The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
An American Tail
AN AMERICAN TAIL began production in December of 1984 and animation would never be the same again. The enormous success of the film sent shock waves through all areas of entertainment. Animation was suddenly making money. It also began a trend of shorter time schedules, tighter budgets and high security.
The main title music plays against large, snowflakes fluttering through the air. This dissolves into snowscapes and a small Russian village. Following the camera, the viewer goes to the house of the Moskowitz's, then pans down to a tiny door marked "Mousekewitz." A subtitle states the location is Shostka, Russia, 1885. Cutting into the house, Papa is playing his violin and Mama is taking care of their baby (Yasha). Mama tells Papa it is late and asks him to put away the violin. He agrees and gives it to their daughter Tanya. Fievel enters asking about presents, because it is Hanukkah. Papa asks, "what presents?" The children look saddened, but then Papa laughs. It was a joke.
Tanya receives a new babushka, while Fievel receives his father's hat. A hat, Papa tells him, has been passed on for generations from father to son. The hat is too big, but Mama says, "You'll grow." Papa then begins to tell the children a story about the giant Mouse of Minsk who was as tall as a tree and scared all the cats.
At the word "cats," Mama tells Papa not to say that word and asks him to talk about something else. The children shout "America." Mama refers to this as another fairy tale, but Papa talks about the golden opportunities in the new land. The best part being that there are no cats in America.
At this point commotion is heard outside as their house begins to shake and Yasha begins to cry. It is the Cossacks coming to destroy the village. Following close behind are the "Catsacks" who bring equal destruction to the mouse village. Soon people and mice are running everywhere in the streets looking for safety. Fievel tells Yasha to stop crying because hewill scare the cats away.
Fievel promptly grabs a pot and spoon and runs out banging the pot loudly, trying to scare the cats. However, it is Fievel who becomes scared as he runs from one cat after another. The Catsacks finally leave. As Fievel lies slightly dazed in the snow, his family comes to him. After seeing that he is okay, his Mama tells him to never do that again. Tanya calls to the family to look as they stand and watch their village and house burn. Papa sighs, "In America, there are no cats."
The scene changes to Hamburg, Germany where people are boarding a ship. Via a rope, mice, including the Mousekewitz family, are also boarding the vessel. On the post, a small mouse German band plays a lively "oom-pah" tune. Fievel creates some disruption with his constant questions and desire to see the fish. (Each time he stops, the band also abruptly stops.) Papa rushes him along with the help of two seagulls and the rest of the line that tells Fievel to "keep walking!" As they enter the boat, Papa says, "Fievel, this is the last time I'm taking you to America." The ship leaves the dock as mice shout their goodbyes.
Cut to the ship at sea. Papa's violin is heard playing. Once again, going past the humans we find the mice in their own little world. Fievel asks if they are there yet, and Papa responds "soon." When Tanya questions the decision to go to America Papa states everything will be all right as long as they are together.
Later, Fievel goes out to look around and while going for an apple core discovers some herring in a barrel. Papa arrives and says there are even bigger fish in the ocean. Fievel wants to go out and look for them, but is told to return to the family. He runs back to Mama with Papa trying to keep up.
Fievel tells her they saw some fish. She replies they were lucky they didn't see any **cats!** This causes all the mice in the hold to shout the word and become worried. When Fievel says he didn't see any, they relax. Papa arrives and says it will be nice in America where there are no cats. This leads the mice to tell horror stories of home and sing "There Are No Cats In America."
The weather suddenly turns rough as a storm hits. As the ship rocks, many of the mice suffer seasickness. Fievel goes to the stove and warms himself on a piece of burning coal. The rocking of the boat rolls the coal right at Fievel and burns him in the tail. He jumps and lands in some water that washes him off screen. When he returns he is floating on a bar of soap. The bar floats next to his family, but then back out where Fievel is almost sliced by a straight razor on the floor. He ends up at the bottom of the stairs leading to the deck.
Fievel seems hypnotized by the storm outside on deck as he looks up the stairway. Suddenly a wave washes some fish in from above. Papa calls for Fievel to return. Instead, Fievel takes his hat off and throws it up the stairs. He then calls to Papa saying he has to get his hat. He makes it to the deck and is overcome by the rough weather. Papa is able to grab onto Fievel's sleeve, but it tears. Fievel manages to climb a mast where he sees the roaring sea turn into a gigantic monster. After one enormous monster wave, Fievel is washed overboard. As the ship leaves through the storm, Fievel is seen floating farther away.
Now the scene is America. As humans leave the boat onto Ellis Island, so do the mice on a rope under the human gangplank. The human immigrants are given new names by their greeters. In the mouse section, the Mousekewitzes pass through their immigration and are sadly reminded that their family is now four... not five. As Papa shakes his head, Tanya (off screen) asks why her name was changed to Tillie.
The film cross dissolves to a small bottle in the water. As a chorus sings the words written on the Statue of Liberty, the bottle comes closer and Fievel is seen inside of it. Fievel looks through the bottle and sees the Statue under construction. The bottle washes on shore. Henri, a pigeon discovers him and jokes that immigrants are even "coming in bottles". Henri tells Fievel he is "building" the statue, and then cleans up the little immigrant. Fievel, fearful that he will never find his family is told by Henri, "Never Say Never" in song. Fievel and three female pigeons join in the song. Henri has one of the female singing pigeons fly Fievel to Ellis Island.
Cutting to New York, the immigrants, humans and mice alike, are being offered amazing deals such as the Brooklyn Bridge for one dollar. In this den of deceit, living in a suitcase is Warren T. Rat, a ne'er-do-well scoundrel, and his accountant, Digit, a cockroach. Warren is busily counting his money and upset to learn he's made fifty cents less than yesterday.
On top of his suitcase, Fievel and the pigeon land. As she says goodbye and takes off, her flying blows Fievel through a hole in the suitcase. Digit, spying Fievel, reminds Warren that "Moe can always use another kid at fifty cents a day." Warren introduces himself to Fievel and promises to take the youngster to his parents. Fievel then states that Henri said his parents would be here. Warren then misquotes Shakespeare and saunters out of the suitcase. Fievel follows and asks if Warren really knows where his family is. Warren replies, "Trust me," as Fievel begins to mimic Warren's walk.
