Hey everybody. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and for all you other religions…um…good luck with whatever you got goin’ on right now. Keep on truckin’. Yes it’s the night before Christmas, and despite belonging to a species that traditionally is known for not stirring at this time of year, I’ve decided to review…
“I wear the chain I forged in life! Link by link! Yard by yard…”
“Stop. Stop. No. Look, this is not going to be a Christmas themed review. We’re not doing the Christmas Carol thing. Sorry.”
“But it’s a tradition…”
“Yes. One that’s been done to death. Sorry, not happening. Get lost.”
“Dude, I’m a ghost, you’re going to have to do better than “Get lost!”
“Sigh. AVAUNT THEE FOUL SPIRIT! RETURN TO THE NETHERWORLD FROM WHENCE THOU CAME!”
“Oooh, nice. “Avaunt”. That takes me back.”
Right. So. Today’s movie is An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West, a sequel to a Don Bluth movie made without the imput of Don Bluth. Now, “Sequel to a Don Bluth movie made without the imput of Don Bluth” is a sub-category of film with a slightly lower degree of prestige and respect than “Uwe Boll video game adaptation” or “hobo snuff film” and this film’s reputation is not exactly sterling.
40%?! There are Police Academy movies with higher scores than that!
So, following the stunning success of An American Tail
(which, I remind you, was a big freaking deal) Stephen Spielberg wanted a sequel to be the first production of his new animation studio, Amblimation. Bluth by this time was based in Ireland and was working on The Land Before Time
with Sullivan Bluth so Spielberg had to bring in a new team of animators under the direction of Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells. Amblimation is a weird little footnote in the annals of American animation history, tapping out after only three films (this one, We’re Back
). I haven’t seen Balto
and I do NOT care for We’re Back...
…but I think Amblimation could have been a real contender under different circumstances. Why? Because, if nothing else, the animation in these movies was SMURGES. Let’s take a look.
Our movie begins in the Old West where canine law-dog Wylie Burp (Jimmy Stewart) faces down a gang of vicious cat bandits despite the fact that he’s completely outnumbered and that the back of his head looks like balls.
Suddenly, he’s joined by Fievel (voiced by Philip Glasser, Chairman Emeritus of the Society of Nice Young Gentlemen Who Are Doing Their Best) in full cowboy getup who runs up beside Burp and declares “Have no fear! Billy the Kid is here!”
“Have no fear?!” HE WAS A FRICKIN’ SERIAL KILLER!
Anyway, Fievel shoots all the cats’ guns out of their paws and they turn tail and run. Burp gives Fievel a sheriff star and then yells at him to look out as a shadowy cat appears on the rooftops with a knife raised. Fievel spins around and shoots but he hears his mother calling him to dinner and the fantasy world fades away and we see that he’s just been playing alone in front of an old Western magazine. This is an important point and I’ll get back to it in a minute.
Now, John Oliver had this famous rant
where he described An American Tail
as a “lie told by a rodent” (nice John, let’s bring taxonomic orders into this, why not?) because it presents an idealised, sugar coated depiction of the American immigrant experience. To which I have to say; Dude, have you seen
the movie? ‘Cos it is bleak as Brezhnev’s balls
. And this movie continues that theme where we see the Mousekevitz’s living in pretty desperate poverty, and starting to realise that the whole “no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese” spiel was a great big pile of steaming malarkey. In fact, they’re so stuck for food that Tanya (Cathy Cavadini) has to sing “Somewhere Out There
” until the neighbours get so sick of it that they start throwing food. I love the song but…yeah, by the time this movie came out it had been a little overplayed so kudos to the movie for poking a little fun at the fact. What’s weird about this scene though is that someone actually throws a giant-size (for the mice anyway) tomato right through their window with perfect aim and we then see that it’s not mice but humans who are throwing food.
