REVIEW: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)

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Directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells
Written by Flint Dille, Story by Charles Swenson, Characters Created by David Kirschner
Starring the Voices of Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, Amy Irving, John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Erica Yohn, Cathy Cavadini, Nehemiah Persoff

One of the many VHS tapes I wore out as a child. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West may have been the animated cinema equivalent of blasphemy–a sequel to a Don Bluth film made without his presence–but it still holds a special place in my heart for sentimental reasons. It’s actual merits are a little harder to defend, but not impossible.

Some time after the Mousekewitz’s have settled in America, they find that they are still having problems with the threat of cats. That makes them eager to try another home out in the west, where they are promised that mice and cats live in peace. Unfortunately, the one making this claim is an oily con artist named Cat R. Waul (John Cleese) who is intent on his own sinister plan. Followed by their true cat friend, Tiger (Dom DeLuise), the Mousekewitz’s travel west, where Fievel must team up with his Old West sheriff hero, Wylie Burp (James Stewart), to stop Waul.

Bluth’s original film was made towards the beginning of his remarkable directorial career, after he had left Disney and set up shop with Universal studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. While that relationship would soon end, An American Tail was the result of that pairing. With Bluth out for the sequel, Spielberg proved to be the guiding influence that saved this sequel from complete ruin, bringing on board two likewise former Disney animators, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of the great H.G. Wells, Simon Wells.

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Picking up where the original left off with Fievel’s family having settled on the East Coast of America, the film quickly glosses over any and all continuity hiccups quickly, showing that their “land of opportunity” wasn’t all it was croaked up to be. After an attack by a vicious cat gang drives them underground, they are duped into heading west to start yet another new life by the villain of the picture, Cat R. Waul, played with eloquent viciousness by John Cleese, easily becoming the best voice of the film.

Out west in the town of Green River, the mice are again lured into becoming the workforce for the cats building the town, who plan to then feast on the mice as a celebration. Fievel goes to the town’s canine sheriff, the old and tired Wiley Burp, for help, who then enlists Fievel’s cat friend Tiger for a vigorous training and showdown with Waul’s gang. James Stewart, in his final role, voices Burp with all the Western movie star swagger he has left, becoming an excellent compliment to the wild antics of Dom DeLuise as the cowardly Tiger.

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Despite Bluth’s absence, animation technique and style remain mostly consistent with the first film, even in the face of design changes to several characters. In fact, the only real minus I can give to the animators is that the color palette of this film seems a bit bright compared to the rusty bronze of the first, but then again, this could be a consequence of the change of setting to the sandy western deserts of America. The film’s score is as proficient and moving as the original, with the new song, “Dreams to Dream,” as good as “Somewhere Out There” was.

If there’s a major flaw to Fievel Goes West, it’s the story. Clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s shrimpy compared to An American Tail, seemingly missing an entire act before Fievel goes to Burp for help, and spending much of its early minutes establishing yet another “Fievel gets separated from his family” subplot. Even his father doesn’t seem to worried about him after he is lost, considering that this a movie that steals just a bit too much from its predecessor.

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Opening the same weekend as Beauty and the Beast, Fievel Goes West was destined to be smashed by that superior film, even without its narrative deficiencies. However, this said, it tends to be an overlooked piece in early ’90s animation, worthy of just as much praise and attention as any of Bluth’s films from the same period. I just wish there was more of it.

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