Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An American Tail

Don Bluth Productions may have been bankrupt, but that didn't stop Bluth from teaming up with Rick Dyer of Advanced Microcomputer Systems and founding Bluth Group (Bluth really liked his own name I guess). The group ended up creating one of the three games stored at the Smithsonian (the others being Pong and Pac-man), Dragon's Lair.  Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, coming out in 1983 and 1984, respectively, were both played on Laserdisc, so it gave the game a more realistic look, something revolutionary at the time for video games. Unfortunately for Bluth, the video game market crashed in 1985 and Bluth Group also had to file for bankruptcy. Things were not looking good for Bluth, but in 1985 he got a second chance in movies thanks to businessman Morris Sullivan. Together with Bluth's dependable team of producers, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, they created Sullivan Bluth Productions. Another lucky stroke for Bluth was the interest of Steven Spielberg in helping produce and distribute his pictures. Together they created the story of a small Jewish mouse who moves to America.

An American Tail tells the story of Fievel (or Feivel) Mousekewitz, a young Jewish mouse that lives in Shostka, Russia in the mid 1880's. Fievel and his family are run out of their home by an army of Cossacks and their cats, leading them to jump on a boat for America. Papa Mousekewitz assures his family that there are no cats in America, and it will be a land of freedom and prosperity. A huge storm causes Fievel and his family to become separated and they believe that he has drowned. Instead, Fievel had stowed away inside a bottle and eventually lands in New York City. He is encouraged by French pigeon named Henri, and sets off to find his family in this new world. Things aren't easy for either Fievel or the Mousekewitz family in America. While Fievel is tricked into being sold to a sweatshop by conman Warren T. Rat, the Mousekewitz family is trying to adjust to their new life in America and realizing it's not all that it's cracked up to be. Instead of freedom from cats and prosperity, they find a ton of cats and little opportunity for the American Dream. Fievel escapes from the sweatshop with a street-smart Italian mouse named Tony, and they run into a rally centered on dealing with the cat problem. The speaker at the rally is an Irish immigrant named Bridget, who agrees to help Fievel find his family. They go to the local politician, a drunk mouse named Honest John, who says he can't help Fievel since his family isn't registered to vote.

Fievel and the gang attend another rally and Fievel comes up with the idea of scaring away the gang of cats that roam the area: they'll build a large mechanical mouse in the image of the legendary figure, the "Giant Mouse of Minsk." Fievel gets lost on the day they are supposed to release the secret weapon and stumbles into Warren T. Rat's hideout. It is here that Fievel realizes that Warren is not a rat at all, but a cat! They capture Fievel, but he is eventually let go by a soft-hearted cat named Tiger. The cats chase Fievel out of the hideout and are led to the dock where the mice have the secret weapon in waiting. The giant mouse comes out, fireworks shooting out of its mouth and everything, and the cats are so scared they jump into the water, eventually boarding a steamer headed for Hong Kong (not sure if this is supposed to be a joke about Chinese food being made of domesticated animals or not). After the battle, Fievel starts to give up hope of ever finding his family, but he eventually hears the violin music his father plays and is finally reunited. The film ends with Henri showing the Mousekewitz family his completed project, The Statue of Liberty.

Using rotoscoping again to make the humans look much more life-like, thereby differentiating their animation style from the more cartoon looking animals, Bluth once again had a beautiful looking film. The film, released in 1986, ended up grossing the most of any non-Disney film, taking in almost $85 million dollars. In comparison, Disney's The Great Mouse Detective made about $22 million less, so Bluth was finally hitting his stride while Disney was floundering. While critics had loved The Secret of NIMH, they really didn't care for An American Tail. Critics called it an expensive movie with no real humor or interesting narrative. Roger Ebert commented that the story was "dark and gloomy" and that "very few children would understand or care that the Mouskewitz's are Jewish." Though critics didn't appreciate the film, it has still developed a cult following, as has most of Bluth's films. The movie spawned a sequel, Fievel Goes West, a project that Bluth was not a part of, but Spielberg did produce. The movie was panned by critics, but is still popular among members of my generation.

Both An American Tail and Fievel Goes West were mainstays in my childhood. I never owned either film but would rent them often, especially the second film. I can still remember going to see the movie in theaters for my 6th birthday, then going out to Pizza Hut afterwards. I only bring up the second film because I won't be writing an official post on it. Over the years, An American Tail has become one of my favorite Bluth films, probably tied with The Secret of NIMH. I can really appreciate the historical aspects in the film, from the different groups of immigrants trying to make it in New York City, to the sweatshops that employed children, to the Tammany Hall politicians that only seek to gain influence, to the embittered loneliness that most felt when first coming to this country; a country that for many was not a land of opportunity, but more of the same. I honestly don't know why critics hate this movie so much, it's a really good movie with a decent narrative. Sure it's darker than most Disney movies, but maybe some kid's movies don't need to be squeaky clean. My last note on this film will be its unintended(?) impact on Art Spiegleman's graphic novel, Maus. Maus is a book detailing Art's fathers struggles during WWII and the holocaust. What does this have to do with An American Tale? Well, Spiegleman had been working on his book since the late 70's, a book that portrayed Jewish people as mice, German's as cats, and so on and so forth. Spiegleman was convinced that Spielberg or Bluth had stolen the idea for Jewish mice and set out to outdo them. Instead of suing them for plagiarism, Spiegleman asked his publishers if he could release the first part of his book before the movie came out, that way people wouldn't think he was stealing from the movie. The publisher's agreed and Maus Volume 1 came out in 1986, with Volume 2 coming out in 1991. You still have to buy them separately. Be warned, Maus is nothing like An American Tail, but it is a very good graphic novel that delves deep into the experience of  a Jewish man trying to survive the Holocaust.

No comments:

Post a Comment