So…the humans can hear the mice singing? How is it even loud enough for them to be bothered with? And why are they throwing food? And how did they have such perfect aim? Who the heck is living in Hell’s kitchen with ears sensitive enough to hear a mouse singing an award-winning power ballad and with such perfect aim as to be able to throw a tomato right through their tiny window OH MY GOD!
Affleck’s costume was better. There. I said it.
Meanwhile, Tiger (Dom de Luise)…
Take a shot.
…is pleading with his girlfriend Miss Kitty (Amy Irving) not to leave him but she says that she’s heading out West because he’s just not what she’s looking for in a man. Cat. Man-cat. Tom. A dude. She says “You cat-nap, cat-around and, I don’t mean to be mean but, you’re even a little bit of a fraidy cat.”
“Basically, you’re a total pussy.”
She tells him they’ll always have the Bronx (gee, thanks) and gets on the coach, leaving behind a trail of her pink wafting perfume that takes the shape of a cat and starts making out with Tiger. Yeah, this happens a lot in the movie and I actually think Tiger was dating Miss Kitty just to be with her perfume.
“Oh Pink Perfume Cat, our love is so wrong, yet so right!”
Anyway, Fievel arrives and the family sit down to dinner only to be interrupted by a passing subway train that shakes the whole hovel. Papa (Nehimiah Persoff) laments that they’re actually worse off than when they were in Russia and oh c’mon now, you’re being overly dramatic. At least here you’re not being attacked by huge, terrifying cats…
So here’s the thing. These cats who are attacking the mice are the Cactus Cat Gang, led by Cat R. Waul (John Cleese) and they are the EXACT same cats from Fievel’s fantasy at the start of the movie. So…is Fievel psychic? Or what’s going on here? Well the sequel American Tail III: The Jumping of the Shark gets around the fact that it’s still set in New York by implying that this movie was just a dream. Now, obviously that’s lazy bullshit by a terrible movie trying to retcon away a much, much better one but…it also kind of works? If you imagine that after dinner Fievel went to sleep and dreamed this whole western adventure the movie makes a whole lot more sense. For example, this movie is a lot more “cartoony” that the previous one, with physics often seeming to run on dream logic. Normally I’d put that feeling of unreality down to bad animation but as I said before, if nothing else the animation in this movie is shit-hot so I’m more inclined to think it’s a stylistic choice. Anyway, the cats attack and start chasing the mice into the sewers, with Waul specifically telling them that there is to be “no eating”. Tiger arrives and almost psyches himself up to help the mice but packs it in when Waul’s henchman, a massive spider named Chula (Jon Lovitz) arrives and Tiger just has a heart attack and passes out from fear.
“Oh hey Amelia.”
Mama (Erica Yohn), Tanya and Yasha get cornered by one of the cats, One Eye. Fievel distracts the cat by calling him “Fur Head”. That works fine, but then Fievel apparently didn’t have a follow-up plan beyond “Cower in a corner and cry pitifully” so it’s left to Papa to rescue him by playing violin so badly that it offends the cat’s delicate artistic sensibilities.
The Mousekewitzes flee into the sewers and find all the other mice from their neighbourhood listening to a sales pitch from a cowboy mouse who offers to sell them train tickets out West where the cats are friendly, the air is clear, the sun shines and the Native Americans have rather conveniently all gone on holiday. And something seems a little…off…about this guy.
“I had strings, but now it’s true.”
“I’m just a mouse like you!”
So Cat R. Waul is actually manipulating this puppet to get the mice to head to a town out west called “Green River”. So, clearly, Waul has put a lot of planning into this. I mean, he has to attack the mice, drive them into the sewer, have the train tickets ready and learn how to manipulate a marionette to a professional standard. Actually, that last part is by far the trickiest. I have a diploma in puppeteering and I know from first hand experience that marionettes are evil, cursed things that drink the tears of frustration of innocent puppeteers.
Don’t trust them.
Never trust them.
