1850s I had to spend half an hour figuring out if this was the Bridget who married a James or the Bridget who her brother James married or the mother of Bridget and James named Bridget. What bugs me is that they tack on this love story between Bridget and Tony and it’s not really a story. They just see each, fall instantly in love, mumble some nonsense at each other and stay together for the rest of the movie. That’s it. Nothing comes between them, it adds nothing to the plot, it’s just there. Anyway, Fievel doesn’t believe that there are cats in America but he soon changes his tune when the cats attack and tear up the market place where Bridget is holding her rally. I have to say, the cat attacks in this movie are genuinely terrifying, and I remember now why this movie scared me so much as a kid.
Anyway, once the cats leave Tony tells Bridget Fievel’s story and she suggests they take him to Tammany Hall to speak with Honest John…
Yes Chulmley, is it time for my daily bottle of ketchup?
Hmph. Very well, send him in.
I’m sorry, do I know you?
What? What are you talking about? How dare you! Chulmley, get this impertinent landmass out of my reviewing mansion!
The next scene? Well, Bridget and Tony take Fievel to meet Honest John.
Well he’s a large, fat Irish mouse…
With a moustache…
I REMEMBER &&*(^^*(*&(*&(*&&&*&*&*&&&^!!!!$^%^%&^%&^%&^%&&
Oh my God.
What do I think?
I can do this. Reviewing a Don Bluth movie, what could be so hard about that? They go and visit Honest John who’s depicted as a drunk, corrupt Irish politician. I should be offended by that, but this is Tammany Hall we’re talking about. This was one of the most openly corrupt political institutions in American history, as any political cartoon from the period will show.
Honest John’s portrayal here practically counts as sugar coating. They’re interrupted by the arrival of Gussie Mouseheimer voiced by none other than Madeline Freakin’ Khan!
Is she awesome? It’s Madeline Freakin’ Kahn, of course she’s awesome! Gussie is the richest mouse in New York and she wants to join forces with Honest John’s riffraff against the cats. She declares that there’s going to be a wawwy in the park (all that money, she still can’t afford an “r”. Seriously, she has a bad case of Elmer Fudd syndwome.) to decide what to do about the cats. Bridget’s delighted at this and it seems like things might finally be turning around for New York’s mice.
Later that night, Fievel looks out over New York city sings a duet with his sister Tanya on the other side of the city and we get the most famous song in the movie Somewhere Out There.
And yeah. This is a stone cold classic. No question. Oh sure, it’s waaay out of Glasser’s range and he audibly strains to hit a lot of the notes and Betsy Cathcart who voices Tanya doesn’t do much better, but that kind of adds to the charm of it. Some songs don’t need a polished performance and great vocals to make them work. They fact that they’re clearly two little kids trying their best actually works to the song’s advantage. They’re desperately reaching out to each other, just as they’re reaching for those notes. The excellent score by James Horner and Barry Mann do the heavy lifting, along with some surprisingly deep lyrics by Cynthia Weil. This is a song about connectedness, about how even when we’re apart from the ones we love, there are always ties that bind us to them, and help to ease our loneliness. I’ll be honest, I think Don Bluth movies as a whole tend to be very weak when it comes to their songs…
Jesus that guy is starting to creep me out. But this is a fantastic song. No question.
The mice have a big rally on the stop of a bandstand and Gussie tells the crowd that they want “Fweedom! Fweedom from the cats! And because this is America, we can do something about it!”
Okay, this is something that I think actually really works about the movie, the use of the mice and cats as allegories for the American immigrant experience of the mid-nineteenth century. The cats represent the dangers of the Old World, tyranny, persecution, autocracy, corruption, violence, the stifling of free expression and the various manifestation of The Man, man. Many European immigrants traveled to America naively believing that it was free of these problems, just as the mice in American Tail travel to the New World thinking there are no cats. Both are wrong, but the difference is that in America the cats can be overcome. Just as in real life, where an immigrant Jewish family might face poverty and prejudice but at least had a chance to work their way to relative prosperity. The American Dream is not a promise, but it is a chance. The analogy works on several levels. When Gussie mentions the word “cats”, the crowd tells her to be quiet or they’ll hear her. “So?” Gussie responds “Let them hear me!”
In America, the mice have fweedom of speech, which means they can discuss their problems and work together to overcome them. That’s why fweedom of speech is the most important fweedom.
Anyway, Gussie asks if anyone can think of a way to get rid of the cats and Fievel pipes up that he’s got a plan.
Nobody else has a plan? Anybody? Please?
Yes? Go on.
I see. And where, pray tell, do we find this colossal rodent?
Well, whatever Fievel’s idea is, I’m sure it’s better than that. The mice set up base and get to work on the…whatever it is…in an abandoned museum down at the docks. Tony and Fievel head down there but Fievel hears violin music coming from the sewers and heads down there because obviously Papa Mousekevitz is the only one in the world who plays violin.
But the violin is in fact being played by Warren T. Rat, who is being played by John Finnegan, who is being played by a violin (wait, not that last one). And it turns out that Warren T. Rat is actually Warren T. Cat, the leader of the Cats. That’s right, the rat who’s been interacting with all these mice is actually a cat in disguise. That is one tiny cat.
We also see his gang, including one massive yellow cat who keeps spitting out his own loose teeth (I think that’s what he’s doing, do cats get scurvy?). This is Tiger, voiced by Dom deLuise.
That’s my “Take a shot” guy?!
I think I’m having second thoughts about leaving this universe.
Fievel sees that Warren’s actually a cat, Warren sees Fievel, the cat’s chase Fievel out of the sewer, Fievel escapes, but then wastes time going back for his hat and very slowly walking away and gets captured anyway.
