So it turns out that I was just hallucinating the availability of The Secret of NIMH 2 on Netflix. And, as the idea of shelling out actual money to see it was just too depressing, I decided to chronologically move to the next film in Don Bluth’s oeuvre: An American Tail.
This being the first of Bluth’s movies to be co-produced by Amblin Entertainment and with Steven Spielberg as an exec, one would expect to find a step up in production values. But this is not the case, and in my ultimate assessment, An American Tail is a heartfelt film that is undone by its own mediocrity.
The story begins in 1885 Russia. A family of mice – the Moskowitzes – are celebrating Hanukkah when their village is attacked by Cossacks, or more specifically the Cossacks’ cats. This proves to be one too many, and the family decides to immigrate to America, a place, “where there are no cats.” Shortly before arriving, the son, Fievel, get separated from them, and most of the movie concerns his quest to find them. Of course it turns out that there are indeed cats in America who function as the local gangsters, and Fievel wanders into an attempt to send them packing (to Hong Kong, actually).
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a half secular Jewish household. In practice that meant little more than adding Hanukkah and Passover to the usual secular celebrations of Christmas and Easter. But it was enough to instill a sense of Jewish identity in me (and the bragging rights of having two gift giving holidays in December were irresistible). So I’m surprised I didn’t pick up on the Jewishness of the protagonists as a kid.
And then the other religion specifically practiced by other immigrant families in the film is Catholicism, my adoptive faith. And it makes sense; both Catholics and Jews have historically had a tough time of it in America, being seen as clannish, unredeemably old world, and just plain weird and superstitious. The immigrant story of arriving in America and finding that it isn’t quite the land of milk and honey you thought has been told before, but its resonant and has a lot of promise for an animated musical.
But a lot of that promise remains unfulfilled. My first problem flows right out of this, actually. Most of the characters lack any sort of personality outside of ethnic stereotypes. The Moskowitzes are Russian Jews; they speak with a Russian accent, wear Russian clothes, celebrate Hanukkah. That’s it. Honest John is an Irish Catholic; he attends a wake, drinks a lot, speaks with an accent. That’s it. Rinse and repeat. It’s really hard to feel much for them. Even Fievel comes across as generic (although I did chuckle a bit at the line about his favourite book being The Brothers Karamazov).
This is accentuated by the script trying to juggle too many characters and episodes. We hardly have time to get to know people or emotionally register what’s going on because Fievel gets whisked to the next situation within minutes. This is weird, given that NIMH did a good job of handling a large cast and somewhat unwieldy plot.
But what’s even weirder is that the animation simply isn’t as good. It’s choppy and inconsistent at times. And the exaggerated gestures thing I noted about NIMH is on display here, but worse. Although Bluth had a bigger budget with this film, it somehow looks cheaper. The studio also made a decision to use much more cartoony character designs this time around, and it just doesn’t fit with the tone of the story they wanted to tell. On the positive side, the backgrounds are gorgeous and detailed.
Edit: A second (more generous) take can be found here.
As mentioned, this is a musical. None of the songs are actively bad, but they all suffer from being unmemorable. Having just watched the film, I can’t hum any of them. James Horner’s score is workmanlike. Nothing special.
One thing I’ll give An American Tail credit for is its sincerity. If it’s a failure, it’s not because Bluth, et al were phoning it in. But good intentions will only get you so far.