My point is, a lot of planning has clearly gone into this. So what’s Waul up to? What diabolical scheme could possibly justify such dedication? Oh, you’ll see…
The next day the Mousekewitzes board the train for Green River and Fievel is upset that Tiger didn’t come to see them off. Papa gently tells Fievel that Tiger was great and all but…maybe he’ll find some new friends who aren’t cats voiced by Dom De Luise without a director to reign him in? That’d be cool, right? Meanwhile…
“I show you shadows of what has been. That they are what they are do not blame me.”
“What, no, no, we’re not doing this ah shit here come the flashbacks…”
“AAAAAH I’M A MOUSE!”
“That’s right you little turd. And you’ll stay that way until you show some darn respect! You are going to review every one of my movies and like it!”
“What have you learned?”
“That Walt Disney is a DICK. And I knew that already. Because I was THERE. Now please let me get back to the review.”
We now get our first song (not counting the brief reprise of Somewhere Out There) called Way Out West which serves the same purpose as No Cats in America did in the original, basically showing the mice getting their hopes up before the movie crushes their spirits like so many tiny, tiny grapes. Way Out West for me is by far the better song. Whereas No Cats in America is kind of a stop start mess saved by a catchy chorus, Way Out West picks a tone and sticks to it. It’s upbeat, catchy, suitably-Western and really rousing.
Now, there are certain constants in the world of film. James Bond will always get the girl. The Disney princess will sing a song about what she wants. Stan Lee will always cameo in a Marvel movie. To that list we must add, “Fievel Mousekewitz will wander off in the middle of a journey and get separated from his family because he’s a dumbass. As the rest of the family sleeps Fievel goes off exploring.
He stumbles into the carriage of Waul and the rest of the Cactus Cat Gang who ask Waul why they don’t just eat the mice now while they have them trapped on the train. Good point. Good point. Mr Waul, your rebuttal?
“Of course we are going to eat the mice. But only after we have exploited their labours, we are nice to the mice because it is intelligent to be so. If we smile they will come in droves. If we hiss they will run and we will have to chase after them, an unnecessary expenditure of calories.”
Wow. Okay. So, clearly this is a villain who knows what he’s doing. He’s got something truly diabolical up his sleeve, obviously.
“Come in and know me better Mouse!”
“FOR THE LAST TIME I AM NOT DOING THE CHRISTMAS CAROL THING!”
“But I have to show you your present!”
“I CAN SEE MY PRESENT! I AM IN THE PRESENT RIGHT NOW! THIS IS ME! PRESENT! IN THE PRESENT!”
“Now now look look what what you’ve you’ve done done! We’re we’re getting getting reality reality feedback feedback!”
“Now leave me…Spirit, why are you so old?”
“My time on this earth is short…”
The cats find Fievel and Waul makes a big show of almost eating him before deciding to simply let him go because otherwise the rest of the mice will come looking for him. Fievel, unable to believe his good luck, runs away but Waul sends Chula to surreptitiously throw Fievel off the train in full view of the other mice while making it look like an accident. The Mousekewitzes are all “Fievelmyson!” and think he’s dead while Fievel is now stranded in the desert in the scorching heat. Rather than doing the sensible thing and following the track, Fievel heads off into the desert alone which naturally brings the vultures out in force.
“Uh guys? He’s just a mouse. Why do we have to wait until he’s dead, let’s just eat him.” “Clancy. We’re vultures. And there are rules.”
Meanwhile, Tiger tried to follow Fievel out west but ended up being attacked by savage dogs literally every five seconds. After falling off a stage coach he too ends up stranded in the desert which sets up an absolutely fantastic joke where Fievel and Tiger see each other in the distance, are overjoyed, realise that they must be hallucinating from the sun and trudge glumly past each other (“Hi mirage of Tiger.” “Hi mirage of Fievel.”) into the endless scorching wasteland.
Tiger gets captured by a tribe of Native American mice called the Mousehicans (true story, I’m one-sixteenth Mousehican on my mother’s side) who get ready to cook him. But the chief comes out and realises that Tiger hanging upside down looks exactly like their sacred mountain and decides that Tiger must be a god.
