- Director: Don Bluth
- Writers: Screenplay by Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss, Story by David Kirschner, Judy Freudberg, and Tony Geiss
- Starring: Phillip Glasser, John Finnegan, Amy Green, Betsy Cathcart, Nehemiah Persoff, Erica Yohn, Pat Musick, Dom DeLuise, Christopher Plummer, Cathianne Blore, Neil Ross, and Madeline Kahn
- Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Song – “Somewhere Out There”)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Starz app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.
I included An American Tail with our Holiday Virtual Film Festival because I was looking for a Hanukkah movie, of which there are a disappointingly small number, even if you expand the definition of “Hanukkah movie” to “as much about Hanukkah as Die Hard is about Christmas,” which is pretty much what I did. This is not a movie about Hanukkah, it’s a movie where there’s one scene where a bunch of Jewish mice celebrate Hanukkah and give each other presents. Also, I had never seen it before. And on that front, after seeing it, I, um, have some questions?
The movie is about the Mouskewitz family, who are Russian, Jewish mice who emigrate to America after their village is torched by Cossacks. They live in a small hole in a regular, person house with “Moscowitz” above the door. So, does this movie postulate that, were mice to take up residence in our house, they would have the same religion as us and take up a family name that is a mouse-based pun on ours? Fievel eventually arrives at the Statue of Liberty in New York, where he is greeted by “Henri le Pigeon” (voiced, in one of the most random cameos I can think of, by Christopher Plummer doing a stereotypical French accent), who tells him about the statue he is building. In the world of this movie, are we to believe that the Statue of Liberty was a gift to America by French pigeons? Later, we meet upper class mouse “Gussie Mausheimer” (Madeline Kahn, hired explicitly to do the exact same bizarro accent she did in Blazing Saddles), who is introduced as the “richest mouse in New York” and is horrified that “cats make no distinction between rich and poor.” So… what constitutes mouse currency in this universe? We never see any other mice worrying about money. “Honest Joe,” a parody of Tammany Hall politicians, is mostly worried about getting Fievel’s parents registered to vote. Is there an alternate shadow mouse American government, living in the basement of the US Capitol, passing mouse laws?
I am being facetious, mostly. But I think I found myself thinking about questions like these because this movie chooses to have animals living in a secret, parallel society, rather than just having a society of animals doing human stuff, like in Disney’s Robin Hood or the much more recent Zootopia. Had this movie gone with the latter, as was apparently considered at one point, I think I would have just gone with it, but as it was I couldn’t get a handle on the rules of this world I was watching. And this is a symptom of the movie’s larger problem, that it wants to have its educational cake and eat it too, I’d say, by exposing its audience to a lot of real history while remaining a super cutesy animated musical.
The movie’s heart is in the right place, I have no doubt of that, but it feels like the sort of idea that sounded good at first, but, twenty minutes into the first meeting, someone should have said, “Hey guys, are we sure this is a good idea?” Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed An American Tail, but I would say the number one reason I enjoyed it is because I’m absolutely flabbergasted it exists. Consider this early musical number, in which the oppressed immigrant mice mourn their dead relatives killed by cats, then dance around while crowing, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” I cracked up because it was so ridiculous, which I don’t think was the intention.
The movie was, however, a big hit, the highest-grossing non-Disney animated movie to that date, by far. Its director, Don Bluth, would break that record with his next movie, The Land Before Time. Bluth, like many future independent voices in animation, started out by working for Disney, then at one point decided to set out on his own and start his own studio. Through the 1980s and 90s he directed several animated features in direct competition with Disney, characterized by meticulous, detailed animation and a much more individual, darker tone than one might usually expect from these things. In An American Tail, that darker tone is leavened by the ultra-cute main character, young Fievel, though Roger Ebert called it “the most depressing animated movie” he’d seen in his life. Most of his movies, like The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs Go to Heaven, received both middling reviews and middling box office receipts, but many of them have since been re-evaluated more positively, to one degree or another.
As an outsider to the Disney machine, Bluth’s movies have probably not remained as commonly viewed over the years as, say, those of the Disney Renaissance. This will probably only be exacerbated as all of Disney’s movies are one streaming service, so if parents with young kids only buy one, it will be Disney Plus. But An American Tail is probably the one you’re most likely to find easily available today, a fact that’s probably due to the fact that it was produced by (and was really the original idea of) Steven Spielberg. Even the main character, young Fievel, is named for Spielberg’s grandfather, who had told him stories about his own adventures as a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Spielberg wanted to make an animated musical, but didn’t know much about the process, so he hired Bluth, told him to “make it pretty,” and things pretty much went from there.
If you love An American Tail, you’re not wrong, I’m fully aware that my personal response to it (that it is closer to belonging on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 than on a list of the greatest movies ever made) is just that, personal. The fact that there are different voices out there making this kind of movies is a good thing, and the film world lost something significant when, after a handful of financial flops culminating in 2000’s Titan A.E., Bluth could no longer consistently get funding for his feature projects. But I would say the moral to take from this is, make more Hanukkah movies.