Meanwhile, the Mousekewitz's have a new home (a doctor's bag) with a large portrait of Fievel. Tanya states she has a feeling that Fievel is still alive, but Mama says the feeling will go away in time. Tanya steps outside to look out a window, not knowing that below Fievel and Warren are entering the same building.
Warren takes Fievel up into a building via a basket elevator. At the top is a door. Warren opens it and Fievel looks inside for his family. He's quickly grabbed by Moe, a large, mean character who laughs evilly and slobbers. Fievel says he wants his family. Warren tells Fievel that he doesn't need a family now that he has a job. (Warren reminds Moe to send him Fievel's salary.) As Warren leaves, Fievel tries to follow but is trapped. Moe grabs Fievel again and tosses him into a group of mice standing around. Moe tells everyone to get back to work as the scene widens to show that this is also a sweatshop for human seamstresses.
That night, Fievel decides to escape. He suggests that if they tie the sheets together they can climb down to the street. Tony, an Italian immigrant mouse, thinks it's a great idea. Tony then asks the new immigrant's name. When he hears it's Fievel, Tony re-names him with a more American sounding name, Filly. Fievel climbs down the sheets right past the doctor's bag which is the home of his family. As Tony begins to follow, Fievel out the window, he loses Fievel and begins to shout for Filly.
A musical montage (to Gilbert and Sullivan tune "Poor Wandering One") shows Fievel trying to survive on the streets as he looks for food and family. He hears his name called, but it's another family and another Fievel. Next he ends up on the elevated train tracks but is knocked off by a passing train. When he thinks he hears his Papa's violin, he runs for it (narrowly avoiding the horse trolleys), only to find it is a record playing. He sits on the speaker ear and starts to cry. The human changes the record to a rousing band number that causes Fievel to fall into the device. Fievel gets caught on the record and frightens the owner who chases him out.
Fievel eventually ends up wet and worn on the street, only to re-meet Tony. Tony says he'll help Fievel find his family and they head off to do so. Fievel begins to mimic Tony's walk. Meanwhile, at the Mousekewitz's, Tanya asks why the family can't at least look for Fievel. As Tanya and Papa walk along a street, she asks him to play Fievel's song on his violin. Papa tells her it's no use since there is no one to hear it. Just above them Tony and Fievel run along a walkway.
Tony starts to tell Fievel his plan but Tony gets sidetracked when he sees Bridget, a pretty Irish mouse, who is trying to rally the mice to do something about the cats. Tony goes in to meet her and Fievel follows. It's love at first sight for Tony and Bridget. While the two are getting better acquainted, Fievel tells the audience they shouldn't be afraid because "there are no cats in America," he says.
Suddenly, from behind a box a large cat reaches out and grabs the box and Fievel. The cat bites down and swallows Fievel. Fievel frantically swims up the cat's throat and escapes. Panic and a chase ensues. The area is destroyed and the cats leave. Tony and Bridget emerge from the rubble and locate Fievel. Bridget agrees to help Fievel and takes him to see Honest John, a local politician. As soon as Tony, Bridget and Fievel leave, from out of the rubble rises the Mousekewitzs. Mama asks, "Well, Mr. 'there are no whats in America?'" Papa sheepishly says, "cats" and laughs.
The scene changes to a wake for a mouse. Once again the subject of doing something about the cats is brought up, "besides payin' Warren T. Rat for protection," states Honest John, who takes down the deceased's name for future votes. Tony, Bridget and Fievel are in the background. Tony and Bridget are surprised to see Gussie Mausheimer, the richest mouse in New York, show up in such a poor section of town. It seems she wants the rich and poor mice to have a rally to talk about the cat problem. Gussie leaves but Bridget is thrilled that something is finally going to be done about the cats.
Suddenly remembering Fievel, Bridget asks Honest John if he can help Fievel find his family. When he discovers they can't vote, Honest John says he doesn't know them **yet**.
That night, in a water tower where she lives, Bridget shows Fievel her family, killed by cats years ago. She tells him, though, that his family is fine and just out there somewhere to be found. Bridget then tells Fievel to get some sleep. Fievel gets up from his bed and goes to a knothole in the wall and looks outside. He sings "Somewhere, Out There." As the moon rises, the scene cuts to the medicine bag where Tanya stands atop it and joins Fievel in the song.
At the rally, all the mice show up. Fievel is on the grandstand, but his family cannot see him due to the crowd. As Gussie delivers a speech, the crowd cheers. When she calls for a plan, the crowd grows quiet. Only Fievel steps forward and whispers an idea into Gussie's ear. She smiles and announces the mice have a plan.
Early the next morning, the mice go to work on their plan at the house of Dr. Digitalus' Museum of the Weird and Bizarre, located on a pier. They begin building a huge contraption out of the various skeletons and strange devices in the Museum. Tony, though has woken up late. He grabs Fievel out of a bathtub and the two run off to the pier.
Fievel has trouble keeping up as he tries to put his pants on. Enroute he falls into a sewer grate and thinks he hears his Papa playing the violin. Rather than follow Tony, Fievel heads into the sewer where the music is coming from. In the sewer he meets danger from evil insects and crumbling walls.
Fievel finally makes his way through the sewer to the source of music, a drain marked "Mott Street Maulers." Inside are a group of street tough cats playing cards. Fievel crawls into the den of cats. The cats playing cards draw Fievel's attention. Tiger, a large orange cat, declares himself a winner when he gets rummy. Unfortunately, as one of the other cats explains, they're playing poker. Tiger complains the "noise" (music) distracts him.
The camera pans up to find Warren T. Rat playing the violin in front of a mirrored glass. Warren complains he can't play with the nose and proceeds to remove a false nose and ears to reveal he is really a small cat and not a rat. Fievel is behind the glass and blurts out the news. Warren sees him and demands the cats capture him. Tiger tries to catch him, but causes more trouble than assistance.
A chase through the hideout and sewers ensues, but Fievel is able to make it back, with the help of a skate, to the street. As he steps away from a manhole, a paw reaches out and pulls him back down. The manhole cover slams shut.
Back at the museum, the mice reveal their plan. It is to scare the cats onto a boat to China with a giant mouse they have built. It all depends on perfect timing for the boat leaves at six o'clock. To get the cats there, mice are chosen as decoys.