Well it’s obvious what happened here. The Federal Government must have defaced this mountain with a carving of President Garfield.
Meanwhile Fievel gets snatched by a desert eagle which flies over the Mousehican village before getting shot down with fireworks. The eagle drops Fievel who lands in Tiger’s water bowel and almost gets swallowed but saves himself by grabbing onto Tiger’s palatine uvula. You know. The dangly thing.
Not to be confused with the Palpatine Uvula.
Fievel and Tiger are delighted to see each other again (again) and Tiger says that he tried to meet Fievel at the station but that he was “dogged every step of the way”.
Fievel tells Tiger that he has to get to Green River to warn his family and the other mice about Waul’s eeeeeeeeevil plan which I’m sure is just brilliant. Tiger says that leaving right now would have serious theological ramifications so he’s going to have to stay here and be fed and waited on hand and foot for the good of the tribe. But he does point Fievel in the right direction and sends him on his way in a passing tumbleweed.
Time for our next song, Rawhide, which is just the Blues Brother version of the song animated to be sung by various desert animals. It is pure awesome and I love it.
Fievel arrives in Green River and finds his family and they’re all “Fievelmyson!” and I gotta say props to the movie for not stretching out the reunion to the very end. Props withdrawn however (Mouse giveth props and Mouse taketh the buggers away) when Fievel tries to warn his family about Cat R. Waul and they just brush him off with an airy laugh saying “You will see that out West, cats are good.”
Wow. I’ve heard of forgive and forget but that’s awfully trusting for a family who’ve been hunted by cats across not one but TWO continents. Anyway, Fievel inadvertently finds himself in the cats’ saloon and it’s right about here where this otherwise fairly well-trained movie takes a big steaming dump of stupid right in front of the judges. Waul reveals that his plan is to hold a rally and get all the mice to sit in what is actually a giant mouse trap and turn them into MOUSE BURGERS! And then the whole saloon starts yelling MOUSE BURGERS! And all the mice outside go “Huh? Did you hear something? Something about “House Burglars”?
This is so goddamn stupid, and not just because I find the idea of MOUSE BURGERS offensive for obvious reasons. Firstly, why go to all this trouble? Why bring the mice out West? Why can’t Waul make MOUSE BURGERS in New York? Secondly…burgers? Really? Your urbane, sophisticated villain has constructed this meticulous plan to get some frickin’ fast food? Couldn’t even be something classy like mouse filet mignon or roast mouse with a strawberry glaze or…
I need to stop going down this line of reasoning before I have a panic attack.
It seriously undercuts what could have been a fantastic villain. As I’ve said before, Waul is smart, he’s devious and even surprisingly layered and Cleese gives a really good performance. All that’s missing is a decent scheme and it’s not like it couldn’t have been done. One thing that An American Tail did right was act as an allegory of the American immigrant experience and as I’ve argued before it was surprisingly smart about it. The Mousekewitzes arrive in America to find that it is not free of the problems that they left behind, but that it at least has the freedom that they need to overcome those problems. This movie could have been a genuine continuation of that theme, the family moves out West to what they think will be a land of freedom only to find that there is a difference between “free” and “lawless”. Waul could be a kind of robber baron, who controls the mice through monopolies and corrupt law enforcement. Hey, kids have to learn about the savagery of unchecked capitalism sooner or later.
Anyway, Fievel does something stupid (I know, I’m as shocked as you are) by attacking Waul with a fork and tells Waul how he’s going to rat him out to Wylie Burp, the greatest lawdog in the west. Waul and the cats laugh this off and then Waul is about to eat Fievel when suddenly he hears…this.
So, before we talk about Dreams to Dream let’s go back a little and talk about Tanya. In the original movie Tanya is basically Girl Fievel, to the point where the two are almost visually identical except for some headgear for Tanya which frankly is just lazy.
