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.
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This week, Tim Popple looks at Studio Ghibli’s classic eco-anime Princess Mononoke with a new perspective, meaning I absolutely have to dig out my copy of the film and revisit this epic adventure. If you want to contribute a Guest Favourite post, put your review in a bottle and cast it into the sea.
Every once in a while a film comes along that you realise is something special. There’s a moment, a point, a glance, a word, something which causes a primal YES! in your heart. A film which works on more levels than Miss Kubelik. Princess Mononoke is such a film. It’s not just a great animation. It’s not just a great Japanese film. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.
Ashitaka is a young prince living in a village in Japan. When a boar god, tragically turned into a demon, attacks, he defends and, in the process, is wounded. The wound is proclaimed evil, infected by the same demon which infected the boar god. Regrettably he is banished, despite his bravery, and he sets off to search for what caused their boar god to be so slain, clutching just a small globule of iron as a clue. He finds Iron Town, led by Lady Eboshi, and there discovers the truth behind the corruption of the boar god.
Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and Studio Ghibli’s output in general, almost exclusively carry with them environmental concerns. It is Ghibli’s equivalent to Disney’s prevalent “be true to yourself” message. “Be true to your planet”, if you will. Some are more explicit than others – Pom Poko, while only written by Miyazaki, is nevertheless perhaps the most on-the-nose environmentally-centric of Ghibli’s films. Mononoke, then, is perhaps next. Humanity’s technological developments – iron smelting, rifle refinery, forest destruction – are directly impacting the natural world and, by extension, the spiritual world which inhabits nature. By manifesting nature in corporeal godly forms,Mononoke personifies the issue at the heart. Ashitaka meets San, a girl raised by wolves and, in particular wolf god Moro. Her wild ecological bent is entirely natural – nature is her world. She is its princess, named Mononoke by Moro. Initially distrustful of humans, this extends to Ashitaka’s appearance. His demonic affliction in his arm convinces her that there is more to him and, slowly, trust grows. Ashitaka is a conduit between the nature gods and the humans in a way that San could never have been.
What is particularly pleasing is that the humans are not depicted one dimensionally as “evil”. Eboshi is keen to evolve, to develop, to grow. She does this in the interests of humanity, even while she does this at the expense of the gods. She does not revere them; it is not an act of evil, but of dispassion. Humanity, rather than being opposed to gods merely see them as an inconvenience, something to be overcome. Humanity is ignorant, not evil.
Ignorance leads to poor action. Poor action leads to conflict. Conflict leads to tragedy. Only through the rebirth of the forest god can everything be saved. As one awed townsman says, “I didn’t realise the forest god made the flowers grow”. Now, I’m going to make a leap of equivalencies and draw parallels unintended by the filmmakers. This film is replete with Japanese legend, but it tells a universal story. That exclamation, that realisation by a bystander, to me, reeked of the lone Centurion stating, “truly he was the son of God”. A god is killed, darkness covers the forest, and only when the god is reborn does the earth rejuvenate. Death, rebirth, resurrection. It’s a familiar story. In Jiko-bo there is even a Judas figure, betraying Ashitaka after an initial association, to kill the forest god. It’s an imperfect analogy, but there are sufficient parallels to give another layer to this complex, rich, and fulfilling film.
Princess Mononoke is an adventure. It is the story of one man’s journey to save himself and, in the process, saving the world entire. His curse is the world’s curse. His salvation is found in embracing nature, saved by a god, and finding a path that is beneficial to all. There is no Disney happy ending. There’s no big song to rouse us out of our seats. There is a real world ending to a film which tells a remarkably mature story. This is not My Neighbour Totoro. This is not a children’s tale. This is a story for adolescents and up; which is not to belittle it, because its layers will reward all except the very young. There is humour, there is excitement, there is danger and love and fighting and beauty. So much beauty. Joe Hisaishi’s score is remarkable, punctuated by moments of silence which echo in your heart. It is inventive and wild, philosophical and calm. It is one of those rare films that has a bit of everything. It’s not pure adventure; it’s not pure message. It’s a perfect mixing of the two which never forgets to be both.
Tim is a sci-fi, animation and silent film loving geek with a twitter account and a blog which cover a vast array of topics. When not watching and writing about films, he sings, looks after his film buff kids and makes terrible, terrible puns. He thinks the Twilight films are ‘ok’.