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

Balto and Tail Posters

PART II:

Let’s talk Design for a bit.

Character design is paramount if I’m going to like an animated film or not. I don’t care if your story is great or your animation is painstakingly precise: if you’re character’s look dull, unoriginal, or uninteresting, I’m not going to care in the least. This actually can also be true in live-action films. Thankfully just about everyone here looks awesome. The two that stand out for me, of course, are Tanya and Jenna. I just can’t not talk about female characters when they’re drawn so well.

With Tanya, it was all about the maturity as well as the light-hearted grace that her character had to express. And the few changes they made, like giving her a pony-tail and dressing her in a puffy sleeved work dress with a raised color, accentuated that perfectly.

With Jenna, it was striking red color, the red scarf, the sharp elegant muzzle; and… those eyes, those gorgeous golden eyes. Now I should point out, however, that Amblin Animation clearly took notes from Disney here; as Jenna’s, Balto’s and Rosie’s eyes look exactly the Ariel’s and Aladdin’s. And who can blame them. Ariel’s eyes are amazingly expressive and hard not to fall into (figure of speech).

But now let’s discuss the aspect that can make or break a good design: the animation.

Animation in both Balto and American Tail 2 is very strong, but Balto comes out on top for a few reasons.

One: its animation is more consistent between characters and scenes, whereas …Tail’s animation fluctuates. There could be many reasons for this: perhaps a broad division of labor; certain less skilled animators getting the less important shots; or some extra outsourcing on the part of the production house. Either way, the quality is still high in …Tail 2, but Balto manages to be more like Disney and reign in the variety in styles and skill levels in order to deliver and visually coherent product.

And Two: Balto’s animation is highly nuanced and expressive. Facial expressions, for example, are handled in such a way that just a little wrinkle in the cheeks tells us all we need to know about how the character is feeling. 3D animators can do that rather easily these days. But with traditional animation, it’s much harder to draw lines in just the right spot while also keeping the rest of the lines in place to make tiny adjustments in facial muscles that register on screen. They’ll only work if they’re very subtle, but this crew seems to have their stuff together. The crew also seems rather skilled at animating complex character models, most especially Boris; who has all of these feathers and shapes and edges to his body that all have to be rendered three-dimensionally where-ever, and however he moves. But not only do they handle his model, they handle it with a high range of fluidity. Some of his shots are so fluid and smooth, I dare-say they must have been roto-scoped. But I can usually tell when something’s been roto-scoped, and he clearly wasn’t.

Conversely, An American Tail 2 succeeds in bringing us some great animation as well, beyond its issues with consistency. There are many scenes and shots with Fievel or Tiger that are animated masterfully: especially the opening scenes with Fievel and his family escaping the cats, or Tiger trying to escape the dogs while running to the train station. And there’s also the sequence with Tiger training with Wylie Burp to become a dog; which as far as I can tell, was consistently well animated all the way through.

I did notice that one character in particular, Mr. Cat R. Waul, had the advantage over the rest of the cast by being animated by the same crew (it seemed) throughout most of the picture. In every shot he was in, there was such careful attention, such pristine delicacy, and such visual variety given to every movement he made because he was the villain, and he had to stand tall and in control in every scene he appeared.

But perhaps a point where both films can stand equal is in their approach to production design.

In …Tail’s case, there was a distinct choice to give everything a smoky, more dusty grit than even the first film. The use of a slightly more subdued color-scheme as well as many live-action smoke elements, helped give a more believable nature to this universe. It actually brings it closer to live-action because of it. I also felt that the use of dynamic camera moves, highly intricate lens flares, and animated reflections: such as when the hawk is looking down at Fievel, or when Cat R. Waul sees Tanya singing from across a room; were amazing additions to detail that permeate the film. Whereas on Balto’s side, the detailed animation, as mentioned earlier; rotoscoped objects and vehicles, along with a similar subdued color scheme, helped build a believable atmosphere as well. Balto also utilized computer generated snow for the majority of the picture rather than live-action snow, in order to control how thick the snow would appear on screen. This also added to the slightly more live-action feel of its universe.

Onto Voices.