“Are you still up? It’s the night before Christmas, why are you stirrin’?”
“I’ll stir if I want to stir!”
Despite Fievel’s name being in the title, there are actually three main characters in this movie, Tanya, Tiger and Fievel and weirdly enough Fievel is probably the least important of them. Fievel doesn’t really go on any journey in this movie other than in the most literal sense. He’s the exact same character he was at the end as he was in the beginning and is actually almost superfluous in the final act which is more about Tiger overcoming his cowardice and proving himself worthy of Miss Kitty. Fievel doesn’t get a character arc, but interestingly enough Tanya does. It’s not Furiosa in Fury Road or anything but in the movie she has a dream of being respected as a singer but has to overcome her own self-doubt which by the end she does. It’s also interesting that her design has been completely overhauled. Instead of being Fievel’s twin she’s now quite clearly his older sister. It’s kind of hard for me to explain how much I love Dreams to Dream and this whole sequence and the weird thing is it’s not even that great a song (at least lyrically). The words are just the usual pap about dreams and believing in yourself but two things make it stand out. One, is James Horner’s music. The melody was actually used without words in the original American Tail but you only hear a bar or two of it there. Here we get the whole thing and it is stunning. Secondly Cathy Cavadini’s voice singing voice is just a wondrous, wondrous thing. When Waul stops dead at that first note you buy it. Yes. She is that good. And Cavadini isn’t even really known as a singer, she’s a voice actor first and foremost. All I can say, this song was covered by Linda “Eleven Grammies, Three AMA’s, Two ACM awards and an Emmy” Rondstadt and for my money Cavadini leaves her in the frickin’ dust.
We also get to see a new side of Waul who is actually, genuinely moved to tears by Tanya’s singing to the point that by the end he even calls a halt to his plan for MOUSE BURGERS when he sees she’s in danger. There’s a fairly big crowd of Waul/Tanya shippers out there and quite frankly I’m not sure they’re barking up the wrong tree.
Christ, is this even subtext?
Waul brings Tanya back to the saloon where Miss Kitty is working as a dancer and tells Kitty to get Tanya ready to go onstage. Kitty sneers that if he puts a mouse onstage “your saloon will be as empty as Death Valley in a cold day in June when the snow don’t fall” to which Waul replies “What?”
Once Waul goes Kitty takes Tanya under her wing and gives her some advice on beating stagefright; just imagine that the person you care more about than anyone else is in the audience and you’re singing for them and them alone (and it’s clear that she’s thinking of a certain orange over-acting cat).
A minor quibble; who casts Amy Irving as a saloon singer and then doesn’t give her a song? What’s that you ask? Amy Irving can sing?
Why yes. Yes she can.
Okay, so Tanya performs The Girl You Left Behind for the cats and it’s an absolute show-stopper (seriously, the songs in this movie are so fruckin’ good) that plays as Fievel escapes from Chula’s clutches. While hiding in Miss Kity’s dressing room Fievel gets hit with a blast of her magic pink perfume that has a soul of its own. He tries to get Tanya to leave the saloon but she’s too enraptured by her newfound fame.
Wandering the dusty streets of Green River Fievel meets Wylie Burp, now a washed up drunk. Fievel is overjoyed to meet his hero and begs Burp to help him stop the cats from turning all the nice into MOUSE BURGERS but Burp tells him to screw off saying; “Let this sleepin’ dog lie, son. Dog-gone it, I’m dog tired. I’m tired of leading the dog’s life and fightin’ likes cats and dogs against cats and dogs, a young pup’s doggin’ my trail tryin’ to become top dog. I’m going to the dogs in a dog eat dog world.”
“And the award, for most canine clichés in a single screenplay goes to…”
But Burp takes pity on Fievel and says that if he can find him a dog, Burp will train him to be a hero. Fievel says he doesn’t know any dogs, but he does know “a god”.
As a theist, I find this offensive beyond words.
