Movies of My Yesterdays: An American Tail

This movie has always existed. Or at least, it’s always existed in my world. As my ability to remember the past coalesced, this title was among the ones that was already in our collection, which I was watching regularly. Maybe not as regularly as others, but I can’t clearly remember how much I watched one or the other. Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to watch anything more than once in a day, which I came to realize later in life was probably mostly for the preservation of my parents’ sanity, and in a distant second, the cassette tapes my brother and I were wearing out.

I’m not sure if I have actually watched An American Tail since we gave up on our Betamax player long, long after that format war had been lost. Maybe I felt I’d rewatched it so many times I didn’t need to see it anymore. It didn’t hold all that much special significance for me to seek it out. Don Bluth movies are a little weird anyway, and of those that I was regularly exposed to in my youth, this doesn’t have the “wait, I don’t think I got the complexities of the plot” that The Secret of NIMH had, the polished, hit-me-in-just-the-right-moment chemistry of Anastasia, or the dinosaurs of The Land Before Time. And so I come back to it only now in a spirit of “wait, I don’t think I grasped the complexities of the emotions and satire”. By the time I really comprehended that it was about the immigration experience, I was too busy for it.

An American Tail. Amblin Entertainment 1986.

In Russia in the late 1800s, the Mousekewitz family lives in fear of cats, but otherwise content, though Papa will tell anyone who will or won’t listen of a land called America where there are no cats, a place of such abundance the streets are paved with cheese and a mouse can live at peace. When the human village their mousehole is in is burned in a pogrom and Cossack cats terrorize the fleeing mice, the Mousekewitz family boards a boat to New York. Shortly before arrival, the middle child Fievel is swept out to sea in a storm and given up for lost by his family. Luckily, Fievel ends up in a bottle and floats to shore on his own, where he is found by a French pigeon who assures him it’s possible to find his family and directs him to the harbor they would have come in through. However, before he can reach the immigration office, he is instead found by Warren T. Rat, who promises to take Fievel to his family but instead sells him to a sweatshop. With the help of an Italian teen named Tony, Fievel escapes the sweatshop and sets off looking for his family in a city that is not as free of cats as the tales they old in the Old Country.

Dom DeLouise’s friendly cat character is a much smaller part than I remembered, which is honestly just as well, though I think they corrected the oversight of having their biggest star in such a small role for the sequel. Christopher Plummer was completely unrecognizable with a French accent. I’m sorry to say that when I try to decide how I feel about Fievel’s performance, what mainly comes to mind is Caillou, the public television bane of parents everywhere. What is absolutely perfect, however, is Papa Mousekewitz, who sounds exactly like a beloved Jewish Russian father should (though that’s probably partly from stereotypes). There’s so much warmth there.

When I was very young, I didn’t really understand accents. That is, in the sense that I didn’t understand that they connoted something about the person speaking. This meant I lost a lot of information as a kid watching this movie, especially the other people telling their cat attack stories on the boat, who were not Italian and Irish stereotypes to me, just cartoon people with silly cartoon voices. So I guess I never picked up how just about every person Fievel interacts with in America is an immigrant, including Honest John the politician and Gussie Mausheimer the wealthiest mouse in town. The people helping Fievel, from the bottom to the top, are from elsewhere, even the ones who have cemented their place in American society. And by the end, so has Fievel.

I came into it this time expecting a relatable story of immigration, but I kind of feel like while Fievel’s circumstances get him into a variety of places that allow us to see a spectrum of life in a city full of immigrants, his own story is so out of the ordinary that I didn’t get that sense. Also, the story was a hundred years in the past when the movie came out, so culture has significantly changed. I guess the point of the story is that anything can happen in America, and when I think about why that’s more likely than in Europe, I have to come to the conclusion that social hierarchies were in flux because it was still a new society. That’s less true now than a hundred years ago. What hasn’t changed is the stark contrast between the reputation and reality of the New World, and the harsh conditions desperate people brave for their fresh start.

Guys and Dolls

Guys And Dolls. MGM 1955.

Before watching the movie:

I always had the impression this was a story about mafiosos and their molls, but the closest I ever came to any glimpse of the actual contents of the musical was… highly adulterated, and I’m pretty sure bears no relationship to the actual musical.

