JOHNS CREEK—While “An American Tail” played at the Regal Medlock Crossing as part of the 2011 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, director John Bluth and producer Gary Goldman discussed the history behind the film.
Bluth said he and Goldman first met while working at Walt Disney Studios. After nine years there, they saw the quality of work was declining. Goldman said Disney in the 1970s was a shadow of how it was when Walt Disney was still alive.
Cost-cutting techniques like leaving out the shadows characters cast, their reflections in water and the glow from fires caused animation quality to decline. The studio had an extensive effects studio, but budgetary concerns meant nobody could use it.
Bluth said he was told high-quality animation was too expensive. To test that theory, he, Goldman and others bought their own equipment and made a 26-minute film entitled “Banjo the Woodpile Cat” in Bluth’s garage using the techniques that were supposedly too expensive. When they took the film to those in charge of Disney at the time, the company men did not want to watch it.
“That to me was the toll of the bell,” he said.
In 1979, Bluth and many others left Disney and set up an independent studio. Their goal was to compete with Disney and force the studio to wake up. If Disney faced a serious competitor, they would return to producing the high-quality films of old.
“We went out to make a picture called ‘Secret of NIMH,’” he said.
Although the film did not make much money, it was critically acclaimed. Jerry Goldsmith, who created the score for the film, was friends with Steven Spielberg and told him that since he liked animation, he might like ‘The Secret of NIMH.’”
Spielberg saw it and said he thought films like it — films common during the golden age of animation — were no longer made due to costs. Spielberg suggested he and the former Disney personnel make a film together.
Two years later, Spielberg acquired the idea for “An American Tail”—which originally involved human-sized mice—and set Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg, who had written for “Sesame Street,” to work writing the script.
“We had meetings every day for about two hours,” Goldman said. “Then the writers would disappear into their office and try to write two pages of script.”
The two pages of script produced every day would go to Spielberg. If he approved it, the voices would be recorded immediately.
“We had no script,” Goldman said. “We were writing it as we went. It took six months to write the script.”
Bluth described how Phillip Glasser, who voiced Fievel, was cast after he sang “Somewhere Out There.”
“There wasn’t a vote or anything,” he said.
Goldman said there was a sense of urgency to the whole project due to the tight budget and the way the script was being written. A typical animated film takes 24 months starting with a completed script—“An American Tail” was finished in 22 months.
Bluth said now animation is done with computers, but “An American Tail” was done with hand-drawn cels. Each frame — and there are 24 per second — consists of two to five cels.
“An American Tail” was a major hit, taking in $48 million in the U.S. alone during its first run. Goldman said Disney, which had contemplated shutting down its animation department after the failure of “The Black Cauldron,” realized that there was an audience for animated films after all.
Bluth said “An American Tail” told the tale of many Americans’ great-grandparents and how they came to America. He later remarked that Fievel was named after Spielberg’s grandfather, who entered the United States at Ellis Island.
“This was the great melting pot where you could seek your dreams and make them come true,” he said.
He quoted Oscar Hammerstein’s song “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific” about how without a dream, one cannot make a dream come true. Without a dream, one cannot be happy in this life.
Bluth said he initially did not want to travel to Johns Creek for the film festival, but the more he thought about it, he decided that it would be worth traveling if the film made people dream again and want to improve society.
Goldman told how someone inspired by the character Jeremy the Crow from “The Secret of NIMH,” who was fixated on “sparklies,” proceeded to open a jewelry store called “Sparklies.”
When asked what his favorite part of “An American Tail” was, Bluth said it was when Fievel—who was hopeful and keeps trying—finally gives up on ever finding his family.
“That’s the most poignant moment in the picture, for me,” he said.
Soon afterward, Fievel’s family finds him, and there is a tearful reunion. Goldman said that scene was his favorite part of the film.
“It will bring tears to your eyes,” he said. “If you make someone cry in an animated film, you’ve done something right.”