Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Disney's Challengers, part X: A thriving animation studio, somewhere in the world


Directed by Simon Wells and Phil Nibbelink
Written by David Kirchner, Charles Swenson, and Flint Dille

Spoilers: moderate

Now, I've sometimes called Steven Spielberg a demigod, but in the mid-1980s he must have actually believed it; presently at a crossroads, and deciding which path his career would take, he apparently decided to take all of them.  It's a testament to his once-in-a-century talent that he pulled it off as well as he did: the same guy who did Jurassic Park did Schindler's List, and the same guy as that somehow got it into his head that he could be the next Walt Disney.  Surveying the scene in the mid-80s, you can see why somebody might think they could; Disney itself wasn't doing so hot, and Don Bluth had determined no later than 1979 that if there were going to be any new Walt Disney, then it was going to be him.  Naturally enough, then, Spielberg had brought Bluth into his orbit at Amblin, and with the former arranging the financingand choosing the projectsthey'd made two hit cartoons together, An American Tail in 1986 and The Land Before Time in 1988.  As his behavior at Disney had always suggested, however, Bluth was not temperamentally suited to subordination, and so Bluth made his break.  Unfortunately, as we outlined not so long ago, without Spielberg's financial and industrial assistanceindeed, perhaps without all the artistic impositions that Bluth had chafed atSullivan Bluth Studios instantly spiraled off into oblivion, continuing to send signals back to our planet, but ones that only got fainter and fainter till one day they finally stopped.

As for Spielberg, it didn't slow him down at all: on yet another side of his multi-faceted career, namely the business end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, made in alliance with Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg, he'd had the opportunity to become acquainted with the actual animation studio that produced that film, Richard Williams's outfit in London.  Immediately, Spielberg brought a number of Williams's more talented animators into his fold; he cast his net even wider than that, drawing from the animation talent of all Europe.  And so, alongside his trusted Amblin partners Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg built his own animation studio in EnglandBluth in Ireland be damned.  Spielberg called it Amblimation (I can never quite figure out if I actually like that name), and for his new animation studio's mascot, he chose the hero of Bluth's most successful film, Fievel Mousekewitz.  I don't think this was meant to insult BluthFievel was already named after Spielberg's granddad; more than that, Fievel was going to be the star of Amblimation's first movie, the American Tail sequel that Spielberg wanted to do and which Bluth was so adamant that he wouldn't do that he ended a career-making business relationship over itbut, when you're starting up a major animation studio and you make your company's mascot a mouse, you probably intend to step on somebody's toes.

Here's the thing about Spielberg and Disney, though: even if he himself was not a great animator, Walt Disney built his animation studio atop decades of toil in the animation industry; Spielberg essentially just bought one, and was not in a position where he could give it his utmost attention anyway.  Spielberg, if not exactly erratic, had a hard time being present, and he could be found doing remarkably stupid things with his studio, like communicating his desires so belatedly that finished animation had to be cut and redone, or hiring prestigious live-action screenwriters to adapt dopey picture books about dinosaurs, with contracts that said their screenplays had to be adhered to word-for-word.  Amblimation itself seems to have lacked much corporate structureI'm not sure it ever had a layer of hierarchy between Spielberg and its staff that you'd describe as "management" (there's Kate Mallory, but she was basically an HR officer; compare WDFA, which technically wasn't even directly managed by Katzenberg)and, accordingly, that function was taken instead by two "veterans" from Williams's crew, 32 year old Phil Nibbelink and 28 year old Simon Wells.  (I am obliged to note here that the latter is, indeed, the great-grandson of seminal science-fiction writer Herbert George; as for his parents, actual scientists, they had seriously disapproved of Simon's career, so it had to have been most gratifying, at first, for the young man to be able to throw his success back in their faces.  For Nibbelink's part, he was an American ex-Disney animator who'd put himself in what must've seemed like the right place at the right time by falling in love with a Briton and remaining in London after Roger Rabbit.)  In some combination or another, the pair would wind up directing all of Amblimation's movies, even if, by their own admission, they didn't really understand "story" until the last one.*