Now a prisoner in the sewer, Fievel cries in his birdcage jail. His guard, Tiger, the large orange cat, turns out to be a vegetarian cat. After talking about each other's family, they become friends and do a musical number ("A Duo"). After the song, the pair are seen by Digit who sounds the alarm. The insect tries to hold Fievel but the mouse escapes. As Fievel runs off, Warren fires Tiger.
Once on the street, Fievel heads to the pier with the cats close behind. Inside the museum, the mice are sleeping, but Fievel's shouts wake them up. Gussie realizes they are ten minutes early, but others waking up only hear that the cats are there so they release the secret weapon. As Fievel runs through the museum, he runs under the weapon, in which his family is sleeping. Honest John, tells the mice to wait until the boat whistle to release the weapon, but it is too late, it has begun to roll. They must restrain it.
Out in front of the museum, Gussie and the mice confront Warren and the cats. Fievel exposes Warren as a fraud. Warren tries to talk his way out, but a well aimed stone knocks his phony nose off. Meanwhile, inside the museum, the mice struggle to keep the weapon from being released too early. Outside, Warren lights a match and sets fire to the building. As the mice succeed in stopping the weapon by tying it tight, the whistle blows and Gussie commands everyone to release the secret weapon. As the building burns, the mice now can't cut the ropes fast enough. Fievel grabs one of the burning pieces of wood and burns through the rope, releasing the weapon. When the rope breaks, it throws Fievel against a wall and knocks him out.
From out of the burning building bursts the giant mouse. The giant contraption, built of wood, balloons, and fireworks rolls down the pier. It works, scaring Warren and his crew onto the boat. The mice in the giant, including the Mousekewitzs, parachute to safety. On the dock the mice cheer and sing ("There Are No Cats In America") in celebration. Honest John says they owe it all to Filly Mousekewitz. Tanya asks Papa who Filly is.
Back at the museum, leaking kerosene comes in contact with the burning building and sets the pier on fire. The fire department arrives as Bridget and Tony are desperately searching for Filly when Bridget finds his hat. Tanya hears the calls and brings it to her father's attention. He just says it someone calling for Filly Mousekewitz and Tanya reminds him that they changed her name to Tilly. Tanya runs towards the calls as Papa and Mama follow. The Mousekewitzes and Tony meet. They discover that Fievel and Filly are the same mouse when Mama sees Fievel's hat. Outside, Tiger is seen listening in to the conversation.
Elsewhere, Fievel wakes up and tries to get his baring when the fire hose's water washes him through a hole in the floor. Suddenly it is a stormy night and Fievel is asleep in Orphan's Alley. He meets a band of homeless orphans who give him a hard time and convince him to give up hope. Fievel agrees that if his family **did** care, they would have found **him**!. The orphans tell him to forget his family, he's one of them now. Fievel cries himself to sleep saying he'll never find his family.
As the sun rises the next morning, Fievel is still sleeping in Orphan's Alley, occasionally shivering. In the distance his name is being called. It is the Mousekewitzes, Gussie Mausheimer and Tony and Bridget all riding Tiger. Meanwhile, Fievel has gotten up and is walking in the morning mist. He seems to not hear the many calls for him in the distance. It is only when he hears the violin music that his ears perk up. He looks around and whispers, "Papa?" Fievel begins to shout "Papa." Papa hears him, jumps off Tiger and runs towards his son. There is a happy reunion between father and son. Fievel's family and friends arrive and all share the joy. Papa gives Fievel his hat and to everyone's surprise it now fits. Fievel has grown during his adventure.
Cut to Fievel and Tanya flying on Henri's back as he brags about his new statue. Papa and Mama are on the back of another pigeon, while a batch of pigeons is bringing Tiger. All are looking at the Statue of Liberty. As Fievel and Tanya look at the Statue, it winks at them. They begin to laugh. When Fievel asks what all that other land is, Henri tells him it is **all** America. Fievel asks if he can see it. Henri tells him someday Fievel will. Henri then flies away from the Statue into the distance as Fievel and Tanya look back at the Statue and say "Goodbye." The final shot is of the Statue as the credits begin to roll over sepiatone drawings. After the final score ends, "Somewhere Out There" is heard again, sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram.
Few animated films have had as much anticipation and studio evolution as TAIL. The Bluth studio went from a separate entity that produced animation to part of a major marketing machine and international artists' haven. This was due to the input and dealings with the business sides of Amblin' and Universal as well as the Irish government.
In the beginning there was a great deal of excitement and amazement as the old Bluth crew once again united for a major project. NIMH II as some called it, and they were correct in many ways. Though they joked about doing "another mouse" film, this film could have the same ramifications as NIMH. A success or failure would have major consequences on animation.
The crew knew that a Spielberg film could be big, but how big? Spielberg's last two features, including YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, had done very poorly. His AMAZING STORIES TV series was a critical and ratings failure. Some wondered if the film might be caught in an anti-Spielberg backlash.
Not since his days at Disney did Don find himself having to work within so many corporate structures. Spielberg had definite ideas of how to make films. Universal had their standard procedures. Neither seemed to understand animation's unique way of doing things. It took time for Spielberg to finally understand that adding a two minute scene would take dozens of people and months of work.
In a 1985 interview Spielberg discussed this learning process. "Before this, I had been a bottomless pit of appreciation for animated films, without knowing what went into making them. At this point, I'm enlightened, but still can't believe it's so complicated."
At that time he also discussed his role in the production as "first in the area of story, inventing incidents for the script (credited to Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg), and now consists of looking, every three weeks to a month, at the storyboards that Don Bluth sends me and making my comments."
Kirschner's concept was in a half-hour format. (Saturday morning and comic book writer Mark Evanier wrote one draft of the Fievel saga and later filed suit over the matter in 1987.) The original concept featured an all animal world. Don protested the idea, stating that such concepts were unsuccessful in animation, citing the lackluster reaction to Disney's ROBIN HOOD. He suggested that TAIL be more like THE RESCUERS or 101 DALMATIANS; films that featured the animal world as being a society hidden from humans.
