If Bluth is good when he is borrowing from other film-makers, it must be said that he is easily their equal when exercising originality. His credits on the film include designing and storyboarding in addition to producing and directing, and it is an impressive achievement. The Cossack Cats must be mentioned again in this regard; in one outstanding sequence two of them travel towards each other in pursuit of Fievel at breakneck speed through the snow, colliding in a shot which provides a wonderful moment of onscreen symmetry as they glower at each other, nose to nose, teeth bared ferociously.
Then there is the sequence with the Mousekevitzes boarding the refugee ship, with Fievel continually holding up the party by his curious stopping to gaze at this or that wonder at the harbour, and being continually told to “keep walking”, a command eventually uttered by even the quayside pigeons. This particular sequence is a minor masterpiece of rhythm and timing, and is a real pleasure to watch.
The storm at sea is another fine sequence, one which rivals the encounter with Monstro the Whale in Disney’s Pinocchio. The storm descends on the ship in a matter of seconds. The sea is a cold, dirty grey. Inside the ship, two refugee mice play chess as the board floats back and forth between them on water. The sequence builds up as Fievel’s yearning for excitement leads him into being washed around the ship on violent streams of water and eventually overboard. En route, the ship is menaced by a giant Neptune figure formed out of the dark, grey water, a terrifying apparition indeed. Unfortunately, some of the rapid editing is a little confusing (there is a similar problem with the Cossack Cats scene) but otherwise the whole sequence is magnificent.
Fievel’s entry into a sewer, when he hears violin music and thinks he has found his father, provides a brief but thrilling episode as he disappears into an underground passage followed by hundreds of nasty bugs which appear as if from nowhere. Seconds later, they alight on some brickwork loosened by Fievel’s previous footstep and plummet into the moat below to be eaten by a vicious, fishlike creature. This episode works beautifully as a little sequence on its own, which in no way detracts from the rest of the film; by contrast a similar scene was cut from the 1933 King Kong because it dwarfed everything else in the production.
The best sequence in the film, it turns out, is the finale – which surely demonstrates how well conceived the main story is. Having rid New York of cats, Fievel falls in with some rough orphan boys who tell him that if his parents really cared about him, they’d be looking for him. Fievel plays tough to show that he, like they, is strong enough to survive on his own. A blue atmosphere prevails as Fievel sleeps – we pull out slowly to see scores of orphans lining the street as the rain falls. Meanwhile, his family have discovered his hat (that prop again!) and know its owner to be alive. The long pull out is followed by a shot of brightly coloured owls landing on a roof, a sign of hope after the drab blue rain. Then we see Fievel sleeping, and hear his sister Tanya calling his name. The next shot shows the search party of mice riding Tiger, the friendly vegetarian cat, calling out for Fievel. Cut to Fievel, who realises his name is being called. His ears prick up. He says, very softly in a questioning tone, “Papa?”, and then, becoming more sure repeats “Papa” louder and louder. Seconds later, father and son are united, to the euphoric joy of all the mice. This sequence ends with Fievel being given his hat by his father. The hat now fits Fievel because he has grown during his separation from the rest of his family.
One final element worth noting in An American Tail is the visual treatment of the songs. In ‘Somewhere out there’, Tanya and Fievel look into reflections in poois of water, and drift through space perched atop chimneys; they appear onscreen singing a duet whilst they are separated from each other in reality. In ‘A Duo’, sung by Fievel and Tiger, the latter constantly changes from cat size to mouse size; furthermore, both characters’ colours keep changing, and at one point the ground on which they stand turns into blocks of ice floating on water as they do a dance routine. In short, there is a wonderfully surreal quality to these sequences, a quality to which animation lends itself very well. Perhaps Don Bluth will surprise us with a surreal animated feature in years to come.
So there is much to admire in An Amen-can Tail. It boasts a strong story, with some well developed characters and some beautifully edited moments. The film is well paced, and has a strong overall flow to it which The Secret of N.I.M.H. lacked. The unsuccessful two thirds of its middle section attempts to sketch America in terms of a beautiful land where dreams come true, as soon as cats are out of the way. It is a rose-tinted view of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century immigrant experience. Indeed, the final scene is a trip around the newly completed Statue of Liberty. One marvels at the artistry while cringing at the sentiment. It is, perhaps, salutary to remember the same monument from Hitchcock’s Saboteur, when it was subversively incorporated into a much darker vision by having a character fall from it. However, the potential offence of such simplistic nationalism pales beside An American Tail’s achievement as an otherwise well thought out piece of animated storytelling.
Printed in Animator Issue 21 (Winter 1987)