An American Tail 2 vs Balto – PART 1 | Animated and Underrated

Balto and Tail Posters

Balto Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6lGULmQdb0

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqyBOl6Tt00

Today, I’ve decided to do something a little different, mostly because my conscience is telling me that this is the only way to cover these amazing films. This entry may turn out to be a little long, much like my Brave Little Toaster review, but I promise to keep all extraneous content out of this as much as possible, and perhaps create a supplementary document to talk about a few odd things.

To begin with, these are probably the two films that I remember watching the most when I was young. I may have watched things like Aladdin or Peter Pan just as much; but these are the films I remember watching the most. You see, I had a bit of problem, and in fact still kind of do, with certain characters or certain moments just creeping the hell out of me or making me feel awkward.

For instance, the scene where Belle’s father is shuttled away in that spider-like carriage as Belle looks on in horror at her new predicament with the Beast.

Or the scene where Ariel’s father, King Triton, finds her cave of human-made collectibles, and becomes enraged to the point that he destroys everything.

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Scenes like that used to terrify me; not just because they were intense, but because I wasn’t capable of handling the emotional stimuli. And like I said, sometimes I still can’t quite handle it; but at least now I try to because it’s important that I do. I’m trying to become a filmmaker after all. Back then, however, I preferred the slightly easier going titles, and have rather fond memories of watching both Balto and …Tail 2 at least once every few months.

Now as far as I’m concerned, Balto and An American Tail 2 are the 2nd and 3rd greatest, non-Disney, Western, animated features to come out during the 1990s: with the top spot going to Cats Don’t Dance. I’m sure many of you will disagree with that, but you probably won’t chose much outside of these three because, frankly, there wasn’t much else good to choose from other than Disney products.

Amazingly, 75% of all the western animated titles produced during the 90s were Disney related: which included both their major features, their abundant sequels and often forgotten television specials, and any other animated works that they distributed from smaller studios. So if you were to remove all Disney products from the board, pretty much all you’d have left are Warner Brothers, Universal, and Don Bluth: who sadly was going rather nutty at the time and couldn’t be bothered to make anything with competency.

So that then leads us to Balto and …Tail 2: two films that only by sheer coincidence are produced through the same company, Universal; but have all the qualities that make up a solid, worth-while family picture.

As I go along I’ll start a topic on one film and relate elements back and forth between it and the other film. I won’t be trying to decide on a winner, though. The “verses” thing was mainly for a snappy name. Let’s then begin promptly with the Stories.

Story-wise, An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West feels like your typical sequel approach with a main hero coming into new territory and running into a clear-cut villain that must be dispatched with by the end: but …Tail does a few things different than most. Instead of going the route of, let’s say a DisneyToon sequel, An American Tail 2 doesn’t make Fievel the only hero. Instead we have two main and two auxiliary protagonists. Fievel is really more of a personal guide through the story, as all good protagonists are. But as we know from the previous American Tail, he’s already been through hell and back, so his character doesn’t necessarily need more development. On the other hand, Tiger: a soft, lovable, vegetarian who got scared easily; has some room to grow.  So this film takes the opportunity to see if we can toughen him up a bit. Therefore the film ends up being much less about one hero’s journey and turns into a half-and-half thing; while at the same time giving extra development time to Tanya (Fievel’s sister) and Sheriff Wylie Burp: although Burp’s arc is decidedly the smallest.

With Balto, you do get the more traditional approach to story with a single hero, a single villain, and a single central goal that ends in your typical results. Instead of spreading the story out among four characters, it keeps it reigned in on one, despite the overabundance of side-kicks. And although all of that is typical, it’s manages to be no less engaging. That’s because Balto gets things right with its character development. It may be subtle and hard to tell just what does work about the film; but I think it has to do with those little emotional moments here and there, that let us get inside the heads of Balto, Jenna, and even Boris the goose. In fact, the biggest hook for the film is the connection between Balto and Jenna over Rosie becoming sick. Instead of the hero simply trying to win a race just to impress some girl back home, he’s trying to beat the clock to save the life of a young girl that means a lot to the dog he loves. Even when he tries to race to get on the dog-sled team, he’s doing it because he genuinely wants to help.

