Like most of us, Steven Spielberg grew up enraptured by the cartoons he saw on TV and in movie theaters, especially two very dissimilar brands of cartoon: the Pixie stick-sweet fairy-tale features made by Walt Disney and the rude, smart-aleck Warner Bros. shorts star-ring Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, and company.
With cartoons now a bigger business than ever, thanks mainly to their staggering popularity on video, Spielberg has graduated to making his own. He oversaw the production of two separate animated features arriving on cassette this week, and — what a surprise — they’re modeled on the director’s favorite ‘toon traditions. In the lush, naturalistic Disney vein, there’s last fall’s theatrical release An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, a sequel to 1986’s An American Tail.
How well has Spielberg himself mastered the cartoon lessons of the old masters? He seems to have taken lots of notes in Disney 101, judging from Fievel. Like the best Disney features, Fievel elevates visual craftsmanship to the level of obsession. In fact, the animators’ determination to dazzle with every action-filled shot may even have been part of Fievel’s failure at the box office. On a big screen, as the immigrant Mousekowitz family journeyed from Manhattan across the U.S., the characters’ constant ricocheting got fatiguing; you didn’t know where to look first. But scaled down for TV, it’s easier to take in. Shots featuring warp-speed pans across gunfights and Fievel trotting through elaborately rendered torrents of water, smoke, and light don’t seem as distractingly busy, which should help kids follow the complicated story line.
Fievel also uses the Disney trick of building characters that work for kids around droll vocal turns by actors well known to adults. James Stewart supplies the voice for doddering frontier lawman Wylie Burp (the pooch’s heavy brows are perfect for Stewart’s dawdling delivery); Dom DeLuise is inspired as cowardly pussycat Tiger; and John Cleese brings elegance to Cat R. Waul, an evil feline who herds the Yiddish-accented Mousekowitz family west so he can ”exploit their labors” and slaughter them for ”mouseburgers.”
Whether that grim hint of Holocaust strikes you as sophisticated or ghoulish, Spielberg is being true to the Disney tradition of abusive villains — maybe a little too true, as when Fievel falls afoul of a spider who spits phlegmy-looking webs. Be warned that all of Fievel’s finks are volatile and treacherous in a way that could upset younger tykes for many bedtimes to come. B