I also gotta say this sequence has some of the worst blu…animation in the whole movie, with characters drifting off model, bad sound synching and truly terrible continuity. You’re never sure exactly how many cats are supposed to be in this gang, and there’s one moment where one of the cats is chasing Fievel towards another group of cats that he is also in.
Anyway, so Fievel’s locked in a bird cage and is being guarded by Tiger who it turns out is actually a pretty nice guy. He tells Fievel that he’s a vegetarian and they realise that they have a lot in common. They sing “We’re a Duo” which is a pretty decent song and Tiger decides to let Fievel go. This sets off the alarm and Fievel races down to the docks with all
five seven four of the Mott Street Maulers in hot pursuit. I don’t know how many there are and Lord knows the movie doesn’t either. This movie even recycles the same damn animation from his previous escape attempt.
Dammit movie! Don’t make me agree with the Pollutioneers!
Gussie wakes up to the sound of Fievel fucking everything up. The cats have arrived and they’re too early. One of the mice panics and gives the order to release the “secret weapon” and Honest John has to prevent it from launching. Meanwhile, Warren has appeared outside the museum in his rat disguise and tells the mice that if they throw Fievel out he’ll convince the cats to leave him alone. They throw him out, and henceforth the museum is known as “Fort Sensible”…no of course they don’t. Fievel says “He’s not a RAT! He’s a CAT!”
Tony knocks off Warren’s fake nose with his catapult and reveals that Warren really is a cat. Warren tries to weasel his way out of it “C’mon, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” but when that doesn’t work he sets the museum on fire.
This place is really starting to creep me out.
Suddenly the mice hear the signal to release the weapon, the boat whistle of a steam ship departing for Hong Kong. But they can’t release it because Honest John had to tied it in place to stop it being released early. Fievel finally does something useful and using the fire to burn through the ropes before reverting to type and getting knocked unconscious. Well anyway, we finally get to see what the secret weapon actually is and JESUS!
The mice have actually managed to build a massive, robot version of the Giant Mouse of Minsk.
And it is freakin’ terrifying.
As a kid I think this scared more than any other movie with the exception of OH GOD NO!
Okay, so the Mouse…
The animation in this sequence is pretty spectacular and the terrified cats are driven into the sea. They cling on to to the anchor of the passing steamship and Warren tells them not to worry, because there are “plenty of mice in Hong Kong.”
The museum burns down with Fievel still inside it. Some firefighters arrive and turn on the hoses, washing Fievel into the sewer. Meanwhile, the Mousekewitzs overhear Tony and Bridget calling for Fievel and Papa finally realises that his son is still alive.
Fievel ends up in Orphan Alley, cold, wet and utterly dejected and he finally gives up all hope of ever being reunited with his family. The scene that follows is absolutely gorgeous, mostly because of James Horner’s beautiful score (listen carefully and you can hear a few strains of Dreams to Dream, a song that would be used in the sequel Fievel Goes West). The animation has also settled down and become a lot more restrained and effective. Night gives way to morning and Fievel wakes up to hear his sister calling his name in the distance, and the sound of his father’s violin.
I know I ripped a lot on Glasser before but the moment where realisation dawns on him and he silently mouths the word “Papa?” is just beautiful.
Fievel is finally reunited with his family in a scene that just goes all out for every ounce of emotion it can wring from it and it just works, it really does. There is such a sense of emotional catharsis that despite all the movie’s flaws it really does leave you with a sense of satisfying…okay, yes I cried. Happy?
The movie ends with Henri flying the Mousewitz’s around the newly completed Statue of Liberty, a perfect ending to an imperfect but ultimately worthwhile film.
Really? Where was he? Wait a minute, I remember you!
Wait, so you mean that all this time this hobo was actually…
Alright Walt, we need to get home. Make with the magic.
Sorry Don. This universe is nice and all with its massive mansions, its millions of fans, its fame and fortune, its prestige and wealth and respect and and and and and I was going somewhere with this…
No actually. No I don’t. I don’t have a reviewing mansion. Or a butler. Or indeed any kind of mansion. On my last birthday dinner I ate cold beans from a can. It wasn’t even a can for beans! It was just an old can I had to use to put some spilled beans in!
Sorry Walt. My mind’s made up. I’m staying right here.
Sure thing Don. So what’s next? All Dogs go to Heaven? Land Before Time? Oh, Secret of Nimh maybe?
WALT! WAAAALT! WAIT FOR ME! I’M COMING HOME!
TO BE CONTINUED
This is a tricky one to score. Firstly you got to consider that this is a new animation studio without the experience or resources of Disney. Also, the animation quality varies HUGELY from scene to scene.
The Lead Bluth: 04/20
Sorry, Fievel is a total pain in the ass.
The Anti-Bluth: 15/20
Warren T. Rat is funny, sinister and gets the best lines.
Supporting Bluths: 10/20
They run the gamut from good (Gussie Mouseheimer, Papa Mouskewitz, Tiger) to dull (Tony and Bridget).
The Bluth…music, I dunno: 16/20
The songs are hit and miss but by Dog the James Horner score is fantastic.
FINAL SCORE: 59%
NEXT TIME: “Wow, that was kinda cool that we got a surprise review on April Fool’s day, but now we gotta wait another two weeks for the Basil The Great Mouse Detective Review” you say. Wrong! You will get your review of Basil the Great Mouse Detective on Thursday because you are all awesome and you deserve it! So there!
NEXT UPDATE: 04 April 2013
Neil Sharpson AKA The Bald Mouse, is the world’s most successful blogger and third richest man in the world. His reviews of Don Bluth’s movies remain a major turning point in human history. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading. All hail Bluth!