An American Tail

So it’s classic color movie month here at Nate Chen Publications. But before that, I need to make a quick disclaimer – today’s post is not exactly a classic. It was released in 1986, making it younger than I am. However, that also makes it a part of my childhood of which I am very fond. So I hope you’ll indulge me, just a little bit, as I geek out about one of my favorite animated movies from early childhood.

Most people think of animated movies and they think of Disney films like The Lion King, or Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin or, more recently, of Tangled and Frozen. Or maybe they think of the really classic Disney movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. And, to be honest, I do too.

But An American Tail isn’t Disney and I mean in more ways than it’s studio. Yes, it was produced by Amblin Entertainment and Sullivan Bluth Studios. But for another thing, it eschews  many of the themes that define most Disney movies, such as the transformative power of romance or the danger of meddling in the affairs of wizards. Other themes, like talking animals or not entirely accurate song lyrics (“There are no cats in America!”) are there, and the art is similar. But this is very much it’s own work.

The story revolves around Fievel Mousekewitz and his family, immigrant mice who have left Russia. The movie itself leaves the exact reasons for this vague, other than that the Mouskewitz’ home was burned by cassock cats. Keen observers familiar with history will quickly deduce, from the accents of the elder Mousekewitz and their family name, that they were most likely targeted because they were Jewish but this is a subtext that will fly right over the heads of younger children. (I didn’t figure this out until I was telling a friend about the movie in college. All the pieces were there, I’d just never looked at them from the right perspective before.)

Fortunately, An American Tail isn’t a morality play about racism. It’s a fish (or mouse) out of water tale, a story where reality and preconceptions clash and protagonists come out better for it.

Fievel is separated from his family on the boat during a storm. Washed overboard, his family believes he is dead and he must take to the mean streets of New York to try and find them. (Yes, they left Russia and arrived in New York. Don’t ask. I think arriving in New York is a trope of some kind, although it’s not in the catalog.)

The adventure isn’t all Fievel’s, although he’ll have to face down street rats (literally), charity workers, city slickers, idealists and politicians to straighten things out. Through out the course of the story we also glance back to Mr. Mousekewitz and his grieving family. They all have problems to deal with but the biggest one of all – cats.

I guess not everything you heard about America those days was true.

An American Tail isn’t a fantastic movie. But it does touch something deep inside. It’s a story about homes. Fievel has lost his old home, not just left his physical dwelling but been separated from his family, and not every offer of a new one is something that he wants. He has to do a lot of growing up very quickly. But he never gives up the hope that he can get back what he lost. His father used to tell him stories about how things could be better, the good things that had been before and might be again. When offered the chance, more than once, to believe the good things weren’t coming and settle for what he had, Fievel choses to keep looking. With enough perseverance and the right goals, maybe he can make the good things real.

And in the end, he does. The Mouse of Minsk was an odd place to start – but he does.

Really, is there any tale more American than that?


2 responses to “An American Tail

  1. I watched this many times growing up, and always found the giant rat robot frightening. It’s a good movie, and Fievel’s best friend the cat is an amazing character.

    • I guess it is kind of scary. I loved the whole sequence where they build it and start it up, though, so by the time it came crashing through the doors snapping it’s jaws it was more like a Frankenstein “It liiiiiiiiives” moment for me.

      And yes, the vegetarian cat is loads of fun. I love the part where the German mouse says, “I can’t believe I am hugging a feline!”

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