An American Tail (1986)
Dir. by Don Bluth
Starring Phillip Glasser, Nehemiah Persoff, John P. Finnegan and Dom DeLuise
After their home is burned in an anti-Jewish pogrom in the 1880s, a family of Russian mice emigrate to the United States. Separated from the rest of his family upon arrival, young Fievel Mousekewitz sets out on a quest to find them, and ends up inspiring the mice of New York City to fight back against the cats that are oppressing them.
As I said in my The Land Before Time review, I know that this was one of the first movies that my parents took me to see in the theater. However, I have absolutely no memory of doing so, and only remember it from the VHS copy that I grew up with. I did have a Fievel stuffed animal, however, that I retained for a very long time – probably at least middle school, if not high school.
What is it with Don Bluth and making incredibly dark movies, anyway? This is the second Bluth movie I’ve watched for this project, and I have strong memories of the other two big Bluth movies (The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs Go to Heaven). And from what I’ve seen and remember, all four have content that would be likely to give their target audience nightmares. It’s like each successive movie in his filmography was playing an escalating game of “hold my beer” with childhood trauma.
This one begins with the destruction of the Mousekewitz family home in Russia by Cossacks, in a rather intense burst of sudden violence. While I was definitely too young to understand what was going on, I now find it pretty clear that this is supposed to be an anti-Semitic pogrom, especially given the family’s surname and nationality. Their religion is never brought up explicitly during the film, though there’s definite allusions to it in the ending. While I think that there’s definitely a missed opportunity for more concrete representation here, I’m not sure how much of it really would have fit the narrative they devised, given how much of the movie focuses on a fairly young child trying to navigate a city on his own.
Speaking of which, this movie really doesn’t shy away from the horrors that might happen to a lost kid in 1880s New York. Almost the first thing that happens to Fievel after he arrives is being sold into labor in a sweatshop by a businessman that pretends to be helping him find his family. He gets chased, nearly eaten, attacked by humans, and even after triumphing over the cats is left for dead and ends up crying alone in a puddle in the rain. Thanks, Bluth, for attempting to traumatize the parents this time as well as the kids.
But hey, at least there are songs in this one, to break the depressing mood and give some light to the movie, right? Yeah, about that… The songs are all pretty memorable, even if I only remembered the one distinctly going in. However, even the happy ones are quite dark when you look at them closer. The big rousing number at the beginning, “There Are No Cats in America”, in addition to being dramatic irony itself in that we the audience know that there are indeed cats there, is actually just a series of stories of loss and murder. The Italian mouse portrays cats as mob bosses who murder his mother (in what might be a Godfather II reference), and the Irish mouse’s girlfriend is eaten by a calico – a cat whose colors could easily be described as “black and tan.”
And the actual plan that the mice enact to get rid of their cat oppressors is something right out of a horror movie. I only had vague memories of the movie’s ending, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting a steampunk mecha-mouse version of the Golem of Prague! The fact that the “Great Mouse of Minsk” is clearly rotoscoped over actual photographs of a real-life version of the thing makes it even creepier and nightmare-inducing. Are we absolutely sure that Bluth wasn’t paid off by a cartel of unscrupulous child psychologists looking for extra business?
Despite all of that, however….I still actually enjoyed the movie! The animation itself is gorgeous, obvious rotoscoping aside, and all of the songs are quite memorable. I’m not sure I’m going to be showing it to my nieces like, ever, but as an adult I definitely appreciate the craft that went in to making it a lot more than I did as a child. Still not sure why I never had any nightmares about it, though.
Rewatch: B+, extensive “WTH, Bluth!?” notwithstanding
-Even though critics were mixed on the movie, it ended up becoming the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film in U.S. history up to that point. It actually beat the Disney movie released that year, The Great Mouse Detective, at the box office by quite a lot. Disney and Bluth would have a rivalry for several more movies, going head-to-head until The Little Mermaid started the Disney Renaissance and pretty much ended Bluth’s time as a major competitor.