The voice cast for each film is quite varied and memorable. An American Tail 2 arguably has the more recognizable cast, with John Cleese giving what I consider his best voice-over performance in his career, and the late great Jimmy Stewart providing a cameo in the form of Wylie Burp: his last role before he died. On the other hand, though, Balto has a few actors that you probably didn’t recognize were in it: that being Kevin Bacon as Balto, Bob Hoskins as Boris the goose, and music legend Phil Collins as the two poler-bears, Muk and Luk. Not sure why Phil decided to show up, though. You’d think he would have contributed a song to the soundtrack.

As for the rest of the casts, they are also relatively good. Phillip Glasser returns as Fievel Mousekewitz, providing a similar yet more confident performance. His conviction and believability may dip at times, but that was true of the original film as well.  Amy Green, as Tanya, is now replaced by the more colorful Cathy Cavadini, who may be most famous for her role as Blossom from the Powerpuff Girls. This version of Tanya would not be what it is without Cathy’s voice. As I explained in my entry about the song “Dreams to Dream” from this film, Cathy’s voice is just so attractive to me. The youthful pitch, the quirky curves in the way she says her words, and the soft yet confident tone, all come together to make a knock-out female animated voice.

I can’t quite say the same for Bridget Fonda though, since her voice tended to feel rather reserved and distant to me. And I don’t think that was intended to be a reflection of the character either. Fonda just doesn’t feel like someone who can comfortably give a performance in a voice-over booth. And many great actors before her and since have fallen prey to the same issue. This isn’t to say that her voice doesn’t fit or that it isn’t a nice voice at times; she just doesn’t sound as comfortable doing it.

Kevin Bacon, however, delivers that quint-essential male-lead voice that always hits a home run. It’s very much like John Cusack when he played Dimitri in Anastasia, except Kevin Bacon is more fun and energetic here. He also sounds a bit like Sly Cooper from the Playstation videogame series. He’s pretty much channeling his energy from Footloose. And that’s all you need, bra! Just some fun and some energy and everything will sound great in a voice-over. Take it from Jim Cummings as Steele: who you can tell is extremely confident playing the slick, too-cool-for-school villain here. He’s pretty much playing Gaston, if Gaston had been eaten by Kirk Douglas and barfed up by George C. Scott. Okay, bad analogy.

Anyway, let’s now move on to our final topic area before wrapping things up: the Music.

Both films actually happen to be composed by the same person, the impeccable James Horner, who previously also scored the original American Tail and The Land Before Time. He shines no less brightly here. His score for An American Tail 2 is a testament to the western movie music style, and actually goes back to the source of all western movie themes; the Rodeo Opera by Aaron Copeland, for inspiration. In fact, my favorite track from the film, “In Training,” is directly modeled after the “Hoedown” song, which is what spawned things like “The Magnificent Seven” theme, the “Wild Wild West” theme, and dozens more. I’ve even merged “Hoedown” and “In Training” together in an editing program, and if you didn’t know the two songs were there, you’d swear it was all still Aaron Copeland’s original.

Here’s Copeland’s “Rodeo”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StJTl8Hcr68

And here’s Horner’s “In Training”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyV-rgzWjSw

James Horner also creates two strong themes within the film that are utilized to amazing effect in later sections. The main theme of the film comes from the tune written for Tanya called “The Girl You Left Behind,” which plays in an instrumental form during the gun-fight sequence as well as other key moments. And there’s the song “Way Out West,” which is re-purposed later both as a slow and non-lyrical variation for the ending resolution, when Wylie talks to Fievel. I almost didn’t notice this, though, until I was skimming through the sequence and heard the tune played back to me really fast. It goes to show you just how creative one can get with a single tune or melody.

Balto’s music tends to be a little less memorable, mainly because there are no musical numbers, but also because there isn’t as strong of a theme or hook anywhere in the soundtrack. But that isn’t to say the music isn’t meaningful or impactful. Even today music is composed for films all the time, often with no lasting effect other than to accentuate the film it belongs to. Only the special films, but most often the animated films, are the ones that get soundtracks with that little something extra that makes them memorable. We’ll be getting to a Top 10 Movie Background Music list in the near future.

