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ĎAn American Tailí

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1986

 


Director:
Don Bluth
Cast:
Dom DeLuise;
Phillip Glaser;
Madeline Kahn;
Nehemiah Persoff;
Christopher Plummer
G
General audience


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Courtesy of animator Don Bluth and executive producer Steven Spielberg comes "An American Tail," an immigrant's story told in the style of Walt Disney.

The movie centers on the Mousekewitz family, a clan of mice who flee from the rapacious cats of their native Russia. In America, Papa Mousekewitz promises, there are no cats and "the streets are paved with cheese." Crossing the Atlantic, the family is separated from young Fievel, whom they believe to be killed in a storm -- in fact, he survives in a floating bottle. Accompanied by new-found friends, the activist mouse Bridget and the streetwise Tony Toponi, Fievel combs New York for his family.

What Fievel and the other Mousekewitzes discover, of course, is that there are indeed cats in America. Masquerading as a rat, Warren T. Rat, an extortionist cat and Tammany Hall fixer, rules over the mice, backed by an army of cats. But in America, at least, the mice can fight back. Led by Gussie Mausheimer, a wealthy reformer, the mice band together and assert their rights.

In the hands of director Bluth, "An American Tail" is technically impeccable, combining much of the richness of bygone Disney animation with modern technological effects. But if it's polished, it's also strikingly uninspired. Like so many movies that bear the "Steven Spielberg Presents" banner, "An American Tail" is told in a schematic, push-button style -- every 10 minutes, there's another cat chase. Making a cartoon, Spielberg is in pig heaven -- after "presenting" so many live-action cartoons (like "Goonies"), he can finally get his hands on the real (fake) thing.

So you watch the cats chase the mice, and then there's a song, and then the cats chase the mice again. The chases are masterfully animated, almost too well -- they move so fast, it's all you can do to follow the action. The songs (by Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann and James Horner) sound the same and have the soul of a greeting card (the main theme advises you to "never say never"). With the exception of a cat-and-mouse dance starring the lovable Tiger (with a voice by Dom DeLuise), the musical routines never spring to life, and neither do the characters -- they're mostly dull caricatures, like the Irish mouse who is (would you believe it?) a drunken pol. Now that's screen writing for you.

What makes a movie directed by Spielberg so magical is not the story but the storytelling -- the imaginative brio, the wealth of detail. But what we get in a "Steven Spielberg Presents" is audience manipulation wrought from a common blueprint, phony emotional uplift machined on an assembly line.

And what's genuinely eccentric about Spielberg is that, while he's attracted to the most basic human themes -- family, love, the fear of loss, the hope of transcendence -- he inevitably paints them with a cartoonist's brush. Even his "realistic" effort, "The Color Purple," seemed (as one critic remarked) like a Disney World attraction drawn from rural black life. Spielberg wants to make fables, yet he seems to forget that his great idol, Frank Capra, was no less a fabulist for being a realist -- in fact, rather more so.

He also seems to forget that Capra fought to get his name above the title of his own pictures, not someone else's. It may be that the truly American tale here is the spectacle of an artist squandering his awesome gifts on the way to becoming a Hollywood institution. A man who should be out making movies is diddling around making a better mousetrap.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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