My Misspent Youth In Films...
An American Tail
Directed by: Don Bluth
Starring: Dom DeLuise, Christopher Plummer, Erica Yohn
Released: November 21, 1986
What I Thought Then
The details of this movie didn't stick with me, although I know I watched it a lot. I loved some of the music, things like Never Say Never and There Are No Cats In America. I also remember it being incredibly sad.
What I Think Now
The reason it didn't stick with me is that this film is a mess. At the heart of it, there's a really moving narrative about Russian Jews fleeing oppression from Cossacks and finding America less welcoming than they'd been led to understand. But very little of that actually bleeds out of the background into the main narrative. I spent most of my life not realizing that Fievel and his family were Jewish. And that's not something that the movie ever tries to hide, but it never completely embraces it either. The Mousekowitzes aren't oppressed for their religion. They're oppressed... by cats. But the cats are after all of the mice--Irish mice, Italian mice, even New York mice. It feels like it's trying to be a metaphor, but for what?
Additionally, this film has major structural problems. The story falls apart basically at the start of Act II, when Fievel arrives in New York. He gets forced to work in a sweatshop, but then escapes immediately. He makes a friend named Tony who's going to help him find his family, but then Tony falls in love with another mouse named Bridget and keeps getting distracted. Then Fievel gets sucked into New York politics, which basically amounts to mice complaining about all the cats. Which, again, seems like it's supposed to be some kind of a metaphor, but it's never clear what it means. This anti-cat movement is spearheaded by Madeline Kahn (Oh, hey, Madeline Kahn is in this!), bringing along her speech impediment from Blazing Saddles. They want a plan and Fievel supplies one: to create a giant mechanical mouse that will scare all of the cats onto a boat to Hong Kong. For some reason, they go along with it. And for some reason it works. And then the film keeps dragging on for a bit, spinning its wheels padding out the time, needlessly delaying the reunion of Fievel and his family.
In the middle of all this, after he comes up with the plan but before it's enacted, Fievel gets lost in the sewer and captured by a malicious gang of cats, but immediately he's set free when he befriends a vegetarian cat named Tiger. Tiger is voiced by Dom DeLuise, who somehow got top billing for an annoying sidekick who shows up three-quarters of the way through the movie. The cats are led by a small cat who dresses up as a rat to run a protection racket, but none of this actually amounts to anything. And throughout the film, Fievel and his family keep missing each other by inches! Literal inches, if you consider the scale. It really undercuts the idea that he might never find them again, because you know that eventually they're going to bump into each other on the street just by happenstance.
There are also some bizarre continuity issues. In the opening scene, Feivel is given his father's hat as a present (implicitly a Hannukah present, but again, this movie never actually states that its heroes are Jewish). The hat is clearly a totem meant to remind him of his family, but he keeps losing it and then it will re-materialize in another shot. Whoever was supposed to track the location of the hat failed! Similarly, the Mousekowitzes have a baby... for most of the movie. About two thirds of the way through, it just stops showing up. When Fievel washes up on Ellis Island, he comes to rest on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. HE WASHES UP ON THE TORCH OF THE STATUE OF LIBERTY. Granted, the torch has not been attached yet, so it's lying on the foundation below the pedestal, but it's still got to be a good 70 feet above sea level!
Okay, that's a lot of negativity, so let's talk about the stuff that works. The animation is pretty decent, although the odd bit of rotoscoping stands out. The character designs are mixed. Tiger and Warren T Rat look pretty goofy, but the hero mice are well-presented. Fievel is, himself, a compelling presence, which is good since he's carrying the movie. The music is excellent, from James Horner's score to the songs that are sung in-film, especially Somewhere Out There, which would go on to make an appearance at every single children's recital for the next ten years. And when Fievel and his father are finally reunited, that hit me right in the feels. So at the end of the day I didn't hate it, even though it completely fails on a basic storytelling level. The emotional beats are generally effective, though few and far between.
Uh, no. It's a mess.