Maybe none of these institutional weaknesses would have mattered too much but for Disney's amazing resurgence in 1989 and going forward, both thanks to, and despite, the leadership of that same Katzenbergand while Katzenberg will be a figure of enormous future importance to the story of Amblimation, as yet it's only as a rival.  And so, however it happened, across three expensive attempts between 1991 and 1995, Amblimation never managed to make a single film that turned a profit, starting with An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.  It did the best of them, no thanks to Spielberg, or its distributor, Universal.  With a strategy pulled straight from the Don Bluth Megalomaniacal Idiot Playbook (which, after all, Spielberg and Universal had helped author in the first place), on November 22nd, 1991, Fievel Goes West was released directly into the maw of Beauty and the Beast.  It's surreal to read trade paper quotes from the pre-release wind-up where Universal executives and Katzenbergthe latter with apparent sincerityexpress their blithe expectations that both films would do well.  It's almost like they hadn't witnessed what had just happened to All Dogs Go To Heaven.  I guess you can't fault their faith in the power of animation.

But if part of Amblimation's problem was brash and inexperienced leadership, that's part of where Amblimation's unsung triumph lies as well; it can't be denied that Spielberg had faith in the power of animators, and you can perceive across the whole length and breadth of Fievel Goes West's 75 minutes Spielberg's cheerful speakerphone exhortations to his employees, "oh, you can too do that," Wells and Nibbelink agreeing with their boss through anxious laughter but still pulling it together anyway.  It's the pity of progress, I suppose, but having come out in 1991, Fievel Goes West can be unfairly overlooked, for it arrives at pretty much the exact moment of the industrial transition to digital ink-and-paint systems such as Disney had fielded twice already, Fievel Goes West finding itself on the "wrong" side of animation history.  Hence all of the incredibly difficult things Spielberg asked his animators to do with their last-generation technology, and which they made such heroic exertions to accomplish, would shortly becomehad, in fact, already becomeif not easy, then not quite so impossible and miraculous.  Results do still matter more; I'm not going to say, "Fievel Goes West looks better than Beauty and the Beast."  (Though I'm neither going to say, outright, that it doesn't.)  And the results of Fievel Go Westin its lighting effects, its dynamic staging, all these live-action filmmaking techniques, often specifically Spielbergian live-action filmmaking techniques that Spielberg refused to understand weren't being replicated in animation because it was fucking ridiculous to trywould still be impressive, no matter what technology went into it.  Being "impossible" and "miraculous" on top of that can be, if one prefers, a serious enhancing factor.

As for the story, it's basically just An American Tail told at a moving point in reference to wherever the analogous part of An American Tail was, always remaining about three thousand miles west of where the plot had gotten in the previous movie.  That's somewhat unfair, because there's still a massive difference in valence between the two films; it's the difference between how the first film shoved David Kirschner's story about genocide and migration through the filter of Bluth's apparent indifference to it, and how Fievel Goes West screenwriter Flint Dille simply applied his experience on Spielberg's kid's television cartoons to the plot beats of that story, more-or-less making a long episode of Tiny Toon Adventures out of it instead.**

In specifics then, what happens is that, despite the victories achieved previously, the Mousekewitzes are still just scraping by in a New York City that remains swarming with sadistic cats, and so after a particularly vicious attackmuch like the one that began An American Tail!they are primed to hear a huckster's message that, out West, there's a paradise waiting for them, just like they previously thought in An American Tail, except in this paradise cats and mice work together; Fievel (Phillip Glasser), already a fan of Wild West stories in general and famed canine lawman Wylie Burp (James Stewart) in particular, is stoked at the prospect.  Unfortunately, this is a scam, run by one Cat R. Waul (John Cleese; his name is fortunately rarely spoken), who intends to trick the west-bound mice into building their own mousetrap so as to save him and his conspirators (which notably includes a tarantula) the trouble of actually having to catch them; you could perhaps liken him to the cat who pretended to be a rodent politician in An American Tail.  Of course, without even considering Waul's particular genocidal endgame, once the mice arrive in the West, it turns out the West actually sucks, this being not at all unlike how New York turned out to actually suck in An American Tail.  On the way to the West, however, Fievel discovers Waul's plan, and Fievel is dispensed with by being thrown off the train, separating him from his family and leaving him somewhere in the middle of the great American desert... hey, kind of like how he went overboard into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in An American Tail.

