After the artistic and commercial success of his first animation project, 1982’s The Secret of N.I.M.H., Disney alumnus Don Bluth (born 1937) and his newly established studio went from a separate entity that produced animation to part of a major marketing machine. This was due to input from and dealings with the business sides of Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. In fact, Spielberg loved N.I.M.H., lavishing praise on Bluth for sticking to a drawing style that had been all but abandoned since the sixties. In 1984, he asked Bluth to develop An American Tail and before long, Spielberg started to micromanage the story side of the project and involved himself in the storyboarding process.
In the end, there were just too many cooks in the kitchen. An American Tail has no fewer than three climaxes (the Giant Mouse of Minsk, the great fire and the reunion), while several interesting story elements went woefully underdeveloped. At one point, Fievel is imprisoned in a sweatshop, only to escape barely a minute later (there was actually a song planned in the sweatshop, but it was canceled). And when Orphan Alley pops up between the great fire and Fievel’s eventual reunion with his family, so do entirely new orphan characters, albeit too late in the game and not nearly long enough to make anything of an impact or provide any kind of meaningful contribution to the story. The movie’s second act is full of narration but a bit all over the map, which is probably why so many of the previously unreleased cues on the new Intrada album are so short. The one area in which the screenplay (by Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss) does excel, however, is in the clever and imaginative way it references all kinds of elements true to the time frame: the formalities at Ellis Island (leading to many name changes), Tammany Hall (Honest John standing in for William “Boss” Tweed), the presence of a sizable contingent of Chinese immigrants (reflected in The Star of Hong Kong, which ultimately ferries the story’s bad guys off to exile in Asia), Professor Digitalus’ Museum of the Weird and the Bizarre, which stands in for P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, and much, much more. All these little references keep parents intellectually stimulated while their kids are delighted by speaking and singing cats, mice and rats.
The basic storyline is simple enough: young Fievel Mouskewitz (named after Spielberg’s grandfather and misspelled “Feivel” in the opening credits) sees his entire family uprooted from Russia after an attack by Cossack cats has left their house in flames. The year is 1885 and they decide to emigrate, because, as everyone thinks and sings, there are no cats in America. The mice, migrating from all over Europe and Russia, look forward to building up a new life in the land of dreams and opportunities. When a violent storm erupts during the sea voyage, Fievel is separated from his family. The rest of the story is essentially Fievel’s many attempts to find them again. As he goes through the story’s many trials and tribulations, he is allowed to grow until right at the end, Papa’s hat, which was too big at the start, fits nicely on the young mouse’s head.
An American Tail’s hand-drawn 2D-style may look a bit dated in the age of Coco and Moana, but it is nonetheless a piece of superlative animation. Don Bluth directed the movie by elaborately storyboarding the story, designing shots, camera movements and edits before a single cell was ever drawn. In fact, Steven Spielberg himself stubbornly storyboarded every movie he made until he finally dared to let go for 1982’s E.T. The consensus seems to be that since storyboards force filmmakers to think about their shots before stepping onto the set, the result is invariably more cinematic, because it yields stories which are told visually rather than through words (which in my book is the very essence of cinema as an art form). On the other hand, storyboards can become something of a straitjacket on the set, and in Spielberg’s case, E.T. was lauded for being less constrained, less “directed” and more spontaneous. In the end, the pluses of storyboarding clearly outweigh the minuses, especially when projects are made on a big budget, and that goes for nearly every animation movie made for the darkened theatre. That said, the average budget for a Disney movie back then was 12 million dollars, and Universal asked Don Bluth to bring in An American Tail for 6.5 million – the movie ended up costing 9 million.
On The Secret Of N.I.M.H., Don Bluth had joined forces with Jerry Goldsmith. This had been Goldsmith’s first real animation project and he had decided to treat it largely as a live action movie, at least partly, I imagine, at the behest of Don Bluth, who wanted to break the Disney mold and blaze a trail of his own. In N.I.M.H. and later projects, Bluth often adopted a slightly darker tone, indulged in mystical elements and rejected the mickey-mouse scoring approach that lent animation projects the “cartoony” sound established as the genre’s standard ever since Carl Stalling (1891-1972) had invented it in 1928 for Steamboat Willie. Mickey-mousing, a method which is now somewhat frowned upon, refers to the film composer hitting every little onscreen event with a musical accent – Max Steiner (1888-1971) was famous for taking this approach with live action too. The result is music linked so tightly to the visuals that it becomes dangerously close to ludicrous within the context of the movie and makes very little sense musically when divorced from it. Even James Horner commented on his score for An American Tail: “There is no way you could put a score like this in any other kind of film. It would only work in animation or if I wrote a ballet. I loved doing it." (source: John Cawley) Jerry Goldsmith had rejected the mickey-mouse approach out of hand for N.I.M.H., but when James Horner took over the reins from his one-time mentor four years later, he composed a score that showcased the best of both worlds. To the Maestro’s credit, many of the cues are highly scene-specific and yet the musicality is magically intact – apart perhaps for the first part of the Reunion cue, the genius of which cannot be fully understood unless considered in context, but more on that later. It’s worth pointing out that there is very little of the all-too common cheating involved, as the album includes the very same recordings used in the film, largely untampered, unabridged, unedited and unchanged, something of a rarity in live action, where last-minute editing often leaves the score in badly truncated form – when he started work on An American Tail, Horner had just finished Aliens (1986), and that score is a good (or rather sad) case in point.
