Directed by Don Bluth
Written by David Kirschner, Judy Freudberg, and Tony Geiss
It is with no great enthusiasm that I come at Don Bluth's second film, made at his second independent studio, Sullivan Bluth Studios, in co-production with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, after Bluth's first studio, Don Bluth Productions, fell into bankruptcy following the unfortunate underperformance of The Secret of NIMH. You see, as far as Bluth cartoons go, I get the impression that none has a greater present-day constituency, nor benefits from a more enduring nostalgia, than 1986's An American Tail. Maybe that distinction rightly goes to Anastasia, but, realistically-speaking, most people don't even know that's not a Disney movie. And maybe it should go to The Land Before Time, but its infinite parade of sequels has eroded much of any belief that it was ever an exemplar of the family animation arts. So that leaves us with An American Tail as presumptively Bluth's single most beloved work, and even a quarter of a century later, it's remembered fondly by casual fans and animation buffs alike. It was not only the resurrection of Bluth's commercial aspirations; it was what got Spielberg into the whole cartoon game, one of the crucial factors in the industry's sudden explosion back into relevance in the back half of the 1980s. And the thing is, I don't like it. At times, I actively hate it. Often, I'm impressed by the undeniable craft of it. Occasionally, I'm struck by how ambitious its themes are for a cartoon about talking mice. Mostly, I think it just doesn't work, and I think it stops working almost the moment it starts.
So: we begin in 1885, in a human village somewhere in Russia, though we can likely narrow it down geographically to "within the Pale of Settlement." Underneath the humans' feet live tiny mirror versions of them in mouse form; hence beneath the home of the Moskawitz family live the Mousekawitzes, numbering five, Papa (Nehemiah Persoff), Mama (Erica Yohn), daughter Tanya (Amy Green), son Fievel (Phillip Glasser), and an infant, Yasha. It is the first night of Hannukah, and the Mousekawitzes are celebrating, as is traditional, with gifts and general warm feelings. But the holiday is shattered when a band of Cossacks storm into the village, bent on slaughter and accompanied by their cats, which chase the Jewish mice as the human Russians burn the shtetl to the ground, and the Mousekawitzes escape—barely—with their lives, the clothes on their backs, and not much else. This is an astoundingly bold way to open up a kid's movie—the implication is very much that the human Jews were not as lucky (at least one man even takes a bullet onscreen), and I assume An American Tail prompted many questions from children to their stunned parents about what just happened. (Meanwhile, I'm not one to take either Siskel or Ebert too seriously in the first place, but they really undermined their authority a bit when they decided to spend their TV review asserting that An American Tail "chicken[s] out on its ethnic heritage," considering that it opens on the first night of Hannukah and then a Goddamn pogrom.)
And, like first scenes should, it explains exactly what this movie is going to be about: it is going to be about a deranged mix of 1)incredibly dark scenes of suffering, pitched at a level of Expressionist horror and freighted with bloody history and 2)trivializing cartoon comedy, bookended by faintly disgusting sentimentality, and also by the extreme over-enunciation of movement and expression that was becoming customary for Bluth-led character animation. And so this first scene pitches back and forth queasily between almost unbearable images of danger in the form of black silhouettes on horseback and a gang of genuinely demonic cats, on the one hand, and some of the most rinky-dink cartoon gags imaginable on the other, such as Fievel tricking two cats into colliding head-first whilst train whistle sound effects indicate that the destruction of a Jewish village is actually pretty zany. It's never so dysfunctional about it again, but the entire movie is like this, shifting unsteadily between these two modes, one of which is jarringly inappropriate, while the design mentality almost invariably remains stuck on "depressively gloomy, if not outright apocalyptic," even when a "joke" is happening in the foreground. As the film proceeds, the lightweight silliness becomes more and more the default, though never so much as to avoid other terrifying imagery—for example, the less historically-weighted but by no means less pure nightmare fuel of "the Great Mouse of Minsk," the shambling rotoscoped perversity that the mice build to solve their cat problem.
Of course, they weren't supposed to have a cat problem anymore, according to Papa, because in the aftermath of the Cossack raid, the Mousekawitzes, like so many others, pile aboard a ship bound for America. And there are no cats in America. There's a whole big song about it, and all the plentiful European ethnic stereotypes who sang it said so. Unfortunately, a monumental storm strikes the ship, and Fievel, due to Fievel's childish foolishness, goes overboard. His family can only conclude he is dead—only young Tanya holds out any hope, and it's more shocked disbelief than real faith—but Fievel did survive, and reaches New York soon afterwards in a lucky bottle that washes up on Liberty Island. Fievel enters the New World alone, then, and encounters villains out to exploit him, like Warren T. Rat (John Finnegan), as well as friends who'll help him, like his fellow briefly-trafficked child Tony Toponi (Pat Musick) and anti-cat activist Bridget (Cathianne Blore); because, as you know, there are cats in America, and most of them want to eat Fievel and his friends. Eventually, Fievel's quest to reunite with his parents is subsumed into a campaign to organize the mice under Honest John (Neil Ross) and Gussie Mausheimer (Madeleine Kahn, rather tiresome in her shtick). Together, they contrive a wacky scheme that will end feline supremacy in America. Fievel also meets Tiger (Dom DeLuise), an ally cat*, but Tiger mostly just adds eight minutes of runtime and another song to the proceedings, though his character's not entirely useless otherwise—he also helps muddle the metaphor, which had stopped being entirely on-point as soon as Fievel met non-Jewish mice on the boat ride over.
