Remember when G-rated kids films actually taught kids about the complexity of immigrant life in late 1800s New York City? Yeah sounds crazy to me too, but then there’s this Don Bluth gem, An American Tail, which does just that. It shows the heartwarming journey of Fievel Mousekewitz as he flees from Russia with his family after his home is destroyed. On his voyage to America he is separated from his family and he must navigate the streets of 19th century New York in order to find them.
This film is surprisingly dark for a children’s film, but also profoundly deep and charming at the same time. We see this world through Fievel’s eyes, which makes normally scary things so much more frightening because it is seen through the lens of a lost child. Don Bluth never shied away from hard subjects, whether it is the Russian Revolution in Anastasia or the death and sometimes scary imagery present in the first Land Before Time film. I mean the first musical number in this movie is about how fascism and oppression affected the many different European communities of the time period and how they are all searching for a new and brighter start pursuing the American Dream across the sea. Proclaiming that in America there are no cats, and all of the different countries agree that America is where they can finally be free of their various oppressive groups. This is all in one song in a 1986 children’s film. It also tackles the confusing moment a family reaches Ellis Island and has to change their name to sound more American, how a family tries to assimilate while dealing with the loss of a child, and how even in America there are groups looking to take advantage of them.
I think this is one of those movies that offers up an interesting and well debated question. Are some things too complicated for kids? Should we shy away from presenting sometimes difficult questions to children, even if it helps explain some confusing things like immigration and oppression? This film has dark moments and presents interesting questions about the trials of immigrants that arrived on our golden shores in the late 19th century. Sure some of the cat imagery is actually pretty scary for a kid, but it’s still a sweet movie. It often runs parallel stories between what the people of the time were experiencing and then making it more accessible to the younger audiences through the parallel narrative of the mice. It’s kind of a nice idea. As the mice fight back to reclaim their own homes, they must unite rich and poor as a community to fight back against those that persecute them.
I haven’t re-watched his movie in a very long time, but I never realized how detailed it is. The artistic caliber of the animation is fantastic for 1986. The backdrop of New York City in beautiful watercolor really is quite cinematic, and the absolutely breathtaking scene where they fly around the Statue of Liberty is cinematically beautiful. This film is pretty notorious for the adorable rendition of “Somewhere Out There” that will bring a tear to you eye, even if it truly defines the word shrill. I mean if that doesn’t do it, the movie is essentially about a family trying to mourn the perceived loss of a child as that child keeps narrowly missing them on his search for them. Which will both frustrate and sadden you as poor little Fievel has to endure so many trials on his quest to reunite with his family.
I would argue that this film should be regarded as an animated classic. More animated films that aren’t Dreamworks, Pixar, or Disney films need to be shown so much more love, including the great works of Don Bluth. Anastasia, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and An American Tail are great works of film and don’t shy away from potentially scary imagery. I don’t think that giving kids horror-fueled nightmares is a good idea. But showing that even little Fievel can face scary and threatening situations and overcome them can teach kids about resilience, quick-thinking, and being brave in pursuit of what is right.
Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10
P.S. I really miss the to vocal talent of Dom Deluise. He was A Don Bluth staple and such a charismatic voice in this movie. Tiger doesn’t get enough screen time in this flick because he really is such an charming presence. A goofy presence, but a genuinely fun one.