An American Tail runs seventy-seven minutes, a good ten of which are taken up by four songs. With only the remaining sixty-seven minutes at his disposal (and a total of 54 minutes’ worth of score), James Horner found the time to write and nurture a mind-boggling wealth of musical identities. But before we turn our attention to the underscore, let’s briefly discuss the songs. As mentioned in the article The Animated Films of Don Bluth by John Cawley (link at the end of this article), Steven Spielberg wanted lots of them, but somewhere along the line, he recognized that it’s one thing to have a good idea, but it’s quite another to have that idea materialize in the world of animation. In a 1985 interview Spielberg discussed this learning process. "Before this, I had been a bottomless pit of appreciation for animated films, without knowing what went into making them. At this point, I'm enlightened, but still can't believe it's so complicated." (source: John Cawley) The first person brought in to write the songs was Tom Bahler. He had been a music supervisor and composer for years. As well as working frequently with Quincy Jones, he was also involved in the famous "We Are The World" recording. After writing a few songs, it was decided to try another source. Song writers Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who had written a number of pop hits for Dolly Parton and others, were given a chance to work on the songs. By this time, Horner was also involved. Don Bluth recalled: "With this powerful trio, we knew we'd get songs that will be memorable like the Disney classics. With the melody, James went for simple, hummable tunes. It's the simple melodies that remain etched in your memory over the years." (source: John Cawley)
After the first batch of songs it was decided that a special song would be written for Linda Ronstadt. At the time she was the girlfriend of Spielberg's cinema comrade, George Lucas. The song Somewhere Out There was written for the mouse children, then planned to be run over the end credits with Ronstadt and James Ingram singing. The song later became a music video in which Ronstadt appears as an artist. The actual hands drawing are those of a Bluth artist.
Somewhere Out There is the only melody that bridges the songs and underscore, but it is not exactly the score’s main theme. That distinction goes to Fievel’s themes, the first heard at 1:51 into the Main Title and the second one at 2:15 into the same cue. The first theme is often used to comment on Fievel’s youthful vulnerability, while the more extroverted and joyous tone makes the second one a great fit for the little mouse’s sense of adventure, his youthful enthusiasm as well as his indomitable spirit. This is why subtle fragments of the second theme are peppered throughout The Storm, counterbalancing what is otherwise a cue of straight horror music. Before the themes make their shining first appearances in the Main Title, Horner has already introduced and fully developed his Russian immigrant theme, which in its most basic form is performed by the solo violin over tinkling balalaika and which is representative of Papa Mouskewitz, who is a violin-maker by trade and who plays the instrument in the film. This is the family theme, which Horner uses extensively throughout the score. At 1:15 into the Main Title, Horner introduces the bridge of the Somewhere Out There theme, horn and choir underscoring the bond between Fievel and his sister Tanya. Horner wrote another lyrical theme, loosely associated with Tanya, Fievel’s sister. It appears at 1:40 in The Market Place and while it is not exactly plastered all over this score, it is the foundation for the Dreams To Dream song in the sequel, Fievel Goes West (1991, Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells). Finally, there’s a plethora of smaller motifs for many of the story’s other characters: Warren T. Rat gets a ragtime motif, Honest John has his own Irish jig (and quite a beautiful one at that!), Gussie Mausheimer is appropriately introduced over prancing harpsichord, there’s a nine-note Chinese-sounding motif for the aforementioned ocean liner The Star of Hong Kong and a growling brass motif for evil cats on both sides of the Atlantic. This idea, which Horner would revisit at greater length in Willow (1988) and, to a lesser degree, in The Rocketeer (1991), is hinted at in The Storm before being heard more clearly in Fievel’s Escape, 33 seconds into Releasing The Secret Weapon and late in The Great Fire. Acknowledging both the Russian and American elements of the story, Horner has fun quoting a number of standards, among them Poor Wandering One from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Finally, James Horner being James Horner, some of this score’s musical connective tissue was carried over from previous scores, most notably Cocoon (also 1986) which pops up at the start and at the end of Somewhere Out There and Krull (1983), which is all over The Storm and the climactic Releasing The Secret Weapon. The Somewhere Out There duet won a Grammy Award and nabbed an Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Song (while Aliens was nominated as Best Original Score). Horner’s underscore is quite accomplished for a number of reasons. From a purely musical point of view, it is an ambitious entry from a young classically-trained composer, who showed no compunction about parading references to the masters of the past alongside his own musical building stones. Moreover, it is an incredibly varied score, its relatively short duration spanning the full spectrum of emotions – poignancy, horror, triumph and action. Thirdly, walking a fine line between mickey-mousing and through-composing, the score is never anything less than deeply musical. And last but not least, choice details reveal a surprising level of maturity in a composer who was barely 33 when he took on this assignment.
From here on in, the timings mentioned are as in the movie, not as on the album. While this is the regular cue-by-cue analysis, four cues will be discussed in greater detail: Main Title, The Storm, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor and Reunited. The titles used are as on Intrada’s outstanding new album, which offers a vastly expanded presentation of the score with an improvement in both volume and clarity that will take pride of place in any Horner collection.
1 Main Title (0:20 – 5:22) previously released
Even in this uniformly great score, four musical cues are particular highlights, and this main title sequence is the first. Not only does it present fully-developed statements the two themes that hold everything together (the family theme and Fievel’s adventure theme), it is indicative of the delicate balance Horner strikes between synchronism and musical flow, and it’s a great example of a lengthy Horner overture, complete with its own coda, like in The Land Before Time (1988), Once Upon A Forest (1993), Willow (1988) and The Perfect Storm (2000), among many other examples.
Horner starts with the balalaika and the family theme, before taking over sound effects duties as he supplies a whooshing sound that helps dissipate the first couple of credit cards while giant snow-flakes flutter by. The last and most striking of these gusts of musical wind occurs at 1:03, where it serves as the jumping-off point to a soaring statement of the family theme. After this, Horner decides not to mimic the wind any longer, at which points subtle yet real sound effects take over.
Also note the beautiful fluttering flute accompanying the second statement of Fievel’s vulnerability theme at 2:15. At this point, the flute is the musical equivalent of the laughter and talking going on inside the Moskowitz / Mouskewitz home.
It’s too bad the cue is dialed down when Fievel’s adventure theme is performed by the full orchestra at 2:30, especially since Horner had made sure that the orchestral decibels would subside just before the first line of dialogue.