Now onto Characters.

As I mentioned earlier, Balto works very well sticking to a central character and a central story, but tries too hard to shove in as many quirky side-characters as it can; and it can sometimes seem overwhelming. You have Balto’s group, consisting of Boris the goose and the two poler-bears, Muk and Luk. You have Jenna’s group; consisting of the little prima donna, Dixie; and the gossip-girl, Sylvie. And you have Steele’s group; consisting of Nikki the tough guy, Kaltag the motor-mouth, and Star the goof-ball.

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A common problem you get with this many characters, of course, is that there’s never enough time to introduce everyone’s name. The names are there mainly to give proper appropriation during the credits, but the film is never obligated to give them to us within the story if the story doesn’t require them to function. And funny enough, I don’t believe they are required here. I appreciate learning who Boris, Muk and Luk are because they are Balto’s friends, and I’m meant to relate to Balto’s character and understand his world. But both Jenna’s friends and Steele’s comrades I don’t have to know on a first name basis because they’re personalities are so stereotypical and straight-forward that they speak for themselves.

Now normally stereotypical or one-note characters aren’t a good thing, and it may be the nostalgia goggles talking, but I think all of the side-characters in Balto work. They’re strong enough to stand on their own two feet, even if the movie sort-of has to overcompensate by pounding their personalities into our heads. An American Tail 2, however, succeeds in quickly describing its much smaller cast of characters while also doing the courtesy of providing their names. And that’s good, especially if one hasn’t actually watched the original film.

Fievel is an adventurous, head-strong kid that feels like he could take on anything; but also has a strong sense of duty beyond your typical “want for excitement.”

Tanya is an artistic type with dreams of becoming a singer. She also has a big heart and a truly beautiful soul that sings proud even when she isn’t.

Tiger is a ‘frady-cat, who’s rather nervous at times and isn’t confident in himself: often cracking jokes and poking fun just to keep himself sane and collected. He also has a big heart, and one that will lead him to conquering his lack of confidence, much like the Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Sheriff Wylie Burp is probably the weakest in the cast in that he’s pretty much a cameo more than anything. The first time we see him is in a day-dream sequence where Fievel teams up with him to take down some outlaws. And the second time we see him he’s been reduced to a sloth-like pile on the stoop of a general store or something: probably been sinking into the drink due to all those green bubbles coming from his mouth. But that’s all just conjecture. We’re never given a full Bio on the guy because the film never finds the time to give us anything to identify his character other than an expository dialogue sequence. It would have been rather nice had we been given a scene of Wiley stumbling in on the cat’s bar looking for a drink, and then having him get pushed around by a few cats until he attempts to arrest someone, only to get thrown out on his rear. This would have properly illustrated his current situation, rather than him just looking like he’s been overly tired the past couple of days.

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Then there is Mr. Cat R. Waul, who may in fact have simplest, and yet no so simple character of the lot. You see, his character has a simple motivation, but you slowly begin to notice that his motivations may go deeper than what is on the surface. He wants to catch mice in order to eat them. Right. He wants to do the economical thing and have the mice help build a utopia for the cats before the cats eat them all. Right. He also wants to prove himself the dominant cat of the bunch by donning a pretentious uniform and monocle in order to feel important, due the fact that he has been continuously subjugated and embarrassed by what I can only assume is his doting owner. Um… right.

Still no word on why he planned on sparing Tanya from the trap at the end. Perhaps to keep her in order to lure more mice to the town? Or maybe even just as personal entertainment? It’s not really clear.

Anyway, you can see there that each character’s personality and motivations are clear enough to carry a decent story. Whether the characters are one-note and are never given names, or are given full opportunity to develop over the course of the film. It’s all in the subtle touches and/or moments that make or break a character for me. And in both these films, everyone works just fine.

Stay tuned for Part II of this discussion…    PART II>>>

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