Don Bluth and his team left Disney because the mouse had stopped taking risks, becoming stagnant and content to churn out one uninspired, safe, friendly, marketable, instantly forgettable feature after another. As we discussed in our last exciting episode, The Secret of NIMH was in many ways a direct challenge to what Disney animation had become; NIMH was idiosyncratic, intelligent, dark, unafraid to scare (and thrill) with its moody atmosphere and exciting set pieces. As an artistic achievement, it still holds up nearly thirty years later.
It was also barely-released, resulting in a less than stellar box office return. But it attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who produced Bluth's next film and ensured it got the distribution (and the box office) it deserved. That film was An American Tail, and while there were elements that were comparatively risky-- the film is, after all, a picaresque journey through nineteenth-century New York, centering on the travails of the very Jewish Mousekewitz family-- it lacks the ambition, atmosphere, and artistic achievement of its predecessor. In many ways, from its basic lost-child-looking-for-parents plot to its reliance on musical numbers in lieu of personalities, it plays it very, very safe. In this viewer's opinion, it is (and it really hurts to say this) not very far from the sort of animated film that Bluth was trying to get away from.
Compare the comic relief characters played by the inimitable Dom Deluise in The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail: NIMH's Jeremy the crow is a clumsy, helpful, would-be ladies man, whereas Tail's mouse-friendly cat Tiger is a more-than-blatant imitation of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, a road that was already well-trodden by Snagglepuss. NIMH gives Jeremy the time to develop his unique and charming personality over the course of the film; Tiger's screen time is extremely brief.
And that would not be a problem if Tiger was intended to be just another part of Fievel Mousekewitz's journey, like the Boss Tweed-like Honest John or the wealthy Gussie Mausheimer. But Tiger becomes integral to the film's plot, freeing Fievel from his cage (mere moments after they've been introduced) and assisting the other mice in their later search for him; Tiger is intended to be Fievel's bosom buddy, a fact that is rather unconvincingly lampshaded in one of the film's musical numbers. Listen carefully to the opening musical cue, which apes one of the cues from a Bert Lahr number in The Wizard of Oz:
Now, I'm not going to grouse here or be overwhelmingly negative; the song is certainly catchy, and indeed, all the songs are (the songs in, say, All Dogs Go To Heaven, which we'll be discussing in our fourth installment, eh, not so much). And I certainly have to give Bluth and company props for allowing the child characters to sing in slightly-faltering child voices, a choice that's even more apparent (and moving) in the film's famous "Somewhere Out There" number.
It's smart, artistic choices like that that elevate the film above and beyond its contemporary competition. And it's not every film that comments obliquely on the loss of identity inherent in the immigrant experience, made most explicit in the way Fievel is renamed Filly and his sister Tanya, Tillie. For what it is, the film certainly works, but that thing that it is is awfully ordinary when compared to the more idiosyncratic Secret of NIMH.
As I detailed in some, er, detail last time, NIMH was able to sustain suspense and terror for extended and often breathtaking sequences. There are moments in An American Tail that flirt with that terror-- consider, for example, Fievel finding himself working in a sweatshop. Here is a sequence that is positively ripe with phantasmagorical possibilities, possibilities that are denied when the film cuts immediately from the sweatshop's introduction to Fievel making good his escape. All the cats in this film put together can't equal the dread inspired by NIMH's old cat Dragon, he who made a widow of Mrs. Brisby; these cats have already been neutered (or spayed) by a musical number.
And, sure, it's a damn catchy number! (Me and the missus, being both of us ailurophiles, also consider it a form of hate speech, but that's neither here nor there.) But by making the death-by-feline "fun", it also makes them no real threat at all, simply a cartoonish plot device to be swatted aside by another cartoonish plot device. The film does not threaten or confuse, but assures us through-out, with each chorus or zany character, that everything's going to be just fine, that there's really nothing at stake.
It's the sort of thing that entertains children but is frankly slow-going for adults, and I'm sure some of you are saying, well, then what are you complaining about? But I keep coming back to C. S. Lewis and his essay "On Three Ways of Writing For Children". The whole of it is well worth reading and serves as a nice all-purpose debunker of those who think children's entertainments should be less than those of adults. But specifically there is this:
Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us -find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.
And also this:
And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable.
In his next film, and to his credit, Bluth is not afraid to make us afraid, and lonely, and ballooned with a terrible grief. Unfortunately, Spielberg (and Lucas) were afraid to do just that, and the compromised work that survived is the topic of our next discussion. See you then.