There was a great James Horner memorial concert taking place at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Tuesday, 24th 2017. My plan to talk about James Horner’s lovely score for Don Bluth’s “An American Trail” was developed before, but this concert showed the enthusiastic audience again how much Horner and his music is missed!
“An American Tail” is an American animated musical adventure family film from 1986 directed by Don Bluth. After Goldsmith’s “The Secret of NimH” this is the second animation movie review by Don Bluth on my blog.
I like “The Secret of NimH” better because of the better plot, the more convincing storytelling and character development and the haunting atmosphere. “An American Trail” tells a story for kids while “The Secret of NimH” has some scenes that might be a little bit too scary for children. Fievel Mousekewitz and his Jewish family want to immigrate from Russian Empire-controlled territory of Ukraine to the United States for freedom and a better life. There is a funny scene that explains the reason in a song called “There Are No Cats in America” (track 3), but also facing antisemitism is a reason. Critics mentioned that this was not mentioned too much in the story. During the journey, Feivel (named after Spielberg’s grandfather Fievel) gets lost and must find a way to reunite with them. Here is the trailer:
“An American Trail” was a box office hit, making it the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time. I read that this success and the very successful “The Land Before Time” (1988, also with a score by James Horner), and finally Disney's “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988 with a fabulous score by Alan Silvestri), as well as Bluth's departure from their partnership, prompted Spielberg to establish his own animation studio, Amblimation.
The original concept featured an all animal world, but Bluth wanted something different. He developed the idea that this movie should be more like the classical Disney movies “The Rescuers” (1977, perhaps better known as the first Bernard and Bianca movie) or “101 Dalmatians” (1961) with an animal world as society hidden from the humans. Bluth also wanted to go back to the old look from Disney’s “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs” (1937) where the characters were round, soft and have a cuddly feel" (I found a lot of information on this website: background information from John Cawley “The Animated Films by Don Bluth”, http://www.cataroo.com/DBtail.html).
In my opinion, James Horner composed his best soundtracks in the 80s. His style sounded so fresh that times, his melodies were so lovely and lyrical and his way of using the orchestra was so enjoyable. Spielberg wanted “An American Trail” to be a musical, and Horner was highly excited about doing a score like this. Imagine, he just did “Aliens”!
The score was recorded in London by The London Symphony Orchestra and the Choir of King’s College. I am personally not a big fan of the songs of “An American Trail”, but Horner was compared to other soundtrack composers so capable to compose songs that the pop version of “Somewhere Out There", co-composed with Barry Mann, lyrics by Cynthia Weil, and sang by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram during the end credits, won a Grammy Award, and became one of the most popular songs from an animated feature since the 1950s. How lovely this song still is I could see at the James Horner concert last Tuesday.
My favourite song of “An American Trail” is “Never Say Never again”, a lovely melody and sung by legendary Canadian actor Christopher Plummer with a heavy accent in this role. What a great piece of music and exactly in the way a song for animation movie should be composed. Find it here:
Feivel’s own interpretation of “Somewhere Out There", sung by American child actor Phillip Glasser in a duo with Betsy Cathcart, is just sweet to listen to because none of the two kids can exactly carry the tune the whole time, but that is exactly the reason I love this song much better than the sterile pop version. Track 11 “A Duo” is more of a musical joke because of the way it is sung.
The musical score is Horner at his best. This movie gave Horner so many scenes to develop beautiful music for that you cannot praise this score enough. Track 1 “Main Title” starts slowly and develops immediately a lovely atmosphere you immediately get into it. You can hear some influence of classical Russian composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky, especially by using the violin in folk-kind music. I am a big fan of the solo violin part at 3’08.
Track 2 “The Cossack Cats” gives us the first action track. Horner’s music is just fabulous. Track 4 “The Storm” is a four-minute action track that is perfectly developed in its dramaturgical structure and underscores the scene when Feivel gets thrown overboard and separated from his family. Horner created in this track a haunting atmosphere similar to Goldsmith’s “Secret of NimH”.
Track 7 “The Market Place” is lovely because of the use of the main theme in the last 50 seconds of the track. It is interesting that there is not really a stand-alone track with the whole main theme, it is spread all over the score. The orchestration of track 10 “Releasing the Secret Weapon” reminds you of one of my favourite James Horner scores “The Rocketeer” but does not have the elegance of that later score. In the last minute, you can hear again the “There are no cats in America” song, but you have to watch the scene to totally understand it.
The next three tracks called “The Great Fire”, “Reunited” and “Flying Away and End Credits” are the best tracks of the soundtrack, underscoring the great finale and with “Flying Away” one of my all-time favourite Horner tracks. You should listen to all these tracks together because they are the highlights of the score. “Reunited” is a good example of the lyrical melodies Horner was able to compose. These melodies immediately landscapes the atmosphere of a movie and catch you from the beginning. Like the main theme to the Ghost-movie “Casper” (1995( with Christina Ricci, this is again more kind of a lullaby.
The six-minute track “Flying Away” is the longest and best track. It brings the soundtrack to a wonderful ending and is perfectly orchestrated with its lovely themes, its musical structure and the balance of big orchestra and choir. This is just an amazing piece of musical storytelling! Imagine that this was Horner’s first animation movie and how young he was at that time. With its six themes, “An American Trail” is for sure one of Horner’s most structured and most enjoyable scores. If I compare all Horner’s scores for animation movies, I still prefer his music for “Balto” (1995), but this has personal reasons.
“An American Trail” became a franchise with four movies and video games. James Horner composed the music for the sequel “Feivel Goes West”, an animation Western which I never watched even though I bought the music. Some critics think that the thematic material for the sequel is better developed than the original one. Because I will not talk about this here, I give you now time to find out by yourself.
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