Mama Mouskewitz urges Fievel and Tanya to stop twirling, but the siblings have no intention of obeying. Neither does James Horner, who takes the children’s point of view and indulges in a twirling accordion. The non-diegetic accordion twirl segues immediately into a diegetic violin twirl (with a fragment of Fievel’s adventure theme) performed by Papa Mouskewitz.
At 3:36, the score turns all intimate and remains so for the remainder of the cue. The soft nature of the music accommodates different emotions: Fievel’s initial disappointment at the prospect of not getting any Hanukkah gifts, right when Papa produces a babushka for Tanya and a hat for his son. The hat’s been in the family for three generations, and Fievel still being so young, it drops awkwardly over his little head – Horner rightfully supplies two subtle musical accents). Here’s where the movie’s theme is revealed. When Fievel complains that the hat is too big, Mama hushes him up by saying: “You’ll grow.” It’s a throwaway line, and yet it points to the protagonist’s arc, which is always the backbone of any good story.
When Papa alludes to the story of the Great Mouse of Minsk (another wonderful set-up), Horner supplies a balalaika version of Somewhere Out There and ends the overture with a 30-second coda that wraps up the story’s overture.
2 The Cossack Cats (5:33 – 7:42) previously released
A savage attack by Cossack cats sets the story in motion. James Horner’s wild and energetic action cue is another wonderful marriage of synchronism and musical flow. It also tips its hat to the Russian masters, as you would expect from a composer who explicitly acknowledged the classical repertoire and wanted to keep it alive.
The family watch in horror as their house burns to the ground, and Horner appropriately scores the end of the cue with the family theme in the violin.
3 Dissolve To Sea (9:14 – 10:10) previously unreleased
This short cue plays after the ocean liner has left port and it is remarkable for the way Horner allows Papa’s violin to alternate between being part of the story and part of the storytelling, between source music and underscore.
The music fades and the subsequent scene with the herring barrel is left unscored. Fievel marvels at the fish in the barrel and when Papa tells him there’s plenty more fish in the sea, Fievel can’t wait to go and see.
“Let’s Go Up and See The Fish!” (10:35 – 10:55) unreleased
This very short and lightning-fast action cue alternates between flashes of Fievel’s adventure theme and bumbling brass for Papa trying to keep up with his son. When Fievel runs into Mama, the cue reaches an upbeat and musically formal conclusion. While only 20 seconds long, it’s a wonderful little cue, but sadly, it’s missing from Intrada’s expanded edition.
4 There Are No Cats In America (11:05 – 13:59) previously released
This song, the storm sequence and Fievel’s arrival in America play in immediate succession and in a stunning display of tonal variation, their combined nine minutes take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride, hopeful optimism to outright horror to soulful mourning. This is the first of the four songs that Horner co-composed with Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Its melodic content does not carry over into the underscore.
This first song on the album expresses both the precarious situation and the optimism of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who left the Old Continent at that time to escape religious persecution (Eastern European Jews), poverty (Italians) or great famine (Irish). Lyricist Cynthia Weil explains: “James and I had a lot of fun parading all those different cultures, European, Russian, Italian, French and British, trying to reveal the origins of a country, of course, but also of its music. We never tried to decide for ourselves what America would become in terms of culture, but rather to remain faithful to its origins, albeit with a big fat wink, obviously.” (source: Dreams Magazine).
5 The Storm (14:03 – 17:52) previously released
Taken together, The Storm and Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor form the elaborate transition to the story’s second act. Although the latter follows directly from the former, the two cues could not be more different: The Storm unleashes violent, nightmarish and bombastic horror music, whereas Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor is soothing, restrained and strangely redemptive. There is, however, a conspicuous link between them: female voices, which Horner deploys here as he would later use the Shakuhachi in Willow’s Elora Danan: horrifying now, soothing the next minute. The resulting dichotomy is an interesting way of tying the two cues together.
In most Disney movies, the Break Into Two is marked by either a separation from the family unit (think A Little Mermaid) or worse, the death of a parent (Bambi, The Lion King). While Don Bluth would kill off Littlefoot’s mother in The Land Before Time (1988), Fievel’s fate is somewhat less cruel: he is separated from his family but at least nobody dies and the movie ends with a happy reunion scene. The mice have barely finished singing There Are No Cats In America when all hell breaks loose. (The violent transition from optimism bellowed out by eager explorers and a storm hitting their ship would be reprised exactly the same way right at the start of Disney’s Pocahontas.) After a first shot of a violent but very local shower drenching the ship, the movie cuts to the interior of the vessel (14:03), at which point the score starts building. The start of the cue plays under visuals that bear testament to the fertile effects of storyboarding: as the ship rolls over the growing waves, we see a checkerboard moving from left to right, the two players located at opposite ends. After the board has moved back to the left, the movement starts again, but now our attention is drawn to the foreground, showing a cup filled with three very seasick young mice. When the cup has finished sliding to the right, it finds another young mouse clearly unaffected by seasickness and enjoying a snack. When he asks his unfortunate friends if they would like a bite, they retch and close their eyes in disgust. Apart from being highly cinematic, this back and forth allows Horner to set up the disaster to come. He does so with a rolling movement that mimics the waves outside, responding to the visual humor with music that is the exact opposite: a musical figure that’s deceptively wispy and resolutely creepy, especially when subtle but eerie female voices are thrown into the mix. Throughout the cue, these voices are reminiscent of The Widow’s Web from Krull (1983). This makes sense in the broader scheme of things, as both the Krull cue and the pair of cues discussed here feature a woman who is alternately frightening and loving: Krull’s Widow and An American Tail’s Lady Liberty. This is James Horner weaving a narrative of his own instead of slavishly following the story as it develops onscreen. In fact, the visual storm metaphor here turns out to be a Neptune-like man, which Horner chooses to ignore. At the very least, the composer should be given credit for being consistent, given that later on, he would use Charlotte Church as the voice of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and he would go on to try and construct his entire New World (2005) score around the voice of Haley Westenra, among other examples.
The suggestion of the waves gaining strength is offset by burning chunks of coal used for heating the hold of the ship. Bluth nicely contrasts water and fire here, and shows a human foot tripping over hot coal and Fievel using it to heat his derrière. Horner acknowledges the element of fire by adding a rolling tuba to the sound palette. Before long, the movement of the boat sends a chunk of coal into Fievel’s butt and he jumps up, only to land into the water that is starting to seep in. Horner does respond to the comical nature of this moment (14:47) with pizzicato-like material including fragments of Fievel’s adventure theme as the protagonist is swept up by the water and lands on a bar of soap. A bubble forms on top of the bar and Fievel is trapped inside. Another rolling movement takes him to his father (15:03), where the score appropriately settles for a couple of seconds. Only half-aware of the dangers ahead, Fievel is told to stay close to Papa. At 15:05, however, the ship rolls again and the bar of soap with Fievel on top drifts away. This is the scene’s first separation between father and son, but the music is still just building and Horner stresses the moment with more pronounced shadings of the female choir (now very much like The Widow’s Web).
At 15:05, the cue erupts for the first time as Fievel finds in his path a menacing shaving razor, which suddenly becomes an unguided weapon and starts peeling away at the soap bar. It warrants a short passage for brass and percussion before Fievel lands at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to the deck, the door banging open and shut. The music heard here, between 15:23 and 15:39, sounds a lot like what Jerry Goldsmith composed for the abduction of Carol Anne in Poltergeist (1982). What if it was a conscious move on Horner’s behalf? The similarities are striking: both cues underscore their respective stories’ Break Into Two, both feature a door that acts as a gateway to a very dangerous world and both cues speak to the separation of the child from his / her family. The reference also makes sense on another level: this might be James Horner tipping his hat to his old mentor while at the same time identifying The Storm as undiluted horror music, which is clearly how the composer plays the scene. It’s too late to ask Horner now, of course, but if the reference was intentional, it is definitely a neat touch.
Water comes gushing down the stairs and with it a number of fish, immediately piquing Fievel’s interest. The herring barrel scene was just minutes ago and with the strange animals now falling down the stairs, Fievel wonders if there’s more to be seen outside. Meanwhile, Papa has gone looking for his son. Fievel, however, lies about losing the hat his father gave him at the start of the movie, throws it up the stairs and heads after it, the hat an excuse to explore the outside world. A screenwriting rule says the Break Into Two is that much more effective if the protagonist decides for himself to enter the antithesis world. Alice slips and can’t help going down the rabbit hole, but Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness is very much aware of the can of worms he’s opening when he allows Sean Connery’s Malone to break down the door and step into Act Two in The Untouchables (1987). Ideally, the Break Into Two sees the protagonist assuming his responsibility (and being held accountable for it later on). An American Tail presents an interesting variation on this: since Fievel is just a kid, he could be forgiven for being a nosy bugger. However, it is his youthful curiosity that will provoke the painful separation that lies ahead, and in this respect, assuming his responsibility should at the very least allow him to take a step closer to adulthood later on. Interestingly, James Horner acknowledges the ambiguity of the child’s curious nature by playing conspicuously low strings during a shot of Fievel hatching his unfortunate plan (15:39). This very short interlude, dark on more levels than one, may be a throwaway moment, but as psychological scoring goes, Horner is dead on (as usual). On an unrelated note, the way Horner uses the triangle at 15:46 and the horn at 15:50 looks ahead to The Land Before Time.
Having arrived at the top of the stairs, Fievel looks out in panic, and Horner turns an already discomforting moment (there’s an eerie sparkle to the fish that fly by) into outright horror as he heaps on chaotic singers crying at the top of their lungs. A mix of seduction and destruction, this particular moment, brief though it may be, is sure to scare the living daylights out of its target audience.
By now, Fievel understands his little plan was a very bad one indeed, and he tries to take refuge in the arms of Papa, who has rushed up the stairs and finds his son on deck. Papa grabs the sleeve of Fievel’s jacket and just when you think things will turn out all right, it rips and the little mouse is washed away by a big wave. Horner scored the first separation with just eerily wispy strings and choir, since it was part of the cue’s build-up. The second and definitive separation occurs in the midst of chaos, and is scored as it should be, with the Russian family theme given a statement that is as emphatic as it is distressed. To all present-day directors I say: this is the advantage of having actual themes! Only when allowed to work with themes can the film composer, who is a dramatist first and foremost, choose to use them or not, knowing full well that both options can lead to meaningful drama. Rob the composer of his themes and you rob the dramatist (and the director) of options. And do not be fooled: a sound wash that goes out of its way not to manipulate the audience emotionally may sound like a good idea, but its advantage does not outweigh the disadvantages. In the end, all film music is a tool of emotional manipulation, and the trick is to do it right. I trust James Horner’s take on a family being torn apart in The Storm is ample evidence for that claim.
At 16:38, the Widow’s Web voices return as Fievel fights the current, and fragments of his theme return in the brass as he grabs a rope that sweeps him high up in the mast, where he finally sees the stormy sea. At 16:51, the orchestra swells to a cymbal crash for the first appearance of the angry Neptune figure that Bluth imaginatively uses as a metaphor for rogue waves. The cymbal accents the second wave at 16:59 but for the next twenty seconds, Horner ignores the onscreen events and continues the cue in purely musical fashion, building to the final cymbal crash at 17:20, when Neptune hits the ship in full force and Fievel is thrown overboard. During the aftermath, which lasts for about 30 seconds, Horner presents lonely fragments of Fievel’s theme lost in a flurry of wind machine sounds, piccolo runs and other onomatopoeic musical effects that represent the storm as it rages on and eventually subsides. Fade to black at 17:52.
6 Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor (17:52 – 20:26) previously released
The separation has taken place and while the ship docks at Ellis Island, Fievel washes up on the shore near Liberty Island.
James Horner intellectualized this moment but he also made sure it would stand out as one of the emotional highlights of the score. Part of its impact is owed to the radical tonal shift: The Storm was violent and unrestrained, this cue is soothing and introspective. But what really makes this one stand out from the rest of the score is the unexpected choral writing that takes up the middle section of the cue.
