Here’s an often forgotten animated film from 1986. It tells the tale of Fievel Mousekewitz, a young mouse lost in the big city. Squeak.
An American Tail
This is like those Disney films (the notorious Bambi) that’ll terrify the bejeezus out of kids. It sure did with us.
And to make things clear, this isn’t a Disney film. Even if it looks like one. It’s from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.
It was directed by Don Bluth. And the success of the film (the biggest non-Disney animated hit at the time) let the studio get on and do The Land Before Time (1988). Another childhood favourite for us.
Set in 1885, An American Tail follows a Russian-Jewish family of mice live in Shostka, Ukraine. The situation is bad due to anti-Jewish behaviour. Particularly from volatile cats.
So they decide to leg it for the United States of America (USA, USA, USA). There are not cats there, apparently.
Whilst celebrating Hanukkah, Papa Mousekewitz (Nehemiah Persoff) hands his son Fievel his hat—oversized on the small mouse dude.
Fievel Mousekewitz (Phillip Glasser) is chuffed and proceeds to wear it. And the family revels in the excitement of leaving for the US.
Travelling to Hamburg, they all board a steamboat for America. However, during the trip there’s a storm. And Fievel is washed overboard. Oh, heck!
Right, the film deals with some pretty weighty themes from the off. Along with antisemitism, you have the brutality of a totalitarian state.
Although An American Tail is frightening for kids, we feel it’s important to not shy away from showing these productions to younger viewers.
Along with Watership Down, there are essential life lessons. Ones you wouldn’t really learn sitting around watching Barney the Dinosaur and Pixar.
Anyway, back to the plot. Fievel’s family has to presume he’s dead. Depressed, they head on to America.
Meanwhile, he’s actually ended up lodged in a bottle. Fortuitously washing ashore in America, he meets a French pigeon called Henri.
That dude provides him with his mission. And feeling buoyed up, he heads off in search of his family.
Before long he runs into street smart lad (well, mouse) Tony Toponi. That dude takes Fievel into his care to help him along.
However, it soon turns out there are, indeed, cats in America. No amount of spontaneous singing will ensure otherwise.
Yes, there are several musical numbers in An American Tail (we’re pretty sure most people will think this is a Disney film on first viewing).
But the cats are a total pain in the arse, ruining the lives of many a mouse. And the film develops into a battle against them.
All whilst Fievel attempts to find his family. Which, of course, Pixar kind of riffed off in 2003 for Finding Nemo.
This being a film for kids, it does develop towards a happy ending. The mice fight back against the cats, with Fievel using his initiative to win the day.
And it results in some pretty dramatic stuff. With rather impressive visual flourishes along the way from Bluth and his creative team.
There is, of course, Spielberg’s regular sense of familial sentimentality running throughout the film.
We’ve really got to compare it to Empire of the Sun (1987), which Spielberg was off directing while An American Tail finalised its production.
The similarities are rather clear. In the adaptation of J.G Ballard’s book, young Jim is separated from his family. And must go through various ordeals to reunite with them, changing as a person along the way. It’s much the same for Fievel.
And we do get a happy ending. But as with Watership Down, you have to go through total trauma to get there.
Some critics suggested it was too depressing for kids (see below). But we remember enjoying the film a great deal as young ones—it was like a grown ups movie dealing with real life issues. Even if that did freak us out.
The animation is largely brilliant for 1986, too, and stands out from other animated films at the time.
Elsewhere, there’s a natural feel to the voice acting performances. And that draws you into the experience and helps you root for young Fievel.
But we think it wouldn’t go into production these days. Simply as it’s quite an assault on the emotional senses. So, let your kids watch it at their own risk!
Production & Legacy
Reviews were positive to mixed. Roger Ebert there (who was one of America’s top film critics) didn’t rate it much, handing over 2/4.
His colleague Gene Siskel didn’t care much for it, either.
But off its $9 million budget, An American Tail was a hit. It went on to make $84.5 million. And it spawned sequels (none of which we ever did see).
However, behind the scenes during production the film was all over the place. Too many execs began messing with the scenes and it became a mess.
Add into that relentless union problems. That was enough to force director Don Bluth to relocate to Ireland after the whole project closed.
Despite that, money talks and the film did well. So, a franchise came about. The first sequel arrived in 1991—Fievel Goes West (it’s a Wild West type deal).
The final one was in 1999 and called The Mystery of the Night Monster.
There were a bunch of video games, too, with the first in 1993. Weirdly, the most recent one turned up on the PlayStation 2 in 2007.
That really baffles us. Why in 2007? Why this film? We remember that period very clearly, no one was clamouring for An American Tail on the PlayStation 2.
Well, whatever, here’s a bit of it from some random level.
As you can see, it was totally worth the effort… NOT!
Anyway, we recommend the film over that thing. Because an ageing, cash-in, pointless video adaptation doesn’t really do the 1986 film justice.