The manner in which Fievel's feline friend, Tiger (Dom DeLuise), re-enters the action by following the train is possibly the first plot element that is meaningfully different from An American Tail; he winds up in a cartoon short from the 1940s (not in a good way, though at least it has some cool silhouette animation) about being worshipped as a god by "Mousehicans."  But Fievel eventually finds Tiger, and Fievel enlists the help of his idol, Wylie, who is a lot older and weaker than Fievel had thought, and they all team up to fight the evil cats.  Also, Fievel's older sister Tanya (Cathy Cavadini) wants to be a singer.  She's discovered by Waul, in a subplot that serves, not especially well, solely to permit a boisterous tavern musical number, insofar as the several minutes detailing Waul's uncharacteristic obsession with the mouse's beautiful voice figure into absolutely no other part of the story.

But then, this is not an especially good story, even above and beyond its startling plot redundancies with An American Tail.  Hell, I'm willing to agree it's a barely-functional story, with at least one awful, intolerable character filling out a very key role.  DeLuise's often-tiresome comic patter is the offender here, and he's just foregrounded so much, which means we get to really think about what a piece of shit character design Tiger has always been, this giant ginger cat in an ill-fitting purple fucking T-shirt, some decades before T-shirts were even being worn by people; and once the final act arrives, and Tiger also begins to have plot function alongside Fievel and Wylie, he degrades them both.  The latter instructs him on how to "be a dog" and use that to frighten cats, in one of the more asinine training montages of the late 20th century; this continues into a deeply "off" action climax, where everyone involved in this film's direction proved themselves entirely unable to solve the problem they'd created for themselves, of making a sincerely dramatic ending to an action Western without any access whatsoever to consequential violence.  (They use slingshots instead of guns, which is self-evidently lame enough that I hate that it kind of makes sense.  You see, Waul does use a gun.  This has not been so much as briefly set up, and it feels completely dizzying in its strangeness, but the important thing is that of course they don't have guns; dogs and cats don't make guns, and this one gun, made for humans, is more than half the feline's size.  The real lede I've buried is that Fievel Goes West has at this point spent much of its runtime being resolutely contemptuous about scale: the cats seem way too big, and more-or-less the very instant the mice arrive West the film almost totally ceases to pretend that humans still exist in this world anymore, or even ever existed in order to build it.  Humans return only if the movie needs them for the occasionaland, for the aforementioned reasons, jarringjoke.)

There is also the deeper matter of how Fievel Goes West jettisons the historical richness of its predecessor, which I know sours some folks on the film, and I can't really argue with that, except to say that I think An American Tail is so thoughtlessly-trivializing in its approach to its fundamentally-grim subject matter that Fievel Goes West does better just by at least trivializing its subject matter deliberately.  It actively rejects the need to care about whether its historical allegory is ever on-point, and even when it is, it feels more like it's simply taking joy in doing snide satire rather than fulfilling its contractual obligation to celebrate immigrants; and hence how its entire story can be dedicated to mocking westward-bound settlers as truly pathetic rubes in ways An American Tail wouldn't have dared, despite using the exact same plot elements its predecessor did.  My single favorite gag in the movie is astonishingly sharp and nasty: involving this film's analogue to the "No Cats In America" musical number, "Way Out West," and visualizing the mouse community's collective fantasy of their civilizing mission, in a series of lightning-quick dissolves we find an increasingly-horrified, undoubtedly metaphorical bear.  We watch as he is imprisoned by the metropolis emerging out of the soil around him, the unmistakable implication being that the bear will soon be dead.  (I suppose sometimes it's the joke, sometimes it's the way it's told.)  So it winds up having some substance, after all.

But it's mostly just an excuse for cartoon anarchism and broadside parody, to the point that even some of Tiger's scenes deploy enough escalating violent slapstick that I reluctantly began to laugh at them; one of the film's very first moves, which suggests what kind of movie this sequel will be, is to insult the audiences who had found An American Tail moving, by having humans start throwing rotten vegetables at Tanya when she starts in on an abortive performance of the prior film's signature song, "Somewhere Out There."  It's maybe tougher to recalibrate than it ought to be, then, but it is funny enough to get away with it, at least up until the finale, which just can't support that unseriousness of tone.  Until such time, Wylie's a reliable source of humor, albeit underutilized (and with a "old man called back to adventure" arc that is rushed so hard it occurs within a single two minute scene), and of course we can spot a cartoon underutilizing Stewart in what turned out to be the final months of his life; he does manage to be a pretty enjoyable presence, to the extent he can be present, and he earns some laughs on the basis of his still-extant Stewartness, notably with a complicated, goofy wall of dialogue composed entirely of canine puns.  Cleese's evil feline villain is better still.  And even Glasser's Fievel is less hatefully obnoxious than he was before, partly because of far less aggressive character animation, partly because of backing off on the lisp, and probably partly because he has what feels like half as much dialogue this time.  But however it happened, this is one reason I'm glad Bluth didn't direct this, because his instincts tended to lead him towards nauseating and self-defeating "cuteness," and these guys barely seem to like Fievel, leaving him to die in the desert and all.  (Second best joke: when Fievel passes Tiger in the same desert, each dying of thirst, and both of them having been set up to believe the other is only a mirage.  It's such a good, classic-feeling cartoon gag I wonder if I just don't recall what it's stealing it from.)

