Thursday, April 14, 2016

Blast from the Past Movie Review: An American Tail (1986)

My friend Jamie, a noted animation buff and a major fan of Don Bluth, was back in Atlanta for Christmas and so Nick decided to host a very special episode of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood just for him. Jamie decided to defend An American Tail, which I first saw on a rented video (yes, an actual VHS tape) probably in the late 1980s. I later reported on the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in which the movie was screened and interviewed Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, two of the masterminds behind the film.

So how did it hold up? Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's December of 1885 and the Mousekowitz family, the mouse neighbors of the Jewish Moskowitz family in Russia, are celebrating Hanukkah. The festivities are rudely interrupted by human Cossacks who rampage through the village throwing torches onto the roofs and even shooting a fleeing man dead while cats in fur hats rampage alongside them. The Mousekowitz family, who are aware of a happy, safe place called "America," travel to Hamburg, Germany and set out across the Atlantic for this new Promised Land. Along the way, young Fievel is washed off the ship during a storm and must reunite with his family on Manhattan Island, which is not nearly as friendly as the naive immigrant mice think...

The Good

*Except for a bit in the third act, the movie moves along pretty briskly and isn't boring.

*There's a lot of historical humor that kids won't understand, but adults will. The mouse politician Honest John from Tammany Hall, for example, and we see that corrupt political machine in action. There's also a wealthy female mouse who seems to be a stand-in for the Progressive reformers who sought to aid immigrants as well.

*The movie teaches kids a valuable history lesson about what brought immigrants to America and their experiences when they got here, which weren't always positive. The French pigeon Henri seems to be doing pretty well, but many of the immigrant mice end up exploited in a sweatshop alongside human immigrant workers.

*There are a couple songs that are massive, as TVTropes puts it, Ear Worms. In "There Are No Cats in America," the immigrant mice of different nationalities (Sicilian, Russian, Irish) sing about the horrible conditions back in their home countries (where their oppressors are depicted as cats) and how things are better in the United States. And when Fievel meets Henri, they have a musical number about positive thinking, "Never Say Never."

*The Giant Mouse of Minsk, foreshadowed by Fievel's father early on, is really cool when it's unleashed.

*There's a scene where a despairing Fievel thinks he'll never find his family again that's genuinely sad. When I interviewed Goldman years later, he said that was his favorite part of the film.

*A cat who claims to be a vegetarian admits that he does eat fish. Given how cats are obligate carnivores, that's kind of important.

The Bad

*The third act, in which Fievel is held captive by a group of cat gangsters and has a duet with the friendly cat Tiger, kind of drags. I really didn't like the song "A Duo," even though there is a funny bit about how Tiger has three fathers that those who are aware of cats' promiscuity will find funny.

*There's at least one big anachronism--the young Fievel sees a group of American school-age mice saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which didn't exist at the time. Furthermore, they're saying the version with "under God," which wasn't introduced until the 1950s. I think Steven Spielberg's grandfather remembers looking into a school he wasn't able to attend because he was Jewish, but they could have had Fievel seeing something else.

*The radio version of "Somewhere Out There" (sung by James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt) is a beautiful song, but when Fievel and his sister Tanya sing the song themselves, I didn't find it very impressive.

The Verdict

It's an entertaining and educational children's movie, but for an adult I'd say just see it once. 7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

"Salt The Earth," Or How The Valkyrie Junta Could Undermine American-Soviet Alliance

On the Facebook alternate history group this morning, someone posted a question about how World War II could end with Germany retaining at least some territorial gains made under Hitler--think Austria (the most morally defensible, considering this), the Sudetenland, the Polish Corridor, etc. Some people thought that was basically impossible, while others posted various scenarios about the German Resistance toppling Hitler, either in 1943 (when Germany is still winning major battles) or 1944 (when the Nazis are clearly closing the war). The latter coup attempt, for the record, is the subject of the movie Valkyrie.

To contribute to the discussion, I posted a scenario I found on the alternate history forum I've been a member of since high school (that I've had myself blocked from posting on until June due to real-life obligations) entitled "Salt The Earth."

The gist of the scenario is that the military branch of the German Resistance (the only ones that had a realistic chance of actually toppling the Nazis) manages to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis. The timing of the plot doesn't seem important--supposedly the 1943 plot would also take out other top Nazis and Hitler's cronies in the military, allowing for an easier seizure of power, while in 1944 the war is obviously lost and so there's less risk of a "stab-in-the-back" myth developing afterward.

