American Tail: Produced by Spielberg

The simultaneous release of two animated features, Beauty and the Beast and An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, reflects Hollywood’s current trend of “old-fashioned” entertainment, meant to be seen by all members of the family.

But seeing the two films back to back, highlights Beauty and the Beast not only as the more notable achievement, but also as one, which can be equally enjoyed by children and adults. As far as quality, production values, and emotional involvement are concerned, there will be no competition between the two movies. I am usually hesitant to describe a film as a gem, or perfect entertainment, but in the case of Beauty and the Beast, the adjective seems justified.

When I left the screening of Beauty and the Beast, I hummed the songs and thought about the characters. In contrast, after American Tail, I was relieved to be outside of the theater, following 75 minutes of a relentlessly fast-paced adventure. Though co-directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells, two first-time directors, American Tail bears the signature of Spielberg, who co-produced the film.

The popularity of the first film was a key factor in the current resurgence of animated movies, reinforced by the huge success of the l989 The Little Mermaid. The sequel picks up the story of the Fievel family two years later. Having come to America to escape the wrath of the cats and seek their fortune, they realize that the streets are not “paved with cheese.” Living in a poor tenement, they now dream of better days ahead. Fievel dreams of going out West and becoming a tough lawman like its hero, sheriff Wylie Burp (played by the inimitable Jimmy Stewart).

Moving from the mean streets of New York to the wide-open spaces, the family encounters new enemies. They are confronted with the unscrupulous Cat R. Waul (played by Britisher John Cleese), who plans to lure all the mice to a remote town, have them build a saloon for him and then eat them. The scheme is defeated with the assistance of Tiger (Dom DeLuise), the good vegetarian cat friend, and the aging marshal Wylie Burp.

But American Tail has no story and no engaging characters. An endless series of set pieces and self-conscious contrivances, the film displays Spielberg’s technically cinematic genius. It contains up-to the minute effects and slam bang gags, like the scene in which the mouse family’s boat careens through the flooded sewers. Every move in the film is turned into a wild roller-coaster ride, but this breakneck pace is also the movie’s major weaknesses. If the climactic confrontation is disappointing, it is because it is presented at the same frenetic speed as all the other scenes.

The sophisticated computer effects shift the story’s point of view so many times that they often result in an unnecessary confusion and distortion of space. What little story there is gets lost in the special effects. The viewers don’t get a chance to catch their breath until the sentimental conclusion, when Stewart says in his unique voice what is possibly the worst movie clich of the season: “One man’s sunset is another man’s dawn.”

A tale of immigrants who came to America seeking religious freedom, the original film was naive but appealing. In 1986, when the first film was made, Reagan was at the height of his popularity, and optimism and affluence were dominant norms. However, the new movie is slyer, darker, and more cynical–a reflection of the changing political context. In the sequel, the promised land of America is seen as beset by problems and inhabited by hustlers and crooks.

The great Jimmy Stewart lends his unique voice to the legendary Wylie Burp, but Stewart is also engaged in a parody of himself and his screen image.

Like other Spielberg movies, American Tail pays homage to old movie traditions (live-action Westerns) and icons. But the film seems to have been made mechanically, without any conviction or feeling.