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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