An American Tail & All Dogs Go To Heaven
I missed out on Don Bluth growing up – I was born slightly too late. The only films of his I saw were the ever-controversial Anastasia and A Troll in Central Park, which I remember as simultaneously saccharine and frightening.
Of all of his films, An American Tail is the one I am most confused at not having seen as a child. It’s the most iconic of Bluth’s films. At the time of its release it was his most commercially successful. It remains absolutely beloved in animation circles. Suffice to say this film comes with a whole lot of hype.
I feel the same way about An American Tail as I do about all Don Bluth films: I don’t know if I like it. I went in wanting to like it. I liked many parts of it. It’s not bad – not by any stretch of the imagination – I just found it… confused.
An American Tail is quite definitely a children’s film – the storytelling style, the child protagonist, and the overall cuddliness see to that. But there are parts of this film you really need to be an adult to appreciate. It’s very firmly rooted in its nineteenth-century setting, in its context of immigration and social inequality. At its heart it’s really a film about oppression. It’s a children’s film with sweatshops and political rallies. Both sides of the film – the cute and the political – are equally good, they just don’t quite mesh.
All Dogs Go To Heaven is even worse in this regard. It’s less over in its social themes, but it’s confusing as well as confused. It’s a film about gangsters, but they’re also dogs. Dogs who the human world treats like dogs, even though some of them wear clothes and work in casinos. It’s a children’s film, set in and around casinos and gambling rings, which opens with a pre-meditated murder. It’s a children’s film in which original sin is a significant plot point. And there’s a singing alligator.
To sum up: All Dogs Go To Heaven is a redemption story, full of overt Christian imagery and with some honestly disturbing moments… told with singing dogs. To the film’s defence I’d say it actually meshes a little better than An American Tail, because everything in this one is so outlandish (did I mention the singing alligator?). But An American Tail is the better film.
I went in to All Dogs Go To Heaven with much lower expectations, and I think I was right to do so. It’s a decent enough film – I just couldn’t get over the dog gangsters (they’re stray dogs – but they’re also gangsters who run gambling rings…).
Here’s another film with a whole lot of hype surrounding it. Persepolis is based on a acclaimed graphic novel (which I’ll confess to not having read); it’s visually striking and politically resonant.
This one did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful, moving and all-round polished film. ‘Polished’ I think is a good word to describe it: the art style is just so clean and smooth.
The only real issue I have with Persepolis is that I don’t think the material translates perfectly to film. It’s a memoir, so by nature choppy, varied in tone, and difficult to streamline. Real life is – sadly – not as satisfying or even as fiction.
But really, that’s a nitpick. It’s a memoir, and it doesn’t make any pretence of being other than it is. It’s also an excellent film. Thoroughly recommended.
Kirikou and the Sorceress
I first came across Kirikou while watching some kind of ‘greatest animated films’ count-down on television. They only showed a few scenes but it stuck in my head; I think it has something to do with the colours.
Having finally, after many years, sat down and watched it, I can say this: I think Kirikou is the best animated folk tale I’ve ever seen. It retains a lot of elements that most animated films based on folk and fairy tales omit – odd little things like Kirikou’s tiny super-speed run, or the bizarre ending, which I won’t spoil. The story structure gets repetitive – the people of Kirikou’s village refuse to listen to him, forcing him to save the day: lather, rinse, repeat – which honestly isn’t a criticism. I found it refreshing and curiously nostalgic.
Karaba – the ‘sorceress’ of the title – is an excellent villain. Her backstory is ostensibly simple, but has some dark and complex implications. I’m not sure what to make of her ultimate fate – it’s uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable as to spoil the film for me.
The whole film, despite being rooted in one village and the surrounding countryside, has a sense of bigness to it – probably helped by the small stature of Kirikou. It’s like an epic on a miniature scale.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
The third of three very hyped up films in this entry! Mask of the Phantasm is, as far as I’m aware, the only theatrically released animated Batman film. It might be one of the only theatrically released superhero films to date – which I find very strange, because comic-book heroes are much better suited to animation than live-action.
Mask of the Phantasm didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, sadly. It might be that I watched it not all that long after Batman: Under the Red Hood so I couldn’t help but compare the two – and the emotional stakes in Under the Red Hood were just higher.
But taken purely on its own terms, it’s amazing how much Mask of the Phantasm manages to weave into one film. The story is split between Batman’s present-day battle with the Phantasm and flashbacks to his origin story – though not the origin you might expect. Rather than the death of his parents, Phantasm hinges around the moment Bruce Wayne really became Batman – the moment he took up the cowl for the first time, and what drove him to it.
I found the motivation the film gives him a little lacking (spoilers: he got dumped), but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a really good film. I still like Under the Red Hood more, but since it requires more comics-knowledge to appreciate, Mask of the Phantasm is more recommended – and it has a female lead, which is a plus.
Next up in 100 Animated films: Computer-generated assortment.