Before we get there, Horner scores the arrival of the immigrants. The humans (17:52-18:18) are welcomed to melancholy strings in the vein of Cocoon, while the mice (18:18-18:44), disembarking below deck, appropriately get the score’s Russian theme, complete with Papa’s violin. (As you know, US immigration officers often found immigrants’ last names so difficult that they changed or “Americanized” them. As a result, the last name Smith started popping up very frequently.) At 18:40, the movie cuts to a shot of a bottle drifting on the water, Fievel floating inside. Mid-shot, the strings fade out and the a cappella middle section starts.
I have already pointed to the relevance of the choir, and the female voices in particular. This is especially evident in this scene, over which the shadow of Lady Liberty is draped like a comforting blanket. The implications are clear: Lady Liberty, a symbol of the American nation, takes orphans and immigrants under her wing. Horner again draws from the mixed choir but especially the female voices, transforming Krull’s Widow into a nurturing mother. Filmmaking at its best transforms words and ideas into visual statements. All film students are told show, don’t tell, and this is a wonderful case in point.
The words sung by the female voices are derived from The New Colossus, a sonnet written in 1883 by the American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) to raise money for the construction of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. (In 1903, the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level.) The poem’s title and first two lines refer to the Colossus of Rhodes, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
In 2002, classical composer David Ludwig (born 1974) turned the poem into a piece of music, which was performed at President Obama's 2013 inauguration ceremony. Sixteen years before Ludwig, James Horner had set most of the poem’s second part to music. This choral middle section is something of a standalone cue in the score. It is also a fantastic illustration of the wondrous marriage of music and visuals. The section between 18:44 and 19:34 in the film contains four cuts, and Horner works wonders with them. The scene was not long enough for the composer to work through the entire poem, and he evidently chose the second part because it quotes Lady Liberty’s imaginary words. In doing so, Horner allows Lady Liberty to address Fievel directly. From 18:44 to 18:59, Horner presents the lines Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Horner smooths over the cut at 18:59 by having it coincide with a pause between two lines of the poem. After the cut, he continues with the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. The word “shore” is taken up by two sections of the choir one after the other, and it is the climax of a tentative crescendo. This climax coincides with the second cut, which arrives at 19:09. The movie now takes Fievel’s point of view inside the bottle as the mouse sees the contours of Lady Liberty. Horner presents the line Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me and has the female voices sing it in a tastefully subdued and incredibly tender way. Remember: we’re inside a bottle, where sounds are muffled, and the greenish impurity of the glass blurs the contours of what’s on the shore. The third cut, occurring at 19:23, shows Fievel’s wide-eyed response as seen from outside the bottle, while strictly female voices intone I lift my lamp beside the golden door. Horner glosses over the fourth cut (19:28), which was very soft to begin with, and lets the final acapella note land on the exact moment Fievel’s bottle washes up. Fievel meets Henri, a pigeon who thinks he is erecting the Statue of Liberty all by himself. When at 19:38 Fievel marvels at the unfinished statue, the Cocoon-like music returns, now laced with soft wordless choir. Christopher Plummer’s Henri changes the tone of the scene on screen, but during the final seconds of the cue, James Horner does not acknowledge the pigeon. Instead, he sticks to Fievel’s perspective and preserves the sad tone of the piece, choosing musicality over mickey-mousing.
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor is truly one of the highlights of the score, but you cannot understand the full genius of the cue unless you study it in the context of the film. It’s about knowing when to raise and when to lower the choir’s voices, it’s about applying the right line of poetry to the right moment of a scene, it’s about the music acknowledging and smoothing over the editing cuts. This is a composer who in his twenties felt instinctively that music could enrich movies, and at the age of 33 composed a piece that displays an extraordinary level of maturity, as a musician, as a dramatist and as a human being.
7 Never Say Never (20:56 – 23:14) previously released
Cleverly, Henri is French. In fact, the Statue of Liberty was modeled after a Frédéric Bartholdi original that can still be found in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. The Statue was a gift from France to mark the centenary of the American Declaration of Independence, and its metal framework was built by another French architect, Gustave Eiffel. Christopher Plummer adopts a convincing French accent, very Maurice Chevalier, and lends his singing voice to the movie’s second song. Cynthia Weil comments on this desire to include foreign accents in There Are No Cats In America and Never Say Never: “The original idea was that An American Tail should embrace clichés rather than shun them. We felt it was necessary to stay true to the history of animation and shout out loud and clear: "Hey, here we are! This is An American Tail produced by Steven Spielberg! " So we worked on achieving effects that I would call universal and we made sure that the influences and references were unmistakable. It’s true : Christopher Plummer supplies a winged version of Maurice Chevalier with his character Henri and in doing so, I think we managed to reach a wide audience. As soon as you accept that a French bird is singing with a Russian mouse, there’s nothing we can’t make you believe later on (laughs).” (source: Dreams Magazine)
8 Warren T. Rat / It Will Go Away (23:38 – 27:46) previously unreleased
The story’s true baddie is Warren T. Rat, a shady individual who is not above people trafficking. His sidekick accountant is a nervous cockroach called Digit. Warren T. Rat lures Fievel into trusting him before locking the mouse into one of the city’s many sweatshops. In keeping with the director’s wish to have every major character represented by its own musical identity, Horner came up with a ragtime motif for muted trumpet that effortlessly characterizes this particular rat. Note that the material heard at 25:50 and 26:00 are musical seeds that would come to fruition in Fievel Goes West. Papa, Mama and Tanya mourn the loss of their son and brother, and Horner appropriately starts the cue with the family theme for balalaika over guitar. A counterintuitive moment occurs at 26:35, when the camera starts panning down while the notes climb the musical scales and lead to more ragtime material for Warren T. Rat. He takes Fievel to a room where he will find the Mouskewitzes, but instead Fievel lands into the claws of Moe, a slobbery cat who keeps a tight rein on all the mice in the sweatshop. At 27:01, the oboe and anguished strings again play the family theme. A little later, Horner provides a musical accent that recalls clusters and sounds he had conjured for the Black Fortress in Krull. Here, it underscores the door slamming shut, the cue’s final notes recalling the family theme once again and pointing to the finality of Fievel’s descent into slavery.