Spielberg had never seen THE RESCUERS so a screening was arranged. Upon viewing it, he found the idea to his liking and the new concept was given a go. Writers were now brought in to help expand it. Chosen were Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss. Both were Emmy winning writers on Sesame Street. Geiss, whose father had been in the animation industry, wrote over 80 songs for the Award-winning PBS series. The two had also just completed the screenplay for the Sesame Street feature, FOLLOW THAT BIRD.
BUILDING A STORY
The two set up shop in Don's studio and began working on the script. Don had never worked this way before. He explained, "the Disney tradition for years has been to write the animation feature as they animate it, thinking the vision will increase as characters are animated - therefore they wait to complete the script until after they've seen some animation. More and more we are getting away from that concept."
Don and Spielberg were continually checking on the script's progress. This early brainstorming session was enjoyed by Don. "Steven's an interesting animal. He's a lot of fun to work with because he's a child at heart. In the beginning of the project we spent a lot of time together in story meetings. I like the creative process with Steven because he contributes a tremendous number of visual ideas, yet listens to my ideas as well."
Don went on to state that "Steven has not dominated the creative growth of TAIL at all. There is an equal share of both of us in the picture. At the beginning Steven said, 'I want you to do this picture. Make me something pretty like you did in NIMH... make it beautiful.'"
During this time, Don and his crew created a new character who was accepted by all parties. This was Digit, the calculating cockroach found in Warren T.'s pocket. Don felt this would help lighten the tone of the script, giving it a bit more humor.
When the initial script was completed, it was exceptionally long and would eventually be heavily cut once into production. Final script pages were all stamped with a specific number so any photocopies found floating outside of the studio could be tracked back to an original source. (This was one example of the security found on the picture.)
Don still found a fault in the script. He disagreed with the main character's name, Fievel. The name was chosen because it was Spielberg's grandfather's name. Don felt that it was too foreign sounding and audiences wouldn't remember it. Though not all parties agreed, a compromise was reached by having Tony refer to Fievel as "Filly." A key executive at Universal lobbied for some time to have the character named after **his** grandfather, but Spielberg eventually won out. (To indicate how difficult the spelling was at the time, the opening credits to TAIL misspell it "Feivel," which went largely unnoticed until after it debuted.)
A NEW LOOK
As the script began being worked on, Don began developing the designs of the characters. Key was the design of Fievel. Working with Amblin' and the Sears marketing department, a Forties look was used featuring the large ears, and head. It was quite a stylistic change from Don's thin, clean designs of Disney days, NIMH and the video games.
"There are so many mouse pictures and well known mice that all seem to have the same look about them, we decided to go in a different direction," stated Don during production of TAIL. "We've done THE SECRET OF NIMH, we've done the angular design which seems to be the style Disney is heading in right now, so why don't we go back to the old [SNOW WHITE AND THE 7] DWARFS look... where characters are round and soft and have a cuddly feel. The look we've achieved with AN AMERICAN TAIL is different from both that of NIMH and Disney's GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE."
Don did the major designs of all the characters. Some changes occurred during production, such as Henri the pigeon. He was originally drawn scraggly and worn. This design was due to the first choice for Henri's voice being Sid Ceasar. After the recording session, Don felt the voice didn't have the feel of the scene. It was recast for Christopher Plummer and then redesigned to have a more dignified look.
In fact, Henri proved to be somewhat of a problem during production, even though Don loved him. "If there was any one character I was pushing for more than the rest, it was Henri the pigeon, who everyone wanted to cut out. I said 'No. Henri is the voice of the statue,' and the Statue of Liberty must speak somehow."
The other character that evolved somewhat was Tiger, the cat played by Dom DeLuise. Skip Jones was given the character to handle as he wished. Jones' wavering, furry lines gave the character a mushy, shapeless quality which was sometimes difficult to clean-up. However, it seemed to fit DeLuise's over-the-top rendition of the character.
VOICES BEHIND THE MICE
On the subject of voices, Don explained the process in one of the studio press releases. "Sometimes you can select a 'name' voice because it fits the essence of the character so well. Other times, you need to seek an obscure voice, close your eyes, and just listen to it. If it has highs and lows in the deliverance of lines and it captures the focus of the character, it allows the animators to get a true fix on the action."
Key voices in TAIL included Madeline Kahn as the very wealthy Gussie Mausheimer. She was picked, hoping she would use a voice similar to the one she used as a character in Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES. Papa was played by Nehemiah Persoff. A resspected actor in dozens of films, he was chosen primarily because of his similar role as Barbra Streisand's father in YENTL. As mentioned, Christopher Plummer, perhaps best known as the lead in the movie THE SOUND OF MUSIC, was chosen for Henri the pigeon.
The pivotal role of Fievel went to Phillip Glasser. The son of a musician and voice teacher, Glasser was discovered by accident. At one recording session, Don and the crew overheard him auditioning for an Oscar Meyer commercial.
John Finnegan won the role of Warren T. Rat by reciting excerpts from Shakespeare's Hamlet in a voice that sounded like a Brooklyn taxi driver. The idea was so funny that the writers made Warren an illiterate with pretensions to literacy who would frequently misquote Shakespeare. Finnegan had appeared in numerous films and TV series.
Fievel's sister, Tanya, was voiced by young actress Amy Green. She had previously done some TV series work and several commercials. Erica Yohn played Mama. She had appeared in numerous features, but it was her work as a Russian gypsy on a TV show that caught Don and John Pomeroy's attention.
Unlike NIMH, TAIL featured more voices familiar to animation. Will Ryan (Digit), Neil Ross (Honest John), and Cathianne Blore (Bridget) all are best known as voice actors in animated TV series. Also Hal Smith (Moe), known to TV audiences as Otis the drunk on the old ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, had primarily worked in animation since the late Sixties.
One of the more unusual castings was Pat Musick as Tony Toponi. Like Bart Simpson, this teen-aged, male friend of Fievel, who falls in love with Bridget, is voiced by a woman. Musick based the voice on a friend remembered from grade school.
Back from NIMH was Dom DeLuise as the outcast Tiger, a cat who befriends Fievel. As in NIMH, DeLuise was both fun to work with and always willing to add material here and there. During the song "Duo," he suggested they stop the song at one point so that he could add a touch of his own. The lyric referred to a "back scratch" and he saw the chance to expand on that by imagining that Fievel was actually scratching his back. "In that way," DeLuise explained, "I was able to enjoy the scratch, later the animator could enjoy it, and eventually the audience could see and hear the fun of it."
