Saturday, December 22, 2012

An American Tail (1986) - Fievel Does America

An American Tail: Wildly Popular Tail, um, Tale of The Immigrant Experience... as Mice

DVD cover "An American Tail" 1986
Don Bluth, having finished "The Secret of NIMH" to rave reviews and the bankruptcy of his business, hooked up with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment for "An American Tail" (1986). Unlike Bluth's first feature film, this one turned out to be both a critical and a financial success. It is a charming tale with first-class production values, and like Bluth's other films has developed a cult following that only seems to grow with time. It owes a large debt of gratitude, of course, to Disney movie "The Rescuers," which introduced the concept of cute mice as lead characters.
Fievel Mousekewitz
It is 1885 in Russia, and a Russian-Jewish family of mice - the Mousekewitzes - are being attacked by vicious cats belonging to Cossacks. With their village destroyed, the mice board a ship and begin their journey, but the boy, Fievel (Phillip Glasser), is washed overboard en route during a storm. The family eventually arrives in America, believing that Fievel has drowned.
Bridget "An American Tail" 1986
Bridget, Fievel's friend
Fievel, however, is fine after having floated to America on a bottle. He befriends a pigeon, Henri (Christopher Plummer), who encourages him to find his family. Along the way, conman Warren T. Rat (John Finnegan) befriends him, but then sells Fievel to a sweatshop. Fievel manages to get out and hooks up with Italian mouse Tony (Pat Musick) and Irish mouse Bridget (Cathianne Blore). Their illusions about America being cat-free is shattered when a gang of cats attacks them in a marketplace.
Gusie Mausheimer "An American Tail" 1986
Gussie Mausheimer
An anti-cat organization led by Gussie Mausheimer springs up among the mice, and Fievel figures out a plan. The mice begin building a trap for the cats in an abandoned building on the Hudson. Fievel finds out that Warren T. Rat is actually a cat in disguise, but before he can tell anyone, he is captured by the cats and locked up. Things don't look good for him until a nice cat named Tiger (Dom DeLuise) befriends him and sets him free.
Drunk Honest John "An American Tail" 1986
Honest John
The cats chase Fievel back to the pier, right into the trap the mice have set. When the cats arrive, the mice release a giant mechanical mouse. It chases the cats off the pier and into the Hudson. They climb onto a tramp steamer headed to China and are never seen again. Fievel's mother (Erica Yohn) finds his hat after the battle, and Papa Mousekewitz (Nehemiah Persoff) realizes his son is still alive and start thinking of a way to find him.
Tony Toponi "An American Tail" 1986
Tony Toponi, Fievel's friend
"An American Tail" is done in Bluth's usual animation style, with rotoscoping of human characters and cartoonish animal figures. This makes the humans look very realistic, while the animals have more of a dream-like quality. You don't see many people anyway, they usually are left in the shadows or only shown partially. The colors usually are dark and moody, befitting the subject, but that makes the animation seem of lower quality than it might if everything were bright and cheery. There are some bright colors during the happy occasions, but those are few and far between. The animation can get a bit distracting at times because Bluth likes to move it around a lot, but you get used to it. Also, the animation tends to be a bit inconsistent, with characters noticeably changing shapes and sizes.
Tiger talking to Fievel "An American Tail" 1986
Tiger talking to Fievel
The tale is an obvious political metpahor for the immigrant experience and their "the streets are paved with gold" misconceptions. It is easy to read a lot into it, perhaps more than was intended. The mice are portrayed as being naive and of various religions and backgrounds, while the cats seem to have a vicious predatory uniformity between Russia and the United States. It is a bit over-done, but that probably was the intent, to hammer the point home. While it's obvious who the cats represent in Czarist Russia, it's a bit less clear who they are supposed to be in the States. This ambiguity is one of the key flaws in the film and could unintentionally make some people uncomfortable.
Digit "An American Tail" 1986
Warren T. Rat's accountant Digit
There is a lot of darkness in this film. Child labor is depicted, as well as a lot of violence by the cats. There's a manipulative con artist cat, scenes of cats destroying homes, and a lot of edgy scenes. Little children may be disturbed by some of this and may not look at the family cat in quite the same way for a while.
Warren T. Rat "An American Tail" 1986
Warren T. Rat, crooked as they come
The music by James Horner is all right, not sensational. Barry Mann does the songs, and "Somewhere Out There" may stick with you for a while, also "There Are No Cats." "Somewhere" was nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy.
Warren T. Rat at work "An American Tail" 1986
Warren T. Rat making a point
Probably the weakest part of the film is the plot. The story has little going for it other than "young immigrant is lost in New York." Character development leaves something to be desired (the sudden friendship between Tiger and Fievel is a bit much), and there seem to be an awful lot of stereotypes in the film (drunk Irishmen, noble, brave, pure and cultured immigrants, relentless oppressors with no morals, that sort of thing). That does set up a nice us-versus-them confrontation, though. I sure hope those cats like Hong Kong!
Fievel dancing "An American Tail" 1986
Fievel having some fun
Overall, Bluth's previous "The Secret of NIMH" is the better film, but this one appeals directly to a broader demographic and had the marketing power of Steven Spielberg behind it. There's a lot more to successful filmmaking than quality, and the different performances of the two films at the box office really shows that. "An American Tail" is a good animation film that you will enjoy if you identify with the poor, oppressed mice, and one of the better animation films of the '80s.

Below is the original trailer:



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