In the sweatshop, Fievel meets Tony Poponi but has barely introduced himself when he ties sheets together and escapes through the window and into the night.
9 Poor Wandering One / Train Trestle (28:36 – 31:06) previously unreleased
Now lost in the city, Fievel sits sad and forlorn on the edge of a cup next to sheet music titled Poor Wandering One, which all but forced Horner to quote Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Fievel wanders around the city, sees other happy mouse families entirely intact and jumps at a chance to nab a piece of cheese. However, at 29:16, he is chased away. The cue’s tone changes from sadness to chaos as Fievel lands on the tracks and under a huge train that hurtles by. Horner mimics the train with a churning yet chaotic rhythm and especially frantic brass. Fievel falls through the wooden beams of the trestle bridge. On the ground, he is surprised by the sound of a violin (diegetic music) and with wide-eyed enthusiasm, identifies an apartment window as the source of the violin. The music turns all chipper and upbeat, but the optimism is short-lived: crossing the street, Fievel is almost crushed by the hooves of a horse drawing a cart. Horner goes all out and enhances the hooves hitting the cobblestones with a combination of cymbal crashes and percussion.
Fievel does reach the apartment window and climbs onto an Edison phonograph. He slides down into the large horn, at which point Horner creates an uncertain yet eerily soothing atmosphere with the opening notes of The Discovery, which you will remember is the only upbeat cue in The Name of the Rose (1986). Horner would use these notes again during a mystical moment right before the end title crawl of Wolf Totem / Le Dernier Loup (2015). By then, he was probably threading together two of his scores for director Jean-Jacques Annaud, but the idea originated in 1986. For the purposes of this cue, Horner orchestrated the idea so that it pointed to Papa’s violin.
This cue is great in context, but keep in mind that it scores moments which are geographically and emotionally all over the map.
The Intrada album has Poor Wandering One as track 24, the first of the Extras.
10 The Market Place (31:37 – 34:22) previously released
Fievel is chased out of the apartment and falls down to street level again, which explains the frenzied start of the cue. The mouse slips into a stocking, uses it as a parachute and lands in a bucket of water, which is emptied into the street. There, Fievel is reunited with Tony. He takes him to the market, where they find Tony’s heartthrob Bridget, a mouse activist who urges the crowd to take a stand against the city’s evil cats.
At 32:05, Horner states Fievel’s vulnerability theme in more or less the same arrangement as the Main Title. The string rhythm that underlies the theme will later pop up in The Land Before Time. At 32:33, the cue undergoes an awkward cut. It’s back to Tanya, who urges her parents to keep looking for Fievel – Horner responds with the family theme, of course. At 33:04, Bridget delivers her speech and this is where Horner brings in the first statement of the theme that will blossom into Dreams To Dream in Fievel Goes West. At 33:28, Horner quotes Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer when the two lovers get all doe-eyed. This leads up to the kiss, which is scored with a typical Horner coda.
11 The Rumble (34:43 – 36:29) previously unreleased
Bridget has used the word “cat” a little too often and all the mice scurry off. The shadow of a big cat appears behind Fievel and the silence can be cut with a knife. Horner conspicuously leaves these seconds alone, and in a movie that is scored almost wall-to-wall, the effect is undeniable. The cue starts after the cat has given out a mighty roar and swallowed Fievel, who holds on to the cat’s uvula and is spit out again. The cue offers a brilliant fireworks of frenzied atonality. At 34:57 and for just a couple of seconds, Horner premieres material that would go on to become the main theme of Honey I Shrunk The Kids (1989). The aftermath of the attack features quiet oboe and string playing for Tony and Bridget, Fievel’s adventure theme in the trumpets and the family theme for a brief moment with the Mouskewitzes.
12 Honest John and Gussie Mausheimer (36:31 – 38:39) previously unreleased
Tony thinks Fievel will have more luck finding his parents if he asks Honest John, the Irish mouse version of William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. Indulging in a bit of irony, Horner scores Honest John, who attends one wake after another and takes down the names of the deceased in a notebook that says “Ghost votes”, with a particularly lyrical Irish jig performed by the flute. (I imagine the jig is a traditional.) At 37:10, an unexpected guest turns up at the wake: venerable Gussie Mausheimer, the richest mouse in town. Horner treats her to equally mocking music, centered this time on the harpsichord to underscore the stuffy old gentry Mausheimer represents. The rest of the cue is familiar connective tissue and more of the Irish jig as Bridget marvels at the opportunity of speaking at a rally and Honest John empties his umpteenth bottle.
13 Somewhere Out There (39:11 – 41:43) previously released
This is the song that everyone fell in love with during the shoot and which Spielberg correctly predicted would top the charts. Cynthia comments on its success: “The melody is so brilliant. More than that, it is moving, endearing and very touching. Then of course, there was this wonderful choice of performers. This duo carries a lot of the song’s success, you know. When the numbers started coming in, I just couldn’t believe them. In the end, the single sold more than two million copies in the United States, which was colossal.” (source: Dreams Magazine).
Note the straight lift from Cocoon (at 39:35 and again at the end) that is guaranteed to drive Horner bashers up the wall. For the rest of this article’s readership: this is how James Horner composed music, and that’s all there is to it.
Intrada managed to locate an instrumental version of this cue. This version does not use the orchestra and closes out the Extras and the album (track 26). It’s largely the same as the Linda Ronstadt / James Ingram duet (track 23), but without their voices. This version was included on the B Side of the single vinyl released in 1986. The voices are replaced by the electric guitar. Fans of karaoke will love it.