ART ISN'T EASY
Don then began storyboarding the picture. "I'd draw the storyboards and then send them over to him [Spielberg]. Often I brought them over myself, so that I could explain them. Steven would get very excited by what he saw, and we'd edit the boards right there... adding more drawings, or trimming some back."
As in the past, Don preferred to storyboard the entire picture. However the scope of the work soon got out of hand and layout man Larry Leker assisted Don, doing one or two sequences. Generally, Don would make rough sketches that Larry would decipher into actual storyboard panels.
It was during TAIL that Don and his crew discovered a new device that would become a major part of their future process: a video printer. Using an early, low priced model, the studio found that they could videotape an action and then use the printer to print out small (around four by five inch) black and white thermal images from the tape.
By printing every frame of the video, the crew found they had exact posing to work from. Some merely used this has reference, while others enlarged it via photocopying and almost traced the images. The crew used this to assist in numerous scenes from the slightly tipsy walk of Honest John to the firemen fighting the fire. (Actual firemen costuming was worn by the art crew.)
Also utilized was the process of building models and photographing them. The most elaborate model probably built was an actual "Mouse of Minsk." A model of the ship was also constructed so the storm at sea could be handled better.
As work got fully underway, another mammoth crew was pulled together. Workers came from around the world. Several Canadian animators came to work and learn. There was also a crew of trainees from Ireland. A number of students from the California Institute of the Arts (aka Cal Arts) even did freelance work on the film.
In fact, as the Irish deal became more and more solidified discussion arose about moving the entire production to Ireland. Spielberg refused the suggestion stating a film called AN AMERICAN TAIL would **not** be done in Ireland. For economical reasons, though, he allowed the film to be painted in Ireland. Sullivan Bluth began setting up their studio overseas. (Spielberg seems to have softened on this issue over the years since the sequel, FIEVEL GOES WEST: AN AMERICAN TAIL II, is being animated totally in England.)
Amblin and Universal saw and approved all the major work on the film as well as viewed dailies. This situation at times created problems over the speed of the production and the animation in general. As stated, the other entities soon realized that animation was a time and money consuming artform. No where did this become more apparent than in the songs.
Spielberg's original vision included a score full of songs. It is said he wanted a "Heigh-Ho" of his own. The song writers had written the score much later than originally desired and this created some key production difficulties. At one point, Don had to tell Amblin that the current budget and schedule meant to cut a song or cut a scene. Universal and Amblin' discussed it for awhile and finally decided the song must stay in. The three parties then went through and trimmed scenes here and there.
Don was losing some patience with the three party system about midway through production. He preferred total freedom on his projects. "If someone else has their hands on mine, I just really cannot do the job," he stated in a recent interview. "And it's too hard to explain everything I do to someone who doesn't understand the business." It was equally hard to be free with someone continually checking up on you. This was not helped by various requests from the outside parties for changes here and there.
As the film began reaching the deadline, pressure became obvious throughout the crew. There were numerous problems ranging from the slower-than-expected painting done in Ireland to low footage output by some animators. (Don had to go back to animation and animate a number of scenes to make up for the shortage.)
THE LOST TALES
This shortening of time also meant the dropping of scenes. Suddenly the film's storyline was looking jumbled. New (shorter) scenes had to be created to help pick up story points lost in the various cuts (including those to keep songs in the picture). There are numerous examples of these jarring cuts. Two revolve around the Mousekewitz's arriving at Ellis Island.
Due to cuts, the family's baby was not seen after the boat trip. When asked how many children he has, Papa say there are "five" in his family. He corrects himself by saying "four," referring to Fievel being washed overboard. However, some viewers at early screenings thought this was also incorrect because they didn't know who the fourth member was (having forgotten the baby). An overlay of the crib was later added to a scene in America so that it appeared the baby was still there.
Also much of the explanation of changing names at Ellis Island was cut out. The fact that Tanya's is changed to Tilly is stated so quickly that many miss it and thus don't get the connection made later in the film.
Never even getting into animation was the family's trek across the continent, through Europe, to reach the boat. Now the film merely cuts from the burning village to the port with no explanation of how the family got there.
Another essential scene was lost where in the finale the Mousekewitz family finally meets Tiger. As the film now plays, he is seen briefly watching the mice at the museum and then simply appears at the end with the family. The original scene had Tiger up in a tree hiding, when he hears the Mousekewitzes and Tony and Bridget talking about Fievel on the street. Realizing it is his mouse-friend Fievel, Tiger tries to reach them, only to realize he is stuck in the tree! A later version had Tiger viewing the same scene with the mice, only now they are in the burning building. He steps back and tries to improvise a meeting between the two parties, rehearsing his lines, finally just deciding to do it.
One song that was cut was one planned for the sweatshop that Fievel gets thrown into. It was to feature an upbeat number of Fievel singing about opportunities in America in an attempt to rally the workers' spirits. Now the scene merely has him arrive at the sweatshop and escape immediately that night.
Spielberg also had some material cut out that was too "intense." Don had hoped to weave a whole scene around the wave monsters at sea, but Spielberg was afraid of scaring children. To many of Bluth's crew surprise, Spielberg considered TAIL a children's film since he felt adults didn't go to see animation. It was considered an odd opinion from Spielberg, who was an adult who loved animation.
The film was scored by James Horner and recorded in England by the London Symphony Orchestra. Horner's previous film scores included COCOON, STAR TREK II, ALIENS, 48 HOURS and CAPTAIN EO (the 3-D Michael Jackson film at Disneyland). Regarding his first work in animation and on the film in particular, Horner stated, "There is no way you could put a score like this in any other kind of film. It would only work in animation or if I wrote a ballet. I loved doing it."
Generally, the Bluth crew were initially disappointed with the first score recording. However, once edited, they found that most of the music worked quite well. Oddly, the final score is one of the film's strongest points. The subtle, haunting "Main Title" and the furious "The Storm" show the diversity of Horner's score.