Tiger refuses at first, saying “I am a God of eternal peace and cosmic love my friend” in a fake Hindi accent because by God, Dom De Luise will not rest until every type of Indian in the world is offended. But Fievel is able to lure him with some of that sweet, sweet, pink living cat perfume.
Where did she get this perfume?!
Okay, so now the movie pretty much becomes Tiger’s and Fievel is shunted into a supporting role. We get a montage of Burp training Tiger to be a dog and all three mosey into Green River just as Waul is about to cut the ribbon that will turn the crank, which rotates the gears, which pushes the lever, which causes the boot to kick the marble into the bathtub which causes the net to drop which triggers the mousetrap that turns the mice into MOUSE BURGERS. Watching from above, Tanya sees what’s going on and sings a song warning the mice that they’re on a mousetrap. She could’ve just said it but…character development? I guess? Burp and Tiger manage to beat the cats but Tiger looks up to see Miss Kitty being dangled off a balcony by Chula who tells him that he’ll drop her if he comes any closer. Tiger…does not take this well. By which I mean he turns into a freaking Predator.
So Tiger opens up a can of industrial strength whoop-ass on Chula and then uses the mousetrap to launch Waul and all the cats onto a passing train from whence they will never, ever come back because they don’t have a return ticket. And the movie ends…
“Oh let me guess. You’re the ghost of Christmas Yet to…Horned King?”
“Why are you pretending to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?”
Ah. Well. You see. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is very busy at this time of year, so he has helpers like me pretend that they’re really…
“Wow. Do you really need money this badly?”
It has been a difficult year. I lost a great deal of wealth at the hands of an evil even worse than my own.
Indeed. Now let me show you your future and be on my way.
“No! I don’t want to see…”
“That was just black emptiness.”
“What does that mean?”
Okay. Little worried now.
Right, the movie.
So the film ends with Tiger and Miss Kitty back together, Tanya having realised her potential and Fievel sitting with his hero looking out over a beautiful Western sunset.
Alright, I’m just going to come out and say it. It’s better than the original. The animation is leaps and bounds ahead, the performances are more assured, the songs are more consistently excellent and it’s overall a lot less saccharine and maudlin. So why is it remembered much less fondly than the first American Tail
? Well, the original come out against Basil the Great Mouse Detective
which it absolutely destroyed. Fievel Goes West
on the other hand, was up against a very different Disney film, namely Beauty and the Beast,
and that matchup went something like this:
Speaking of lapsing into unconsciousness, I’m taking a bit of a break from the blog to do things like sleep and…sleep. I’ll see you all in the New Year. Hope you have a great one. Mouse out.
Beautifully detailed, dreamlike and inventive, the animation not only easily tops the original Tail but is noticeably better than what Disney was doing at the time.
What a difference a few years makes. Philip Glasser is now far more comfortable in the role, giving us a Fievel who’s smarter, more resourceful and even funnier. Of course, considering what we were starting with that’s not much but there is a definite improvement.
Cat R. Waul as written is wasted potential and his plan is just lame, but when John Cleese lets the saliva flow he’s plenty entertaining.
James Horner’s beautiful original score makes a return alongside three new songs that really deserve to be better known than they are.
FINAL SCORE: 64%
NEXT TIME: The Unshaved Mouse Movie Deathmatch ends on 31 December 2015! Be sure to check in to see if your favourite movie or TV series survived.
Then, I am taking a break to catch up on some of my other projects before coming back hard and fast with…
NEXT REVIEW: 21 January 2016. MOUSE REVIEW THE INCREDIBLE HULK. MOUSE CONTINUE TO REVIEW ALL MARVEL CANON MOVIES. MOUSE SEE IF THANOS GET OUT OF HIS CHAIR. MOUSE…God dammit how does Feminist Hulk do that that is just exhausting. Hulk’s next. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. I’m off to do some stirrin’.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday
. A new chapter from his novel, The Devil’s Heir
, posts every Saturday. Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android who you should definitely check out.