Now, I do want to be clear that I do not think for a second that An American Tail rests on a bad idea. In fact, it rests on an idea so good that Art Spiegelman thought of it first, and the comix creator considered suing Amblin and Bluth until (I speculate) somebody told him you can't actually own the idea of "social groups represented by animals," and also that for all the pomo cleverness, Spiegelman didn't come up with the basic idea, either, anti-Semites did. I mean, I assume it goes entirely without saying that Spiegelman's Maus, a book for adults, represents a much more focused, rigorous reappropriation of "Jewish vermin" imagery by a Jewish creator dealing with the history of anti-Semitism. But it is entirely plausible that David Kirschner (who gets a curious "created by" credit along with his "story by," as well as an "executive producer" nod alongside the film's much more important executive producer) had something like the same notion, while extending the "mouse" metaphor to all oppressed peoples. It's equally plausible that Bluth and colleagues John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman didn't care about any of this, and did a cartoon about mice simply because they had always made cartoons about mice, and Spielberg was paying them to make this one; and, indeed, the "scale-model society underfoot of human civilization" part only came about because Bluth convinced Spielberg that An American Tail should be like The Rescuers, the last Disney animated feature with Bluth's name on it. It therefore becomes pretty unavoidable to compare it to The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's own 1986 film about mice mirroring human beings in the late 19th century, which deploys the conceit exclusively because they thought it'd be cute to do a mouse Sherlock Holmes, and which is one of the most aggressively theme-free movies I could name. The thing is, Bluth's approach is not even that different, despite the vastly different actual stories, not to mention the vastly different goals of his collaborators, and this is probably An American Tail's fundamental problem. Not that the numbers support it being a problem: though both made money, An American Tail beat The Great Mouse Detective's box office take handily.
To its credit, that approach does come with a defter hand than in The Great Mouse Detective, in large part because An American Tail is still an overtly metaphorical story, so it never drives you half-crazy with the insane details of its world-building; it is not a construct meant to be taken literally. And there is serious ambition in this story that I don't know if any other mainstream cartoon of its era even attempts to match, charting a fascinatingly ambivalent course through American history that swings without warning from the gooiest, most Disneyesque "nation of immigrants" bromides you can imagine (consider Fievel's arrival on American shores, set to a heavenly choir singing the Statue of Liberty poem) to a sharp sense of resentment over the lies that America enticed our ancestors over with in the first place. An American Tail's 19th century New York is a nasty place—it's overrun with mice, just for starters—and Bluth's background painters do everything to soak it with a polluted, carcinogenic atmosphere that does occasionally provide for the kind of gold-tinted idyll that was favored by its executive producer before Janusz Kaminski introduced him to the color gray, but typically it's crushing and oppressive, an impression helped along by the sheer tininess of heroes who live in shadows and trash.
So it's got a happy ending and everything, but it's angrier than you'd likely expect, presenting the New World as an improvement over the Old only to the extent that, in America, overcoming genocidal bigotry might at least be possible. It's interesting to think about it as the first part of a trilogy from Spielberg, working through his own Jewish experience. (One factoid about the production sums up to me how Bluth approached the project: the director did not want to name his lead character "Fievel," because it "sounded foreign," and if that comes off like the stupidest fucking objection in this context, it's worse than that—"Fievel" had been chosen in the first place because it was Spielberg's grandfather's name. It's the kind of thing that makes me wonder if Spielberg had second thoughts about this partnership working out, which, indeed, it ultimately didn't.) Anyway, I wouldn't push it because I don't believe myself competent to really get to the bottom of it, but despite its abject frivolousness, it clearly is part of Spielberg's attempts to tell the Jewish story, beginning with the assimilated Jew in America (albeit at the very beginning of his assimilation), that Spielberg himself was, before moving on to explore the aspects of Jewish history that were not much less distant from his experience than to an American goy: the Holocaust in Schindler's List (the canonical Holocaust story with the gentile lead) and Israel-Palestine in Munich (which ends in... New York, though in this 2004 film Spielberg visually notes that maybe America is a place of but tentative safety for Jews after all).