At a rally in the park, Gussie Mausheim convinces the mice of New York to join her in her efforts to chase the cats away. Horner composed no underscore for this scene, but there is a source cue of fanfare music, and it appears as track 25 (in the extras section) on the Intrada album.
14 Building The Mouse Of Minsk (43:49 – 45:56) previously unreleased
This cue is one of the highlights of the unreleased cues. Rebellious mice gather in the now-defunct Museum of the Weird and Bizarre (in reference to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which had effectively closed down in 1865) in order to hatch a plan to chase malevolent cats out of New York City. At the rally, which Horner left unscored, Fievel had whispered into Gussie Mausheimer’s ear the idea of building a full-scale model of the Great Mouse of Minsk to scare the cats and drive them onto the pier and aboard The Star of Hong Kong just as it leaves port at six o’clock the following morning.
The first part of the cue underscores the mice getting their bearings in the spooky museum. The cue incorporates the seemingly diegetic tolling of a nighttime bell and harmonizes it with dark strings. The music dies down all the better to prepare for a mighty stinger underscoring a skull that falls down and scares the bejesus out of everyone.
However, when Gussie says that she has a plan, the mood brightens considerably and the music comes to life as the mice start building the fearsome contraption. Playing over all the musical energy is Fievel’s adventure theme, and this wonderful new arrangement is not to be missed.
Waking Up Late (45:59 – 46:36) previously unreleased
The next morning, Tony and Fievel wake up late and it’s off post haste to the pier. This forty-second cue is another gem, with lots of playful action and more imaginative variations on Fievel’s adventure theme. The action is interrupted when Fievel is distracted by the sound of a fiddle and goes down into the sewers.
On the Intrada album, this short cue makes up the final forty seconds of track 14, Building The Mouse Of Minsk.
15 Down In The Sewer (46:53 – 47:22) previously unreleased /
Chase In The Mauler’s Den (49:34 – 50:39) previously unreleased
More dark strings play as Fievel manages to escape menacing cockroaches. On the Intrada album, this cue is paired with the subsequent Chase In The Maulers Den.
Jumping out of the fire and into the frying pan, Fievel meets the Mott Street Maulers, a gang of vicious cats. The fiddle was played by Warren T. Rat, who turns out to be a cat himself. When Warren sees an unbelieving Fievel staring at his cat face on the other side of a mirror, he turns the other cats on him. This is the start of another brilliant little action cue. Horner works with the instruments of the Maulers den, as when Fievel darts over the keys of a ragtime piano and the notes are incorporated into the underscore. Again, Fievel’s adventure theme is the glue that holds it all together. Fievel makes it back up top, but when he puts on his hat and prepares to leave, a cat paw pulls him back into the sewer. Horner responds with a final accent, which is a lightning-fast (and mocking) fragment of Fievel’s adventure theme.
16 Gussie’s Plan (50:40 – 52:30) previously unreleased
In Professor Digitalus’ Museum, Gussie Mausheimer lays out the plan for trapping the cats. Since the cue starts with a close-up of the Star of Hong Kong, Horner has a chance to introduce the nine-note Chinese motif.
Meanwhile, Fievel is caged and Horner provides bleak horn and oboe variations on Somewhere Out There. When Tiger, a vegetarian cat, arrives at the scene, Horner introduces his theme. The idea is heard here for the first time at 52:10 but it is developed at far greater length in Fievel Goes West.
17 A Duo (53:43 – 56:13) previously released
This is the last of the movie’s four songs, and it’s a showcase for the comedic talents of Dom DeLuise, with whom Don Bluth had worked on N.I.M.H. DeLuise was always willing to add material here and there. During this song, he suggested the song be stopped at one point so that he could add a touch of his own. The lyric referred to a "back scratch" and he saw the chance to expand on that by imagining that Fievel was actually scratching his back. "In that way," DeLuise explained, "I was able to enjoy the scratch, later the animator could enjoy it, and eventually the audience could see and hear the fun of it." (source: John Cawley).
Lyricist Cynthia Well discusses the complexity of this song: “What was prodigious about A Duo was James Horner’s orchestration. Everything is incredibly simple: piano, strings, a melody based on nothing but pizzicato, woodwind solos … Whoa, how I hated the instrumental version (laughs) ! Fortunately, its construction was less delicate than I imagined. James reorganized the beats and I added my own thing. It’s a pretty complex song, a real exercise in style.” (source: Dreams Magazine).
18 Fievel’s Escape (56:21 – 59:26) previously unreleased
Tiger and Fievel extract themselves from the claws of the Mott Street Maulers but inadvertently lead the cats straight to the pier, sometime before The Star Of Hong Kong is scheduled to leave. The action music is bright and alive and Horner works in the cat motif very clearly at 56:43. Most of the mice are still asleep in the Museum and for a shot of them, Horner nicely thins the action down but maintains the forward motion. Alarmed, the mice set the Giant Mouse of Minsk in motion, but Honest John knows it’s too soon and he mobilizes his considerable hulk to try and bring the giant contraption to a stop. Meanwhile, Warren T. Rat tries to talk Gussie Mausheimer down but Tony and Fievel manage to expose him as the villainous cat he is.
All these threads are edited in parallel and James Horner alternates between action material (for the Giant Mouse) and Warren T. Rat’s ragtime motif. The scene ends with Warren T. Rat lighting a match and setting the museum on fire.