The first person brought in to write the songs was Tom Bahler. He had been a music supervisor and composer for years. As well as working frequently with Quincy Jones, he was also invovled with the famous "We Are The World" recording. After writing a few songs, it was decided to try another source.
Song writers Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who had written a number of pop hits for Dolly Parton and others, were given a chance to work on the songs. By this time, Horner was also involved with the writing of the songs. Don recalled, "With this powerful trio, we knew we'd get songs that will be memorable like the Disney classics. With the melody, James went for simple, hummable tunes. It's the simple melodies that remain etched in your memory over the years."
After the first batch of songs were written, it was decided that a special song would be written for Linda Ronstadt. At the time she was the girl friend of Spielberg's cinema comrade, George Lucas. The song "Somewhere Out There" was written for the mouse children, then planned to be run over the end credits with Ronstadt singing it. She duoed the song with James Ingram. (The song later became a music video in which Linda appears as an artist. The actual hands drawing are those of a Bluth artist.)
Don's assessment of the songs were right. "Somewhere Out There" became the most popular song to come from an animated feature since the Fifties. The song is still heard regularly on radio stations.
The entire production was done under strict security. Similar to the security of the video games, employees had to sign official forms stating they would not talk about the project they were working on to family or friends. It was casually suggested at various times that studio workers not socialize too much with employees of other studios. This was to help make it more difficult to let any details slip accidentally.
Most of this security was at the request of Spielberg, who utilized similar secrecy during production of most of his films. This veil of secrecy was to keep the film more of a surprise upon opening. It also kept others from creating cheap copies of the film prior to the opening of his movie.
Originally, many employees were amused and surprised at the high amount of secrecy requested. Even the Don Bluth Newsletter had to receive permission from Amblin before publishing any artwork from the upcoming film. However, as animation competition would continue to heat up through the Eighties, this level of secrecy and security would not only spread to other studios but grow in intensity. (Today several studios will not allow employees of other studios to even enter their facilities.)
THE UNION LABEL
The film was not without employment difficulties. Unfortunately, to get the film produced, Don had to accept a lower than normal budget. At the time, Disney was spending around $12 million per film. Universal would only back TAIL if Don and his crew could do it for $6.5 million. Even though it would be difficult, Don and his associates felt that the importance of working with Spielberg on a major project would make the financial sacrifice worth it. (The final budget finally grew due to various circumstances.)
Don recalled "To do AMERICAN TAIL for $9 million, we had to freeze everyone's salaries for a year and a half. We could not be members of the union because the union [rates] required the price to be high. We said, 'Let's try this one more time to see if we can get it to work,' and all the employees agreed to do it."
Unlike the former Bluth studios, Sullivan Bluth was not a union studio. Many of the workers attempted to withdraw from the union and another battle soon loomed between Don and the union. The union sent out a memo in February of 1985 alleging that the Sullivan Bluth studio **was** the Bluth studio and had to conform to Union demands, especially demands of pay for those who had been so rudely laid off at the end of the games.
The memo stated "This company [Sullivan Bluth], which is named after a former 'silent partner' in Don Bluth Productions, is currently negotiating a subcontracting deal with Steven Spielberg." It went on to accuse "We have incontrovertible proof that the management of 'Sullivan Studios' has been committing the blatantly unfair labor practice of **coercing IA members to resign their membership in order to work for them**."
Sullivan studios issued a memo discussing the points of the Union memo stressing that Sullivan **was** a new studio and that Morris Sullivan had not been employed by Don Bluth Productions. As for "coercing" union members, the Sullivan memo stated "The facts are, that after much unsuccessful effort to find us work, Sullivan was able to obtain a tentative preliminary agreement to produce a feature length movie. We are still working on a letter of intent which permits us to be 'cut-off' at any time. A final contract has not been agreed upon. One of the important contingencies is the acceptance of our budget. This has not been accomplished at this time. However, to obtain this tentative agreement, we had to accept a rock-bottom budget with no contingencies, etc. We also have to guarantee a large amount on cost and time overrun."
The battle of words between Sullivan Bluth and the union would continue through most of the production. At one point in production, a brick was thrown through a window of the studio. Gary Goldman jokingly referred to it as the first brick for the new studio in Ireland. Again, Don saw the union as being a disruptive force in an attempt to re-build the animation industry. It was this as much as any other fact that finally convinced Don to go to Ireland. As he stated in a 1990 interview, "So it [Ireland] became a haven for us. A good government put their arms around us and began to protect us. Up to that point, we had met too much opposition from Disney, from unions, from whatever. It was just a welcome relief to have somebody actually helping the artists grow."
After months of work, the film finally came together for the preview screenings in October of 1986. The initial screenings were met with generally good response from the employees and the other parties. Most people thought the film had a good chance at success.
As the film came closer to completion, Universal began to rally their publicity force. All parties put away any problems they had and put on their best faces for the public. They wanted to give the impression that this would be the greatest film in animation history.
Press material quoted Don as stating "The background of this story deals with something that is very close to every American's heart, the story of people coming here, trying to find roots, making it in spite of the hardships and obstacles. Against that framework, we have a story that can move the human side of the audience through Fievel's search for his family."
Spielberg spent much of his time promoting the positive side of animation, as well as linking the film to his previous films' large audience. "Nothing is impossible in animation. All animated films share a link with such films as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or BACK TO THE FUTURE in making you believe that something that can't happen is happening because it's the movies. Animation can go even further because it's not fettered down by logistics and gravity."
Don had predicted early in production that when TAIL opened people would know about it. He was right. Unlike NIMH, TAIL debuted in over 1200 theaters. Sears had a major marketing push on the character. Billboards around the country showcased Fievel. An ad even ran on the top-rated COSBY SHOW the night before the debut.
A REAL HAPPY ENDING
AN AMERICAN TAIL debuted with generally mixed reviews. Few could fault the animation, often complimenting the work of Don and his crew, but many had trouble warming up to the story and characters. Critics were also quick to compare it to other Disney films, including at the time the recently released THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE.
The Hollywood Reporter's review began glowingly: "AN AMERICAN TAIL, the first animated feature presented by Amblin Entertainment, boasts pretty and finely crafted images in the classic Disney tradition along with a sweet story about the struggles of immigrant mice in this country at the end of the last century. Unfortunately, the story is too scattered and not compelling enough to deliver full impact."