Well, I think that about covers everything. I apologize if this entry wasn’t as engaging or emotional as my others. It was rather hard to figure out how to talk about these two films. And like I said at the beginning, it felt odd not to write about them in a comparative way because of how I used to watch them both so much as a kid.

TRIVIA TIME!:

A few minor bits of trivia here, but some I’m sure you won’t be sorry learning.

  1. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West was the final role of actor James (Jimmy) Stewart; who lived for six more years before dying in 1997. It was also his only role in an animated feature.
  2. Fievel Goes West was also John Cleese’s first role in an animated film, and arguably his best out of the few that he did up until last year with DisneyToon’s Planes.
  3. When Fievel is bouncing along in the tumbleweed towards Green River, the song that plays is the “Rawhide” theme-song, taken straight out of the Blues Brothers movie. So what you are hearing is actually Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s voices coming out of different desert animals.
  4. Fievel Goes West was co-directed by Phil Nibbilink: who had worked as an animator on The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and was the director of We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story (which is why that film may look similar to this one). The other director was Simon Wells, who is actually the grandson of world-famous sci-fi writer, H. G. Wells.

There is a lot of trivia regarding Balto, so I will provide a link to IMDB’s PAGE FOR TRIVIA, but I will also list a few of my favorites below.

  1. Brenden Frasier was originally cast as Steele, the antagonist of the film; a rather odd choice given Steele’s imposing design. Brenden even recorded most of his lines. But thankfully Jim Cummings was brought in to provide his usual, high-caliber performance.
  2. If you don’t know already, Balto IS based on a true story. Though as you will see on the IMDB page, most of the film’s story is a fabrication to build tension and dramatic weight.
  3. For instance, Balto was never a mutt or hybrid of a wolf and dog, he was a purebred Siberian Husky.
  4. Balto’s design is actually lifted from Tramp in Lady and the Tramp. And Jenna’s design was based on Audry Hepburn. I actually can see a little of that, yeah.
  5. Balto was released in 1994, but had difficulty at the box-office due to the surprise success of Pixar’s Toy Story. Thus Balto’s production house, Amblimation (owned by Steven Spielberg as part of his Amblin Entertainment trademark), was shut down, and many of the animation staff were re-located to Spielberg’s new studio, Dreamworks.
  6. Balto also happens to be directed by Simon Wells, this time going solo.
  7. Just like with Jimmy Stewart, Balto was Bridget Fonda’s only role in an animated feature. The same goes for Kevin Bacon, and Bob Hoskins.

8. Finally, something that IMDB doesn’t mention: there is a moment in the ice-cave sequence when Star, the nutty one, walks behind an ice-pillar that warps his reflection, and he looks like E.T. He even makes the trademark “Ow” noise.

Some other Links here include a short documentary on the story of Balto, that relates back to this film, from 1994: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIp3FREte9w

And here are a few other bloggers who have discussed these films as well: Rewind Review 1: Fievel Goes West, Nostalgic Impulse: Fievel Goes West, Animation Confabulation: Fievel Goes West. Can’t find any other Balto blog entries, but there may be a few worth checking out.

In short: I highly, Highly recommend you check out both of these films and purchase them for your collection. But I will give you a word of warning first.

A strange issue that I found with both of my recent DVD copies of these films, is that for some reason, Universal released them in 4×3 full-screen rather than their native wide-screen. I’m sure these films were both ported to DVD back when DVD first came out and Televisions still hadn’t done away with their large back ends. But even so, every single movie I own, DVD or Blu-ray, is presented in its original aspect ratio; even if its native ratio was 4×3. These films, however, are left in their pre-2000s state; as if they were ripped straight from the VHS and slapped onto disk. And it’s a shame because both of these films deserve to be able to show their full scope because of how well-made they are. Even the first American Tail is in wide screen, both on DVD and on Blu-ray: so why not it’s sequel?

Thankfully it appears Universal is not blind (considering they’ve done so well with restoring multiple films in their library), and they have done the courtesy of releasing downloadable versions of Balto and Fievel Goes West in their native wide-screen on I-Tunes. But I’m still waiting patiently for a Blu-ray to come out for both, which could be just over the horizon.

So tune in next time, everybody, where we’ll be talking about a little 90s nostalgia known simply as, A Goofy Movie.

Take care.

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