And here's where we get back to the real deal: that's all secondary to what actually recommends Fievel Goes West, not as a good American Tail sequel, or even a cartoon comedy, but just as a cartoon.  This cartoon is a little awe-inspiring, especially considering Amblimation's technological levels; devoid of Disney's tools, Amblimation's talent almost matched Disney's capacity for spectacle anyway.  I'm not even sure how they actually did some of these Spielbergian shafts of light, except through a lot of sweat, which is, to be fair, obviously the way that the backgrounds got filled with so many inordinately-large crowds of hand-animated characters.  But it goes beyond just "a lot of work."  This movie sometimes looks like it shouldn't quite be able to exist before digital ink-and-paint at all; certainly not without innovation.  From the swirling 360 degree shot of Fievel's Western fantasy that kicks off the movie to the many generous invitations it offers us to explore its "sets" (frequently in three dimensions, even sometimes, if not as often as you'd want, from actual mouse scale), it seems like it'd be hard to point to a standout example of Spielberg's ambitions on his animators' behalf.  But there are at least two outright amazing setpieces that really make you sit up and notice, both, I believe, the joint work of painter Harald Kraut and camera supervisor Robert Crawford, who figured out how to translate Spielberg's demands that a flabbergastingly-long sewer-rafting sequence, and a later scene where Fievel gets "rescued" from an evil-looking scorpion through the tender mercies of a hungry hawk, both be effected in very long "takes."

It's kind of primitive, yes, which only indicates how much finessed technique it took to get there: for this and other reasons, Crawford had to build Amblimation a multiplane camera from scratch, while Kraut figured out how to make long background paintings and hide edits to provide the action continuous flow.  It's more apparent in the half-mile vertical lift with the hawk, where the wing flaps perform the necessary task of concealing jumps to new backdrops; the seams are just visible enough for you to appreciate the wondrous handicraft.  As for the sewer rafting, it involves water animation every bit as accomplished as Bluth managed in An American Tail; the effects animation overall is great.  The character animation is an outright improvementno longer are characters spasming around the way Bluth, in his idiosyncrasy, preferredand I'm very fond of the wire-puppet mouse that Waul uses to swindle the crowds, whom we are allowed to intuit something deeply wrong about from its movement, even before the character detailing reveals its artificiality.  From time to time (mostly with Tanya), there'll even be a grace note that actually does go to character, as if this were a real story, which I find charming even if it never quite serves any function.  It's only a pity that the ugliest damn shot of the movie is the very last, which finds Amblimation experimenting with a CGI landscape for no good reason.

So I kind of love Fievel Goes West, even if its weaknesses are pretty serious.  (And I didn't even mention Tiger's big-titted cat girlfriendJesus fucking Christ, guys.)  But they are at least different weaknesses than its predecessor had; and, for my part, they're mostly weaknesses I like better.  Whatever else, it was a hell of an opening salvo from Amblimationwhether enough people heard it or not.

Score: 7/10

*If you're wondering where I'm getting this from, it's from the horses' mouths, or, more precisely, a magnificent coup of a podcast, The Look Back Machine's "The Oral History of Amblimation," which offers a collection of interviews with Nibbelink, Wells, and other key Amblimation figures about their experience with the studio.  They pull Spielberg in, too, via that "thriving animation studio" commentwhich is incredibly bitchy toward Disney, don't you think?which he must've made on TV sometime, but unfortunately I cannot find its source.
**Dille isn't a credited writer on a single episode, but apparently did some kind of development work for the show.

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