19 Releasing The Secret Weapon (59:28 – 1:02:57) previously released
At the start of the eight-minute Death of The Beast and Destruction of the Black Fortress from Krull, Colwyn’s glaive cuts deep into the Beast’s flesh and kills it. Horner treated the moment with shrieking brass and percussion clusters and uses the same idea here (1:00:41 – 1:00:56) when the Giant Mouse of Minsk bursts forth from Professor Digitalus’ Museum. The mice barely control the giant contraption. Starting at 1:00:56 and for a full minute, Horner comes up with music that is intentionally (and wonderfully) misshapen, with Fievel’s adventure theme draped on top, in a variation that is pathetic and grotesque. The Krull references continue right up to the moment when the cats all hang onto the Star of Hong Kong anchor as it is being raised. Among the mice who leave the Giant Mouse of Minsk in parachutes are the Mouskewitzes and after a final statement of the nine-note Chinese motif, the mice break into chanting: “Now there are no cats in America…” In the midst of the chaos, however, Fievel is left unconscious in the museum, which is rapidly catching fire…
20 The Great Fire (1:02:58 – 1:05:44) previously released
Kerosene is seen leaking and ominous string figures signal that Fievel is in big trouble. Note the dark version of the family theme at 1:04:40 as Papa Mouskewitz questions Tony and Mama finds Fievel’s hat. The score’s greatest outcry of atonality and anguish is when the firefighters try to control the fire but Fievel gets washed away to Orphan Alley.
21 Reunited (1:06:38 – 1:11:10) previously released
This is the score’s fourth and final standout set piece, because of the surprising, almost impressionistic nature of the cue’s first part, because the scene is rich in thought and, crucially, because all of this is told with images, sounds and music, and practically no words.
The orphans get Fievel to believe that his parents ought to be looking for him, not the other way around. Fievel disavows his family and is left by the orphans in a puddle of dirty water and straw. The music starts very soft, just a plaintive flute. As the camera zooms out to reveal the orphans all bedded down in the alley, Horner provides statements of the Dreams to Dream theme (1:06:58) as well as Somewhere Out There (1:07:18). The latter continues as the scene moves from night to day. A bird flies by and then two and then three. Horner responds with flutes imitating their airy movements, an idea he would revisit and develop extensively in the upbeat middle section of Whispering Winds (The Land Before Time). In both cases, Horner carefully strikes a tone of playfulness surrounded by sadness.
At 1:07:59, we hear a tolling bell and choir, and the implication is clear: this is the end of the line for Fievel. At 1:08:10, Papa’s violin returns, but Horner is careful not to harmonize the choir with the solo instrument. The net effect is alienation, and that’s exactly what the moment needs: Fievel’s mind is as fogged up as the tendrils of mist that drift in from the harbor, and in this state of mental numbness, impressions drift in and out without forming a clear whole. Far more than any external danger, it is doubt and misgivings on Fievel’s behalf that could really and ultimately prevent him from rejoining his family. At this point, the enemy is within, and Fievel must conquer it by regaining a clarity of mind.
In the meantime, Tony, Bridget and the Mouskewitzes are riding on Tiger’s back looking for the missing son. Horner provides some hesitant rhythmic material, and out of all the themes he had to choose between, he opts for Fievel’s vulnerability theme (1:08:30). Papa shouts Fievel’s name, but the shout barely registers in Fievel’s mind: it might as well be a ghost call.
At 1:09:17, Fievel rouses from his zombie slumber. Someone really is calling his name! The first stages of lucidity are scored for just a couple of forlorn piano notes, but five seconds later, the music finally comes into focus as Horner reprises the violin, harmonizes it with the choir and starts building toward the moment when Papa and his son are finally reunited. As a visual tool, the filmmakers use the light haze to catch the sunlight that streams in and in doing so, lend the scene a warm and fuzzy look. It goes without saying that Horner scores the reunion with a particularly touching statement of the family theme.
At 1:10:05, fragments of Somewhere Out There are heard as Gussie Mausheimer finds herself hugging a cat, Tiger is glad to have so many new friends and Bridget kisses Tony.
At 1:10:27, it’s back to the Mouskewitzes and their theme: in one of the score’s most heartbreaking moments, the solo violin and soft strings score the moment when Papa again puts the hat on Fievel’s head and it now fits. “My son, now you are a mouse.” This is all part of the cue’s coda, which neatly coincides with the culmination of the protagonist’s transformation arc. By enduring and surviving great hardship, Fievel has successfully completed his rite of initiation.
22 Flying Away and End Credits (1:11:10 – 1:17:00) previously released
It’s time for all the main characters to make one last appearance. Fievel and Tanya are flying with the pigeon Henri, who proudly states that “his” Statue is finished. Fievel and Tanya look at Lady Liberty and she winks at them. Chantal, another pigeon, carries Papa and Mama while a whole lot of other pigeons struggle to keep Tiger in the air. Horner scores all of this with a soft string statement of Somewhere Out There. When Fievel asks what all that other land is, Henri tells him it is all America, and someday Fievel will see it. (What a nice way to set up the sequel!) Meanwhile, Horner takes the first two notes of the family theme, hands them to the choir and starts building to the great finale. The end credits as they appear in the film boast statements of the Fievel themes and the bridge from Somewhere Out There, then segue into the pop version of the song performed by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram. The song, which is programmed separately as track 23 on the Intrada album, leaves just enough time for the end of the James Horner piece, with one final violin solo performing the family theme and the formal, peaceful ending. The composer would take this ending, draw it out considerably and reach for a kind of serene spirituality to cap off the sequel’s score.
That, however, is a different story altogether.
Many thanks to Intrada for finally revealing the near entirety of a score that is unusually intricate and rich in musical building stones, but which is first and foremost a dramatic tool of the highest order devised by a composer who even at this tender age displayed a keen psychological insight and an unrivaled talent for telling tales, American or others, with only the best musical notes.
Cynthia Weil perfectly sums up the qualities of this work: “An American Tail will always remain one of the prestigious animation projects of its day, with all the magic that goes with it. It was also a very tender reflection on exile, illusions, immigration, all of it in a social setting very different from what we usually see in animation. The film’s technical merits are considerable, and I think the piece has aged particularly well. But it is the universal and deep themes, on which James Horner and I and so many other people worked so hard, that make An American Tail so special.”
Grinchement Votre by Jean-Christophe Arlon & Didier Leprêtre, Dreams to Dream…s n°20 Magazine, Spring 2001, page 07-08
Thanks to Nick Martin, John Andrews and Jean-Baptiste Martin
Photo credits: © Universal Pictures, Universal Music Group, Amblin Entertainment