Animator Don Bluth left the Disney studio a few years ago, reportedly feeling frustrated by his efforts to give their creaky animation department a good swift kick in the pants. So Bluth made a complicated feature, The Secret of NIMH, that attempted new ambition in animation.
Meanwhile, ironically, Disney was getting off its high horse and pumping some new blood into its own efforts. Last summer’s The Great Mouse Detective showed some renewed energy from the Disney people.
Now Bluth checks in with his own mouse feature (this one produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company), and it’s – ah – extremely cute, which will be a recommendation or a warning, depending on your own predilections.
Interestingly enough, it’s a story about immigration, set in the latter part of the 19th century. The Mousekiwicz family lives in Russia, but are persecuted by cats (read: cossacks). So they scramble aboard a ship heading for America, where, they’ve heard, “There are mouse holes in every wall and bread crumbs on every floor” and absolutely no cats.
During the voyage, the tiny mouse hero, Fievel, is washed overboard in a storm. He floats ashore in a bottle, in New York harbor, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, which is just being erected. But he despairs of ever finding his family again, and has a series of adventures during his search.
Bluth’s story is a bold one for a full-length cartoon, since it touches on religious persecution, union origins (a mouse organizer calls for a communal effort against the cats!), and a lot of business about the United States as a melting pot.
But Bluth doesn’t forget that his biggest audience is small fry, and there are many adorable characters with squeaky voices. Also a passel of songs, most of which are painless.
In fact, the entire film is pretty painless. Even Dom DeLuise’s roly-poly cowardly cat, the only good-natured cat in the film, is acceptable in part because the actor is spoofing Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion voice from The Wizard of Oz. (DeLuise is one of the few recognizable voices in the cast; other well-known actors disguise their voices, and most are unknown.)
The animation is fine. The harbor scenes are drawn with care and detail, though the characters look like the usual cartoon designs. Bluth’s high point is the sea storm, which is dominated by a dark, Poseidonlike figure rising from the black water the stir up the seas. It’s the single most exciting and inventive sequence in the movie, and the subsequent scenes look a bit pallid next to it.
However, Bluth seems to be on the right track, with his combination of first-rate animation, offbeat storylines, and darling touches aimed at the kids. And his inclusion, and celebration, of the completed Statue of Liberty in the final sequence is both a heartfelt salute and a sensible commercial move – and isn’t the coupling of patriotism and commercialism appropriate for an American tale?
First published in The Herald, November 1986
Bluth would continue his quest at exactly the same time Disney actually rebounded into a titan again; Land Before Time came out in 1988, All Dogs Go to Heaven in ’89. An American Tail has become a classic; the sequel, Fievel Goes West, was done without Bluth.