Friday, August 6, 2010

Don Bluth Month: Poverty, Genocide, Swiss Cheese Ice Cream - Thoughts on "An American Tail"

But first, hilarity from the Universal DVD.  Indeed, dear reader. How do we find things? (I didn't play the game; sometimes it's more fun to wonder.)

These next few films are going to be hard to talk about without bringing in my childhood memories. It should be noted at this point that there was such a crazy and wide variety of hand-drawn animation coming from various studios by the early '80s, that I never ever developed the "All animated films are Disney films" delusion. Even so, by 1986 I was not yet aware that each movie was made by a specific studio and directed by a specific person. So it never occurred to me, sitting in the theater, that this weird movie about immigrant mice was by the same person who made that awesome movie about the big glowy-eyed owl and the wizard rat guy.

And "An American Tail" was and
is, upon re-watching, weird as hell. Even weirder than the previous Don Bluth productions. As a child I didn't even really like it that much, though I could see that the character animation and the score was much better than what you'd see in, like, "The Care Bears Movie". But even though it was really pretty, "Tail" always struck me as kind of awkward in ways I couldn't explain.

Part of this might be indirectly Steven Spielberg's fault. "An American Tail" (which was basically his idea for an animated film) exists somewhere in between "E.T." and "Hook". I have already mentioned this elsewhere, but I was never really a big fan of "E.T." I don't think my sister liked it much either -- but our
mom loved it and it's still one of her favorite movies. Now I understand why: Adults watch "E.T." and see a cute story about a kid who gets help from some other kids in reuniting with his family. Children, on the other hand, get hours in the dark (since even short movies seem really long when you are a child, thanks to your messed-up perception of time) staring at something with a direct mainline to all of their worst and most deeply instinctive and primal anxieties. Being a kid lost in the supermarket is one thing -- try being a peaceful hippie-alien stranded on another planet overrun with violent primates. It goes without saying that "Tail" runs on these same "lost little kid" themes. On top of that, the sequence of events in the film almost look as though there was a contest to see how many traumatic things poor little Feivel could be made to suffer through!

And yet, that's not what bothered me the most when I watched this movie as an eight-year-old. Now, you have to remember that when you are a child,
nothing makes sense. This is simply because everything is new to you, and you have the whole of accumulated human knowledge to catch up on. Fun times. You don't understand half of the jokes in "Looney Tunes", commercials are likely to scare you out of your mind because you have no way of knowing that giant fruit doesn't regularly fall from the ceiling, and you don't understand that there were things that happened before you were born called "history". Eventually, a lot of it makes sense as you grow up and learn more, but there are scenes in "An American Tail" that actually bothered me because the movie never explained them further. Why the heck did they change Tanya's name to Tilly? Why was that guy selling the Brooklyn Bridge for pocket change? Why won't Annoying McStereotype (and that brings up another issue I could get into that bothered me when I watched it after I'd grown up a bit) help Feivel just because his family aren't registered to vote? What does that have to do with anything?

If nothing else, this movie proves that there's a fine line between understated and confusing. I don't even know if I'd show this movie to my hypothetical children. Can you imagine the conversation?

Baby Trish*: "But mommy, why are they singing that there are no cats in America? Of course there are cats in America! Why don't the mice know that?"
Trish: "Well, see, honey, this is a mousey version of a misconception commonly held by the real immigrants of the time. Like when your great-great-grandparents came over from Europe, they thought America was a magical land where everything was made out of gold and there was no hunger or homelessness and everyone was happy and they'd never again face the problems they struggled with at home. Unfortunately, they came here and had to deal with a whole new set of problems, including the prejudice of the people who were already here. So in effect, there damn well were 'cats' in America. OK, sweetie?"

(There is a long and awkward pause.)
Baby Trish: "I just wanted a movie about a lost mouse."

I have to agree with Roger Ebert's opinion of the movie from way back when. However, I'd add that "An American Tail" is all the beautiful bleakness of "Pinocchio" without any of it's humor. (Face it, if it weren't for Jiminy Cricket, "Pinocchio" would have been the bleakest Disney movie ever made.) And all this makes the following fact especially puzzling: For a long, long time, this was the highest grossing animated film ever made.

Lord knows why. Maybe it was Feivel himself? He could sing anything in that plaintive little mouse voice of his. Or maybe James Horner has a gift for bringing people in with an Oscar-baiting end-credits song? (That said, "Somewhere Out There" is one of the best examples of it's kind, and I highly doubt that anyone who wasn't going to see "Titanic" or "Avatar" anyway was swayed by their respective Oscar-Bait Songs.) All of the songs, incidentally, are the most aggressive of earworms. I'll never get these damn songs out of my head! Never!

Henri: "Ah, ah, ah! Never say never! (singing) Never say never, whatever you do! Never say never agai-AAAAAWK!!!"

(Sounds of Trish, who, mind you, is a big-hearted bird lover, strangling the pigeon.)

So, no, "American Tail" doesn't hold up too well. Next, we'll see how strong my Nostalgia Filter is with "The Land Before Time".

* - Because some My Little Pony collector has to do it. Be assured that I won't, IRL, though as far as geek baby names go, this is pretty tame.


Teddy said...

Think I've read that Tail is the story of Steven's family coming to America, just as mice. I bought my sister a doll from the movie and she had it for years. that is all

Zach said...

I've never really cared for American Tail. It's just too strange and dark--it doesn't really have a specific audience in mind. There's some really freaky imagery in there for kids--as there is in most Bluth films--but the film's sequel, Fievel Goes West, is an infinately more watchable and enjoyable movie.