The war ends (in Europe at least) and it's all sunshine and rainbows, right? Wrong. If the 1944 coup attempt succeeds, the US, Britain, and the Soviets have all agreed the war will go on until unconditional surrender and the policy has been in place for some time. There will be no negotiated peace, no chance for Germany to rearm and do it again in another generation. And the Soviets, given the really awful stuff that the Germans did (and what they wanted to do), are going to be absolutely out for blood.

In 1944, Germany is already clearly losing, with Operation Bagration absolutely wrecking the German army in the East (80% of the German army was defeated by the Soviets) and Anglo-American-French forces already advancing in Western Europe. Even if the Germans go totally defensive and avoid screw-ups like the Falaise Pocket, the Battle of the Bulge, etc., the sheer power of the Red Army and the coming of the atomic bomb (originally intended for use against the Germans) means that a purely military solution won't save Germany. 1943 is more favorable, but the odds are still rapidly growing against Germany and some version of the following solution might still have to be put in place.

So if the Valkyrie junta wants some kind of negotiated peace, especially a peace that leaves them with any of Hitler's gains, they're going to have to earn it. And the "Salt the Earth" scenario explains how:

*Pull back to more defensible positions. River lines like the Rhine in the west or the Alps in Italy. Put as much of Germany's remaining fighting power in the East. That's something any post-Hitler junta with half a brain would do if the Allies aren't going to negotiate. Better to be occupied by the US and Britain than the totalitarian Soviets who (as I have already pointed out) also have very, very legitimate reasons to be vengeful.

Now comes the clever parts...

*Allow the Polish Home Army to take control of much of Poland, which would put the Soviets in a position where in order to take Poland for Communism they would have to openly attack the Polish government-no-longer-in-exile. In real life the Soviets fought alongside the Home Army and then betrayed them and deliberately allowed the Germans to crush the Warsaw Uprising.

(Some have made the case the Soviets at this point were not capable of helping the Home Army in Warsaw, but that doesn't explain why the Soviets forcibly prevented American aircraft based in the USSR from dropping supplies to the Home Army, which Thomas Fleming writes extensively about in The New Dealers' War. If you don't want to read a book with an obvious ax to grind against much of Roosevelt's administration if not Roosevelt himself, the Wikipedia article has both sides.)

In this scenario, the Soviets would either have to respect the independence of Poland or openly make war upon a state that is theoretically their ally that is fulfilling one of Britain's original war aims (preserve the independence of Poland), which would be much more difficult to cover up.

*Deliberately arm Communist resistance movements in non-Communist countries. Imagine the problems that would happen if the Communist French Resistance took control of Paris before Charles De Gaulle. Ugliest and sneakiest of them all would be putting them in charge of prisons full of anti-Communist resistance members whom they might be tempted to murder. Even if Stalin orders them not to, all it might take to generate a massive PR problem is one or two incidents.

Of course, the leadership of the Big Three is going to do their best to squash this. Roosevelt insisted the Katyn Massacre had been perpetrated by the Nazis, not the Soviets, and hid the evidence gathered by the Polish government-in-exile during the war. The U.S. had press controls during WWII; although a lot of it was based on the presumption of reporter patriotism, there was still an Office of Censorship. Britain had press censorship as well. Although this was focused on keeping the enemy from finding out about military movements ("loose lips sink ships"), I could easily imagine the government attempting to cover up anything that could threaten the alliance with Stalin. And the Soviet people aren't going to know anything Stalin doesn't want them to know.

However, though absolute tyrant like Stalin doesn't have the PR concerns of a democratic leader, he was also ragingly paranoid. Convincing him the Western Allies had betrayed him is quite plausible, even if a wartime American public fed propaganda like Mission to Moscow still believes in "Uncle Joe." If the Valkyrie crew can set Stalin against the West, that alone is a significant improvement over their position even if they can't successfully turn U.S. or British public opinion against Stalin.

Even if the gambit ultimately fails to significantly change the outcome of the war, the post-war division of Europe, etc., once the soldiers start returning and spreading word of stuff that had been kept from the U.S. public, there could be political hell to pay. The Democrats might never get the Polish-American community's vote back if FDR's government successfully covered up a betrayal of the Poles far more blatant and with a much higher body count than in our history, only for the cat to get out of the bag in 1946. Depending on how things shake out in Italy, France, and Greece, that's more voting blocs whose inclinations might be different than in our history, even temporarily.