There are some 2D animations that are literally just that. Bright, frothy, pretty, but ultimately flat. They’re okay, but a third dimension is sorely lacking. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West isn’t one of them.
Then there are 2D animations that plumb deeper realms, embracing themes or abstraction that flow in a way many live-action films just can’t match (Toy Story, Fantasia). This isn’t one of them either.
No, Fievel Goes West is a film that embraces its utter glee, although still not afraid to discuss generational legacy and importance of family, but all the while maintaining a firm grip on its purpose: entertaining them kiddos. Yes, Toy Story does exactly that too (in spades), but it also KNOWS it’s clever. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, conversely, is just having too much fun to care.
Following 1986’s An American Tail, this 1991 Spielberg/Kennedy/Marshall/Bluth-produced sequel is just as touching and far more adventurous. In the late 19th century, little mouse Fievel Mousekewitz and his Russian emigrant family are duped by the devious Cat R.Waul into believing their American dream lies out on the frontier and in his hands. It’s up to Fievel, his friend Tiger and retired dog sheriff Wylie Burp to let the cat out of the bag and save the mice from becoming dinner. Films are referenced, songs are launched, the Hollywood Wild West is homaged in music and vista, and everybody has fun. Even when they’re being chased by snarling dogs and pummelled by trains (I’m looking at you, Tiger).
Back to behind the scenes: I only mentioned that barrage of big producers’ names to prove one point… this film’s biggest weapon is the names. That powerhouse team managed to put together one of the best voice-cast ensembles in animation, and I don’t say that lightly. John Cleese, Amy Irving, Dom DeLuise, Jon Lovitz… and Jimmy Stewart. Yes, George Bailey’s final bow on the big screen was this bundle of unadulterated fun, and boy does he do it in style. Just because Stewart’s last film was a kids’ animation doesn’t mean his last feature performance is worth ignoring. Wylie Burp is a beautiful rendition of an old-timer who has no need to revel in his past glories, just be content in himself and sleep the afternoon sun off every day, yet (true) grit his teeth and do the right thing when a youngster’s family are in peril. His voice is melancholic with that familiar lacing of gentle steel. It’s sublime.
The film’s director Simon Wells has clearly drawn on his grandfather H.G.Wells‘ creative juices to create a world of invention (the use of household objects, although seen before elsewhere many times, is still boldly prolific), and he sweeps his virtual camera around like it’s a real thing. His eye is unchained by the seeming limitations of the medium, and the visual depths he’s wrought via inspired or unusual angles, not to mention his circular dolly moments, swirling round our protagonists with a definite smirk, breathe further life into what is painstakingly drawn. His scene transitions are often worth a rewind and his willingness to trim every ounce of fat from this tail (sic) means its 70-minute running time is unashamedly perfect. The humour is inspired – especially Tiger’s transformation from cat to demi-god to pseudo-dog, moulding scenes that are both delightful and very very funny. And the musical interludes drive the story, not detract from it – especially note the travelling montage as the mice make their “Way Out West”, ending on a map of the United States where each state is denoted by a different cheese. It’s brilliant.
But back to Jimmy Stewart to end. So much of the dialogue is fun and easily missed, but Stewart’s final line demonstrates the film’s heart for honouring legacy and integrity, not to mention sweetly poignant: “One man’s sunset is another man’s dawn.”
Bye bye, Jimmy. Thank you.
Steve Dunn is a novelist with books that can be found on amazon, but when he’s not doing that he can be found tweeting, driving ambulances, leading churches and being a Dad. So he’s a bit lazy, really.
If you want to write a guest post, I would LOVE to hear from you. Facebook, twitter, comments section, motorway banners… let me know somehow.
Kicking off Animation Confabulation’s series of guest favourites is my friend @Fiercy_27, or Fiona as she’s known outside of twitter, writing about why Anastasia is her favourite animated film. It’s an unexpected choice – I don’t remember anything about this film from primary school days, and haven’t seen it since – but that’s what makes a good Guest Favourite post. It’s a film that I’m unlikely to write about, it’s clearly something she loves, and it brings a different voice to the blog so you aren’t always reading my annoying voice. If you have a favourite animated film (outside of Disney or Ghibli), and would like to write about it, I’d like to make Guest Favourites a regular thing, so let me know on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments. No previous experience necessary.