The trade went on to complain, not so much about the film had, but what it didn't. "AN AMERICAN TAIL has several memorable moments as well as a couple of gentle musical interludes, but its episodes introduce unfulfilled possibilities that could have made it masterful - Fievel's enslavement could have been developed further; his relationship with Tiger could have been introduced earlier; and his final encounter with embittered orphans also had more possibilities."
Daily Variety seemed to agree: "AN AMERICAN TAIL represents one of the rare attempts these days to do serious, richly textured, old fashioned animation in a feature film format. Unfortunately, the quality of the drawing and visual design merely emphasize the gaping distance between those artistic elements and the script, which stands as a model of yawn-inducing predictability. Steven Spielberg's name as presenter and 'quality' aura surrounding the production make this an automatic b.o. [box office] magnet for the holiday kiddie trade, but anyone over the age of 12 will likely experience more boredom than pleasure."
But they did like the art. "If one didn't have to sit through the inane musical numbers and insipid dialogue, there would be plentiful delight to be derived from gazing at any number of Bluth's drawings, which often employ bold use of color and imaginative renderings of New York City before the turn of the century."
"Bottom line is that an album of full-color frame enlargements from the film would be more edifying than the picture itself."
Time's Richard Schickel seemed more impressed by the fact that the character was Jewish than anything else. "After a half- century's domination by Wasps like Mickey and Mighty, the world of animated film is happily invaded by a Jewish mouse... Oy, does he have troubles."
More critical of the film was Charles Solomon, in the Los Angeles Times. "Rarely has so much animated opulence been wasted on such a thin, badly told story."
Solomon also was heavily critical of the animation. "While the animation is full and fluid, it often seems at odds with the characterizations and designs. Nehemiah Persoff provides a heavily accented voice for Fievel's Papa, but the character doesn't move with the body language of an old Russian Jew. And Tiger's obese form quivers like a bag full of mercury, but his weird, squarish head and improbably long tail don't look anything like a real cat."
Perhaps more thoughtful was Solomon's evaluation of the basic premise. "Director Don Bluth and writers David Kirschner, Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss use cats chasing mice to represent religious persecution, a metaphor that glosses over the central horror of the Russian pogroms. Oppression is not a conflict between predator and prey, but the willful cruelty the members of a single species inflict on each other."
Around the country it didn't fare much better. The Denver Post's review, headlined "Animation Can't Save 'American Tale,'" praised the classic "old fashioned" animation and then went on to state that the film was "pretty innocuous fare, which might keep the interest of very small children, but will bore and annoy anyone older." The Post also tackled the allegory. "To reduce the persecution of the Jews to a game of cat and mouse is offensively simplistic and just plain misinformation."
Also mentioned by the Post was the film's heavy merchandising. "The little adorable mouse hero, Fievel, has already been turned into a plush toy and is being sold exclusively at Sears, along with a line of AMERICAN TAIL kids clothing and accessories. So, no matter how venerable the animation method, the marketing of AN AMERICAN TAIL is right up to date. It is a long commercial in some important ways. And that is the American tale, circa 1986."
Dealing more with the technical skill involved, a British magazine, Animator found the film generally to its liking. After finding scene comparisons with Hitchcock films and KING KONG, and complaining about a slow last third the reviewer generally thought it was a well made film. "There is much to admire in AN AMERICAN TAIL. It boasts a strong story, with some well developed characters and some beautifully edited moments. The film is well paced, and has a strong overall flow to it which THE SECRET OF NIMH lacked. The unsuccessful two thirds of its middle section attempts to sketch America in terms of a beautiful land where dreams come true, as soon as cats are out of the way. It is a rose tinted view of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century immigrant experience. Indeed, the final scene is a trip around the newly completed Statue of Liberty. One marvels at the artistry while cringing at the sentiment."
However, The Des Moines Register liked all of it. "AN AMERICAN TAIL, despite some initial review complaints from elsewhere focused on stereotypes, turns out to be a charmer of an animated film, made by Don Bluth, the Disney defector who made the excellent THE SECRET OF NIMH."
The review ended with "The stereotypes are there all right, especially the bibulous-Irish one, and, because it equates all cats with Nazis and Cossacks, AN AMERICAN TAIL may be difficult for a cat-lover to stomach. The overriding theme, though, is the upbeat 'America! What a place!'"
Youngsters of Des Moines agreed. In an article asking the children of the city their preferences, most wanted Fievel. "Walt Disney is more like what my Mom and Dad would go see," said one youngster. "My parents wanted to see SONG OF THE SOUTH but we wanted to see AMERICAN TAIL, another said.
The general public seemed to agree with Des Moines' residents and the film debuted as the number two ranking film of the week, just behind the smash hit CROCODILE DUNDEE. The film had an opening week of over $5.2 million, averaging a whopping $4,201 per theater. Despite the poor reviews, word of mouth spread and the second weekend the film grossed over $7.4 million with an average of $5,935 per theater! (For some comparison, Disney's mega-hit THE LITTLE MERMAID, opening three years later, earned a first weekend gross of around $6 million and just over $6,000 per screen. MERMAID's numbers are not really higher if one considers inflation and rapidly rising ticket costs.)
TAIL's main animation competition was a reissue of Disney's THE SONG OF THE SOUTH (which placed number three that first weekend). Later when LADY AND THE TRAMP opened for Christmas, TAIL continued to run neck and neck with the Disney classic. Film studios watched in amazement as new, non-Disney animation not only equaled classic Disney animation in earning big money... but beat it. In 18 weeks, it had earned $44.6 million, giving it the record for top grossing animated feature on first release. In comparison, LADY AND THE TRAMP only grossed around $30 million that year.
Sale of Fievel merchandise went through the roof in one of Sears most successful campaigns. MacDonald's also had a promotion giving away storybooks. Less successful was McDonald's attempt to give away Christmas stockings with Fievel's face. The stockings were withdrawn when several Jewish organizations questioned the use of a Jewish character on a Christmas item.
The song "Somewhere Out There" was an immediate hit. So strong did it register that a special one sheet poster was released featuring the complete lyrics to the song.
Despite what Don originally feared, everyone remembered Fievel's name and loved it.
