An American Tail Review

Back in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, American animated cinema was almost exclusively Disney, with only a handful of smaller features here and there. During this time, however, was one consistent alternative in the form of the films of Don Bluth, which became great successes in their own right. Oftentimes, Don Bluth’s films rivaled – and sometimes surpassed – the success of Disney’s features of the time. Today, Don Bluth’s films hold a strong nostalgic value for many, and among the directors most famous features is An American Tail. On the downside of things, Don Bluth’s movies do not possess the same timeless qualities as the Disney features, and American Tail is no exception.

An American Tail tells the story of the Mousekewitzes, a family of Russian-Jewish mice who plan to immigrate to America after their home is destroyed in an arson attack by the Cossacks and their cats (“there are no cats in America” say the immigrant mice, apparently unaware that they’re the second most-popular pet in the country). Tragedy strikes aboard the boat to America, however, as the Mousekewitz’s young son, Fievel, ends up going overboard during a terrible storm.

Fievel manages to survive, but is orphaned from his family. Unbeknownst to both parties, they both find their way to New York City, with Fievel’s sister still believing him to be alive, despite her parents’ losing hope, and little Fievel trying to reunite with his family. All this while trying to avoid the cats that lurk the streets of New York.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. This is a movie intended for young kids, and within the first few minutes, we have a family’s house being burned to the ground, a kid being orphaned while his family believes him to be dead, and they’re all trying to avoid being eaten. Geez, what a downer. I certainly have nothing against sadness being present in children’s films, especially since the best such films are those that don’t talk down to their target audience and show children that, sometimes, the world is dark and scary and sad. But An American Tail just feels like it’s stacking tragedy after tragedy on top of each other to manipulate pathos from the audience.

Another issue with An American Tail is that there’s really nothing to its characters. Sure, Fievel is cute and all, but that’s about all there is to say about him. And many of the side characters, like the villainous Warren T. Rat (a cat in disguise as a rat) and Tony Toponi (a streetwise mouse who befriends Fievel) are either completely forgettable or just come off as annoying. One of the few exceptions is Tiger, a kindly fat cat who speaks in the voice of Dom DeLuise who serves as the film’s (much needed) comic relief.

Sure, some would argue that An American Tail is a children’s film, and that you shouldn’t expect more fleshed-out characters, but that kind of argument seems like a defeatist cop-out. There are plenty of children’s films that have enough confidence in their target audience to understand deeper characterization. It’s true that many animated films of the 1980s had a similar approach, and were incredibly simplistic. But just because this issue wasn’t exclusive to An American Tail doesn’t take away its accountability for it.

The sad thing is, this seems to be a recurring issue when revisiting Don Bluth movies. Bluth may have made a number of films that many of us look back on fondly, but their lack of depth and substance only becomes apparent with age. Bluth definitely understood how to direct the animators in creating the visuals for his films, as they tend to be on par with Disney’s animated features of the time in regards to visuals. But Don Bluth’s films don’t seem to understand how to develop characters, and instead just throw a bunch of sad events around cookie cutter characters in an attempt to make us care.

I know, I’m now the villain of many an 80s and 90s kid. Though being born in 1989, I fit right into this same crowd. I myself grew up watching An American Tail, and have many fond memories of it. But An American Tail, like a number of Don Bluth’s other features, seems as underdeveloped in story and characters as it is pretty to look at. I’m afraid nostalgia can’t improve storytelling.

An American Tail is not a bad movie. It’s just a generic and uneventful one. The animation is well made, with the characters moving fluidly and the scenery boasting many intricate details. But the story and characters lack substance (made all the more notable by how the film quickly chickens out of the tragic Jewish parable it hints at in the opening). While I’m a proud US citizen and can greatly appreciate the film’s sense of American optimism, that can’t make up for the pandering sentiment. The songs aren’t particularly memorable, either.

Again, An American Tail could be a whole lot worse. But for a film that so many people swear to be “better than Disney,” there’s really not a whole lot to it. It may be a nostalgic treat for many. Though aside from the animation itself, that might be all it is.

 

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The Land Before Time Review

The Land Before Time

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. As I watched The Land Before Time again for the first time in what is probably close to twenty years, I was surprised how vividly I remembered the tiny details of the film, right down to the sounds. Though one thing nostalgia can’t cover up is the fact that The Land Before Time – though better aged than most of director Don Bluth’s other features – is strictly aimed at kids.

The Land Before Time is a movie about dinosaurs, in which every species gets a cutesy name change: Brontosauruses become “Long-Necks,” Triceratops become “Three-Horns,” and all carnivores are collectively referred to as “Sharp-Tooths.” You get the idea.

Anyway, the story tells of a time when the world is changing, and the green of the world is diminishing in the changing climate. But rumors tell of a place known as the Great Valley, which remains green and rich with food for herbivores.

A family of brontosa…I mean, “Long-Necks,” are among the many herbivores trying to find their way to the great valley. This family consists of the young Littlefoot, his mother, and his grandparents. The films opening gets off to an emotional start, with Littlefoot’s mother being killed by a tyrannosaurus¬†in a scene that scarred many a childhoods, and then he is separated by his grandparents when the land begins splitting apart in a massive earthquake.

I don’t mean to sound too dismissive, because the sentiment in these opening moments does resonate (again, bring up Littlefoot’s mother to anyone who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s and you’re sure to find a tear or two). The problem is that the early moments are the only moments where this emotion is felt. It’s as if Don Bluth and company felt like presenting all the emotion in a few quick scenes was enough, instead of carrying that weight throughout the narrative.

The Land Before TimeFrom there, it’s up to Litlefoot to remember his mother’s words to find his own way to the Great Valley, where his grandparents are waiting for him. Along the way, Littlefoot meets up with Cera, a prideful “Three-horn,” as well as Ducky (a “Big-Mouth”), Petrie (a “flyer”) and Spike (a “spike-tail”). These latter three characters are largely underdeveloped, but they might provide some charm and humor for younger audiences.

The characters are well-animated, and it’s fun seeing all these dinosaurs come to life, and just how lively they move. Though there are some inconsistencies with the quality of character designs and even the color and lighting of the film (perhaps it was for budget reasons, but there are a few too many scenes in which the lighting effects conveniently reduce the characters to singular colors). The music is often emotional, though it does have a few moments where the musical cues may be a bit pandering.

Another problem is that the film is just too short. It’s true that the American animated features in the 80s still catered to the idea that audiences couldn’t handle lengthier animation, but The Land Before Time barely exceeds the hour mark. This leaves Littlefoot’s grand adventure feeling rushed, with the final act just kind of happening upon itself.

Still, young children might still find some delight with The Land Before Time. 80s and 90s kids certainly did, if the thirteen (yes,¬†thirteen) straight-to-video sequels were any indication. But animated storytelling has come a very long way since the days of Don Bluth, and there are countless of better alternatives, many of which will also appeal to adults. Still though, if you crave some nostalgia, by all means, revisit The Land Before Time and let the memories come flooding back. Just don’t blame me if it isn’t as magical as it once seemed.

 

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