The downside, like in so many stories that do the Immigrant Experience, is that An American Tail is an episodic collection of hardships, routinely irritating thanks to the accent work in the secondary cast and only coherent when Fievel remembers to be sad. The music helps, at least: I like the one thing that composer James Horner always does well enough that his self-plagiarism has never really bothered me, and Spielberg's insistence that the movie be a musical was a good thing, giving us two pretty great songs, "There Are No Cats In America" and the sappy but sincere "Somewhere Out There." (And it is, in its way, so prototypical for the animated musical form that would become ascendant at Disney that I wonder if the official histories of Jeff Katzenberg and Howard Ashman are being dishonest when they don't mention An American Tail.) The lumpiness is probably unavoidable given the aims of the film, so that's forgivable. What wasn't unavoidable was Fievel himself, and, unfortunately, I despise Fievel.
Somewhat, this is because he's written as a selfish bastard who throughout remains oblivious to what horror he's put his family through—to begin with, his loss at sea is 100% his fault, and "being a kid" is only a partial excuse—but mostly it's because I am physically repulsed by his character design, which is so "adorable" it swings back around to grotesque, Fievel's "cuteness" pushed to the point that his tongue lolls from his head and he sheepishly grins at being almost exterminated by anti-Semitic cats. I am also not a fan of Glasser's lispy vocal performance that emphasizes Fievel's unholy pweciousness far more than one should be reasonably expected to accept. It's mostly the animation, though, and An American Tail is front-to-back annoyingly-designed and annoyingly-animated, with vaudeville levels of over-gesticulation and attempted humor for practically every single character in practically every single frame. Consider Papa: possibly inspired by Fiddler on the Roof's larger-than-life performance from Topol, Topol was at least constrained by the limitations of a skeleton. I don't know that he was so inspired, however; constant distracting arm motion and overborne facial expressions were just kind of Bluth's "thing," and they're much worse here than in NIMH.
Nevertheless, An American Tail—like NIMH—makes up a whole lot of ground in every other aspect of animation, and in this regard the comparison to The Great Mouse Detective is pretty humiliating for the Disney film. (Well, mostly: Detective certainly hits one higher high, but then, Detective also climaxes on what is arguably the most technically innovative sequence in any American cartoon of the 1980s.) This was what Spielberg had wanted when he came knocking at Sullivan Bluth's door, and, arming Bluth's animators with $9 million, he got it. It shows off what the nimbler, scrappier studio was capable of doing when Bluth was at the height of his powers, turning fewer resources into vastly richer animated worlds than Disney was capable of doing even with more money (cheaper workers and exploiting global labor arbitrage helps, too!: Sullivan Bluth employees were not paid well and An American Tail, with what I find to be objectively-hilarious irony, is what started the relocation of Bluth's production hub to Ireland).
Anyway, it can look amazing, with those aforementioned moody background paintings of old New York supplemented by splendid effects animation. It is very Bluthy effects animation—glowing crap, diffusion effects, and lighting shifts supplemented by way of darker, grimmer palette changes—but it's awfully lovely to gawk at, never moreso than in that absolute bravura centerpiece sequence of Fievel going overboard, punctuated by flashes of lightning that turn the characters into eight-frame white cut-outs on black, while the sea itself becomes an evil, anthropomorphized god made of spectacular water animation, who has apparently decided to punish these poor immigrants just for existing. Spielberg reportedly toned it down, which makes it necessary to ask, "This is what it looks like toned down?", and it's notable that this is the one single scene in the whole damn movie that, despite bearing a bleak sense of whimsy, doesn't try to sneak any comedy into the action, perhaps because the corresponding scene in Pinocchio also does not try to be funny, but Disney never gave Bluth a model for how to properly visualize a pogrom.
Overall, it's so pretty that you may even overlook how slapdash its production can be, including one of the worst continuity errors I've ever seen in any major cartoon—evidently the result of somebody being handed a random frame in the middle of a sequence, and told "animate!"—where Tony throws a piece of cheese in the air, it travels out of frame, and subsequently, I guess, it flies into the fucking sun, since it never comes back down. I'm also shocked by the beginning of the "Somewhere Out There" song sequence, which is otherwise very nice, and which shows a very Ambliny moon rising over New York (coinciding with an even more Ambliny shooting star), despite the moon being very visible and above the horizon, roughly ten seconds of screentime previously.
An American Tail still has a lot going for it, and I don't begrudge anybody their affection for it—it's one of my girlfriend's favorites from childhood, and like, I get it. (Well, I may not entirely get it: I recall preferring Fievel Goes West, and not necessarily loving that movie either, even when I too was a child.) Regardless, it does have strengths that make it perfectly understandable why it was such a studio-reviving hit for Bluth. Even so, no matter how many times I watch it, and I have no doubt I will watch it again, I despair that I'll ever find it anything more than the most interesting of Don Bluth's failures.
*Doubtless the single worst pun I have come up with in seven years and 800 posts.