Anastasia, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s (of Land Before Time fame) 1997 animation is a simple story at its heart: orphan girl longs to find family, meets boy who helps her on her way, finds long lost grandmother, falls in love with boy, defeats arch-nemesis in the process and lives happily ever after. However when we add in that said girl is actually the mythic last surviving Russian Romanov Princess, the eponymous Anastasia, the story becomes a little more nuanced. This complexity is perhaps the reason the film is, in my opinion, such a success. Bluth and Goldman both learned their trade working on animations from Disney’s golden age and this really shows in the subtle layers of the movie; how its success is due to composite parts, not just one key thing and how there is, if you look deep enough, something everyone can enjoy. Praising aside, Anastasia has long been one of my favourite films, ever since I was first enthralled by its magical story as a child, and so here dear blog reader (sorry it all went a bit Jane Austen there) are my four reasons why I think (and hopefully you will too) Anastasia is an animation worth watching:
- The Music: With two Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score respectively some would argue that the music is the best part of Anastasia, and well I’m not going to argue with them. Songs such as ‘Once upon a December’ have become recognisable in their own right and the music stays with you long after the credits have rolled. What’s best about the film’s music though is the way that it interplays with the stunning visuals. The moment when Anastasia sneaks into the abandoned Winter Palace at the beginning of the film becomes a backdrop for spectacular colourful visions from her memories that float and dance around the screen as a waltz plays. This music/visual interplay also works spectacularly in the number ‘Paris Holds the Key (to your heart)’ in which the Parisian skyline is transformed into an impressionist painting, akin to Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. This song also allows a whole host of famous Parisians to make cameos, such as Rodin and Chanel; basically it’s a mini animated Midnight in Paris.
- The Heroine: Rarely in boy meets Princess animation do we see the Princess defeat the bad guy and rarely do we see it done with as sheer, well, awesomeness as in Anastasia. Meg Ryan, who voices the Princess, seemingly has everything working against her: cheerfully American accent in a movie where everyone is bringing out their best Doctor Zhivago (here’s looking at you, Angela Lansbury), stereotypical, simpering orphan hopefulness, and naïve optimism to the point where you’re ready to write her off as a character. That is until about forty minutes into the action where she suddenly finds her movie star/Romanov Princess gumption, saves Dmitri’s (the boy of the story) life and plays out the rest of the movie with ass kicking aplomb.
- Bartok (the Magnificent): Stop what you’re doing. Stop reading this blog. [no wait, don’t! – Ed.] Stop drinking your cup of tea and go off and find yourself a copy of Bartok the Magnificent, also known as the best straight to DVD sequel ever made. Fantastic songs and glittering animation aside if Anastasia has given us one thing it’s Bartok. Rasputin’s talking bat sidekick is responsible for most of the film’s humour and his witticisms are allowed to continue in this much forgotten sequel, which for anyone who even mildly enjoyed the movie is well worth a watch.
- The Villain: I most definitely can’t be called an expert in Russian history but it’s pretty obvious that Anastasia is definitely more fairy-tale than fact with regards to the real life characters that it employs, but that’s what makes the villain of the story so effective. Rasputin: Russian Holy Man, advisor to the last Tsarina of Russia and subject of a wonderfully cheesy Boney M song, is repainted as a demonic figure, hell-bent on destroying the Romanov’s with his curse. That’s right, those pesky Communists were just puppets in ol’ Rasputin’s master plan to wipe out the royalty. Joking aside, when you’re 8 years old, and have just seen the movie for the first time and then discover that Rasputin was a real person, it gets a lot, lot scarier. That’s where Rasputin finds his success in the world of cartoon villains; part macabre half living demon intent on killing Anastasia to complete his plan, part over the top participant in gleeful song and dance numbers, he comes to embody the spirit of the whole movie. He is from the in-between world where reality is made fantastical, where imagination lets reality take a back seat, and the place where a story becomes truly great.
Fiona is a fellow English Lit student at my Uni here in cold, cold Scotland, and a fellow animation fan. She spends most of her time pondering which colour nail polish to wear when she should be reading classic literature. She doesn’t [yet] have her own blog, but if you enjoyed this article you can follow her on twitter. Her dream is to become the youngest person to win an EGOT, and she is only waiting for an Oscar, now.