The summaries I’m seeing now seem to revolve around illegal gambling, which probably means organized crime, but it doesn’t really seem to be the focus. Obviously the real focus is probably “That Frank Sinatra is having a swell time singing”, more than likely with a dash of “and that nun is going to break her vows for him.”

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Newsies

Newsies. Walt Disney Pictures 1992.

Before watching the movie:

This looked like a bland musical in a setting I wasn’t very interested in until I recently heard it discussed as a unionization success story, which is pretty topical. I also have more understanding of the newspaper landscape of the late 1800s and the media dueling media empires of the day.

It also still looks like a kind of bland musical, but I haven’t looked too closely.

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It’s Love Again

It’s Love Again, Gaumont British 1936.

Before watching the movie:

While the first description I saw for this movie was just about a journalistic rivalry, the second source I saw had the more interesting information that the socialite one journalist invented to meet deadlines appears in real life impersonated by the other one. So this is much less of a His Girl Friday relative than I thought, and sounds about as wide open in terms of production as it can get.

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Earth Girls are Easy

Earth Girls are Easy.
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group 1988.

Before watching the movie

How did I never know, or at least never have it sink in, that Jeff Goldblum is in this? Jim Carrey playing a weird alien, okay. Jeff Goldblum playing a weird alien, the potential to really let him run wild with it has massively piqued my interest.

I stayed away from this movie for a long time because I was expecting a raunchy comedy that hasn’t aged well. But now I find that it was inspired by a song by and co-written by Julie Brown, of songs like “Cause I’m A Blonde” and “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun”, so it has the potential to at least not be tasteless in the way I was expecting. It’s still over 30 years old.

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Movie Movie

Movie MOvie. Warner Bros. 1979.

Before watching the movie:

I never heard of this movie before I found I had it available to me, but I like movies that satirize the movie business, and there are some big names I recognize here, so I decided to go ahead with it.

The summary I saw described it as specifically poking fun at the movies of the 30s, carrying the same ensemble through multiple genres, so it’s probably somewhat but not very much like the Hollywood Director improv game where one player keeps changing the genre on the other players while they improvise a scene.

Anthology movies are hard to synopsize though.

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Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Girls Just Want to Have Fun. New World Pictures 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I just found out this movie existed. I know it’s a musical, but is it a jukebox musical (all preexisting songs), or is it new numbers and the somewhat-related song they got so they’d have a recognizable title? It’ll be interesting to find out.

I strongly suspect that the “Dance TV” alluded to in the summary is a stand-in for MTV.

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Rockula

Rockula. Cannon Films 1990

Before watching the movie:

I just learned that Dean Cameron is not Dean Cain or Kirk Cameron, so I don’t have as much to say as I thought. Dean Cameron doesn’t seem to have achieved the celebrity status as the others, and appears to be what’s called a “working actor”, despite having led a feature film of moderate success as a young man.

Anyway, he plays a young man cursed to watch his one true love die and be reincarnated and die over and over, and this time his chance to break the cycle involves becoming a rock star.

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Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1957.

Before watching the movie:

Early summaries I saw were all about Elvis’s character learning music in jail, so I was expecting a plot entirely in the jail, but looking a little closer, it seems like more of the story is about how the music changes his life outside of jail. That’s not as interesting to me, but then, I guess the story I was expecting was Prisoners of Love. At least I know the music will be good.

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Man of La Mancha

Man Of La Mancha. United Artists 1972.

Before watching the movie:

I think this is the way most people have experienced Don Quixote.  I’ve read some of the book, but despite the new translation I was using, the stilted nature of it still sometimes overpowered the comedy, which itself sometimes felt a little too much like “mental illness is funny!” It’s at the same time amazing how modern it feels at over 400 years old and yet how basic the storytelling can be at times, because it’s had 400 years to become part of the way we always tell stories.

But the grandeur of the way Man of La Mancha interprets the book is enticing and accessible. Everyone has heard at least a few bars of “The Impossible Dream”. It’s a classic showtune ballad. The romance is probably more feel-good in this take as well.

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