An American Tail, the beloved animated film directed by Don Bluth, celebrates the 35th anniversary of its 1986 theatrical release.
The film isn’t just representative of the immigrant experience but the Jewish immigrant experience. It’s especially interesting to watch the film in 2021. You might not know this but antisemitic bigots are shouting for the Jews to go back to Europe. The Mousekewitz family–living just next to the Moskowitz family–leaves Shostka, Russia for the same reason that many Jews were leaving around this time: the antisemitic pogroms. Remember Fiddler on the Roof? It may be a different village but same antisemitic hatred towards Jews! It begs the question of what homes are there to go back to? The homes and villages get destroyed. In some cities, the large majority of communities got wiped out because of the Holocaust. So again, I ask you, what homes?
At the start of the film, the Mousekewitzes are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Papa (Nehemiah Persoff) gifts his hat to his 7-year-old son, Fievel (Phillip Glasser). He tells his son of the United States and how their are no cats in America. The cats frequently invade the village much like the Cossacks do the same during their antisemitic pogroms. They make their way to Hamburg to board a ship that will take them to America. All the mice are happy that there are no cats in America. This brings about one of the film’s classic songs. “Somewhere Out There,” another classic, gets its moment later on in the film.
Anyway, a storm that separates Fievel from his family, washing him into the sea. It’s the moment that any family dreads–losing a loved one. Tanya (Amy Green) knows in her gut that Fievel is still alive–unlike Papa and Mama (Erica Yohn). Fievel makes it to the US like the rest of his family thanks to a bottle. The path to a reunion isn’t an easy one. Since this is animation, we know there will be a happy ending. A not-happy ending would be very sad for animation.
The script certainly finds a way to keep raising the stakes. Fievel starts his journey by befriending Henri le Pigeon (Christopher Plummer). Before too long, he ends up being sold to a sweatshop. Fortunately, he escapes with Tony (Pat Musick). Fievel asks Honest John (Neil Ross) for help in finding his family but he can’t help unless they register to vote. Tammany Hall, anyone?
All history notwithstanding, Don Bluth’s film came about at a time when Disney Animation was struggling. The Little Mermaid was a few years away when An American Tail opened in 1986. Maybe its a coincidence but both Disney and Steven Spielberg released films about mice a few months apart. Much like Bluth’s The Land Before Time, this box office success would spawn a franchise. The animation is beautiful for its era as the industry was still a few years away from CGI taking over. There’s nothing like watching beautiful hand-drawn animation in a film. Maybe it’s because of how many hand-drawn films I grew up with but there’s something nostalgic about it.
An American Tail is representative of the Jewish immigrant experience. For starters, Fievel is a Yiddish name. He shares the same name as Steven Spielberg’s maternal grandfather, Philip Posner. Apparently, Don Bluth did not like this, thinking of the name as being too foreign sounding. Oh, really?!? This begs the question of how can a filmmaker make a film about the immigrant experience while questioning names. Thankfully, executive producer Steven Spielberg won out. It would be impossible to make the film and erase its Jewishness. We’re all the better because of this.
An American Tail is a celebration of the immigrant experience.
DIRECTOR: Don Bluth
SCREENWRITERS: Judy Freudberg & Tony Geiss
CAST: Phillip Glasser, John Finnegan, Amy Green, Nehemiah Persoff, Dom DeLuise, Christopher Plummer, Cathianne Blore, Madeline Kahn, Pat Musick, Neil Ross, Will Ryan, Hal Smith, Erica Yohn
Universal released An American Tail in theaters on November 21, 1986.
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