Oddly, Don's first big hit came not only as a surprise to him, but almost without him knowing it. When the film was being released, Don and his crew were busy moving to Ireland.
John Pomeroy recalled "On the week the film AMERICAN TAIL premiered here in the United States, we were packing our belongings and getting ready to board planes to go to Dublin. So we really couldn't feel the whole impact or excitement of what was happening here. I got a little glimmer of it when I went to a Sears store where they had a huge exhibit of nothing but Fievel dolls, and posters, and such that you could purchase. There were kids and mothers and tons of people running in and grabbing these dolls and T-shirts and pajamas and pillow cases, and buying them. There was an excitement around this store right where the AMERICAN TAIL exhibit was. I could hear people talking about the movie, about going back and seeing it again, about taking their friends. I was just wowed by this. I had a feeling that we had a success there. I just didn't know it was going to exceed all previous successes."
The luck of the Irish was truly on the studio's side. A major release planned in January by Universal became delayed, so the studio continued its heavy promotion of the film. The box office soon reached past $45 million, becoming the highest grossing animated film on first release! Overseas the success would continue with the film finally grossing over $150 million.
An Academy Award nomination went to "Somewhere Out There," but it failed to win the Oscar. However, the song later went on to win two Grammys: "Song of the Year" and "Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television." It has become, arguably, the most successful song from an animated film since the Fifties. It has now became a permanent part of the music played on radio stations and in stores and elevators.
The film was nominated for a Saturn award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Society, as was the score by Horner.
The film came out on video in 1987 priced at $29.95. It quickly became one of the top ten selling tapes. It remained in the top five selling children's video titles for almost a year. The video won the award for Best Children's Title in Video Insider's (a trade publication) Fifth Annual Awards for Excellence. The Laserdisc release of the film featured several special sections including a discussion on the creation of the film and on the steps in animation.
Its release on video set the stage for new reviews. The enormous success of the film had made critics take a second look at the film. Though the video critics still found some problems, they now emphasized the positive side of the film.
In Video Review, Leonard Maltin stated "It has the most important ingredient for a good cartoon feature: an appealing main character. He's named Fievel and he is a little Russian mouse who gets separated from his family while emigrating to America in 1876. Fievel is cute and cuddly, and when he sings 'Somewhere Out There' in his boy-soprano voice, he's hard to resist. Moreover, the look of the movie is rich and colorful, and the animation is superb."
However, Maltin couldn't resist commenting on the story. "AN AMERICAN TAIL has the perfect setup for the young mouse's adventure, but it just doesn't quite pay off. There are no less than **three* climaxes in the movie's concluding portion - a series of build-ups and letdowns that I'm sure must throw younger audiences off balance."
The reviewer in Video was also initially upbeat with, "Like THE SECRET OF NIMH, Bluth's previous film, AN AMERICAN TAIL features some of today's finest animation." Once again, he picked on the story, "The story, however, has a few problems." However he wrapped up the review with "Still, kids will love this at home as they did in the cinema, and it's nice to see somebody (specifically executive producer Steven Spielberg) give Disney a run for the money."
The sale of Fievel merchandise was phenomenal. An article in Licensing Book asked, "Has Amblin Entertainment - Steven Spielberg's entertainment company - set a new standard in movie licensing?" Brad Globe, the head of Amblin merchandising, responded, "God, I hope so." He discussed how happy he was with the response to the film and merchandise. Sears was so happy that they began talking with Amblin about another project. (However, Sears would eventually go with Disney.) It was estimated that Sears' involvement was worth nearly $20 million in promotion. (Universal spent around $6 million on promotion.) Along with having the merchandise, Sears had the film's trailer running in many stores.
Some critics had complained about the commerciality of TAIL. Globe stated "Our approach to licensing AMERICAN TAIL was basically to create an event around the movie. Our initial intent was not to sell toys, and we had no expectations to sell (merchandise) forever." However, the article concluded that sales had been so strong that the studio was now committed to doing several TV specials based on TAIL. "We really want to keep Fievel going," explained Globe.
Though the TV specials never appeared, in 1989 work began in England on FIEVEL GOES WEST: AMERICAN TAIL II. The film will feature much more comedy than the first film as Fievel heads west and runs into famous outlaws and gunslingers (all of the animal variety, of course). Originally to be released during the Fall of 1990, the film was delayed. A late 1991 release date is now planned.
Fievel became a new major character getting his own section and stage show at Universal Studios, California. It was the first permanent children's attraction at the park, opening in May of 1990 in a new outdoor theater. The stage show featured actors in mouse costumes and a gigantic robot puppet Tiger with some new music as well as the familiar tunes "There Are No Cats in America" and "Duo."
In the show, the mice are celebrating the fact that thanks to Fievel there are no cats in America when a gigantic cat paw interrupts the festivities. While the others hide, Fievel decides to battle the feline menace which turns out to be his old friend, Tiger, playing a joke. During the finale, the rest of the mice return and fireworks are set off. Mouse costume characters include Gussie Mausheimer, Honest John, Tony, Papa Mousekewitz and others.
Exiting the theater, audiences find themselves in Fievel's Playland where huge props give guests a "mouse-eye" view of the world and children can play inside these props. Special new AMERICAN TAIL merchandise, with the Universal Studios Hollywood logo, is available for sale.
Kirschner, the creator of Fievel and family, was placed in charge of Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1990. The studio had originated such characters as Yogi Bear, The Flintstones and Jonny Quest. One of the projects put on the Kirschner's agenda for the studio was a syndicated series starring Fievel.
For some, the film's continual straining for warmth and a whining Fievel make it hard to sit through. It has now become a popular parody target for such recent animated series as MIGHTY MOUSE: THE NEW ADVENTURES and TINY TOON ADVENTURES.
However, Fievel's call for family seemed to touch a chord in just about everybody. Universal, Amblin and all involved were pleased with the final product and looked forward to future animated projects. The new regime at Disney was reportedly furious that TAIL had outperformed their MOUSE DETECTIVE and blamed the marketing. Disney promised future features would get full backing from the marketing department. Other studios looked at the success and began to evaluate possible animated features. Like Walt, Don had produced a mouse that roared throughout an entire industry and whose impact would forever change how animation was produced and marketed.
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