The days of simple cartoon animation are long gone with the advent of modern CGI, but Steven Spielberg’s 1986 An American Tail hearkens back to animation’s origins, reminiscent of Disney’s earliest films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinnochio, as it portrays a haunting, historical period through a film method normally used for children’s stories.
An American Tail deals with very critical, hard themes for a children’s cartoon. Although it is not clearly addressed, the Mousekewitz’s represent a Russian-Jewish family escaping the anti-semitic raids in Russia during the 1880s.
At the beginning of the film, the story parallels that of a Russian-Jewish human family and that of the Russian-Jewish Mousekewitz family. The movie opens with Cossacks raiding the town, burning down the homes of the people there. Concurrently, cats, symbolic of Cossacks, attack the Mousekewitz family and the rest of the mice, forcing them out of their home.
Despite the harsh beginning, An American Tail, similar to many children’s films of the time, tries to make light of the heavy topics through song. At the beginning of the film, Papa Mousekewitz (Nehemiah Persoff) understands that it’s a bad time for families in Russia, and he consequently needs to get his family out. His idealism leads him to dream of America as the ultimate safe-place for his family — “There are no cats in America,” as he longingly sings.
Strangely enough, there are cats in America. The streets aren’t “paved with cheese,” either. And as if those mere facts weren’t enough to dishearten the Mousekewitz family, little Fievel (Phillip Glasser) also gets lost during the boat trip on their immigration to America, and, throughout the majority of the film, he is trying to find his family in the new land. All but Fievel’s sister Tanya (Amy Green) think he’s dead and lose hope of finding him. Young Fievel doesn’t give up hope, though, as he survives many a tribulation — even war (of course there’s a war between the mice and cats at the end of the film) before he eventually reconnects with his family.
For a children’s film, it is very harsh and depressing. Nevertheless, it does introduce children to a historical period, although since it never directly says the cat raids are symbolic of anti-semitic attacks by Cossacks in Russia, it will likely go over young kids’ heads. It does introduce a critical concept of America’s foundation — a hotly-debated topic currently, as well — immigration. What won’t go over kids’ heads, however, is the overall depressing nature throughout the entirety of the story. Cartoons are typically more lighthearted in nature, yet An American Tail dramatically strays from this stereotype.
Overall, An American Tail is an above-average children’s film. At the time, it was the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film of all time, bringing in $84 million at the box office, and subsequently led to multiple sequels, most notably, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. However, for a children’s film, the story is a little too heavy. The themes are, of course, important, but simply seem out of place with animation and children’s films.
Last week, we looked at 2016’s Pete’s Dragon. Pete’s Dragon also explores a young lad searching for a family, yet it does so with grace and still has happy and exciting aspects to it, unlike most of An American Tail. Modern technology has drastically changed the face of the animated movie, and CGI has taken the place of animatronic creatures. Pete’s Dragon has a timeless quality to it, while An American Tail focuses on a historical period, making its setting easily placeable.
In this case, the modern film takes the cake, but An American Tail is still an enjoyable watch if you’re longing for the simpler days of animation.
Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation