An American Tail

Want to feel old? An American Tail is 30 years old this year. Hits you right in the nuts, doesn’t it?american_tail

I found it in Walmart’s $5 bin and couldn’t resist, having fond if hazy childhood memories of it. Rewatching it recently, I was astonished that Sean and I could still sing along to many of the songs (“There Are No Cats in American” being a favourite) and I couldn’t help but wonder if this sweet story would get green-lit today.americantail

An American Tail is the story of a Jewish-Russian family of mice (brilliantly, the Mousekewitzes) who get chased away from their home by terrible cats who sack and destroy at will. They board a ship to America (where allegedly there are no cats) but during their crossing young Fievel gets separated from his family. Landing in America one family member short, the Mousekewitzes are in mourning. Fievel, for all intents and purposes an orphan, gets thrown into all sorts of immigrant horrors (forced labour, for one), and the whole family is dismayed to discover that yes, there are in fact cats in America. Have they simply traded one set of tyrants for another?

1024_tail_ls_12412_copyI’m fascinated by this immigrant story, an allegory in the vein of Animal Farm, but geared toward children. It was personal for producer Steven Spielberg; some scenes were taken directly from stories of his own grandfather, not coincidentally named Fievel.

Featuring voice actors such as Madeline Kahn, Christopher Plummer, and an unforgettable turn by Dom DeLuise as a fat cat with a soft squishy heart, the characters leapt off the screen and into our hearts. Darker than the typical Disney movie of its day, it still had lots of singable songs, notably ‘Somewhere Out There’ adorably screeched by out-of-tune mice in the movie, but made fitdomdeluise for radio by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram at the behest of Spielberg, who knows a good pop tune when he hears one. It went on to win Song of the Year at the Grammy as was nominated for an Oscar (but lost to Take My Breath Away, from Top Gun). We remembered this song in particular when James Horner passed away last summer – he was of course the film’s excellent composer.

An American Tail went on to be a box office hit – the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time, in fact, despite the fact that Siskel & Ebert untitledgave it two thumbs down, calling it “gloomy”, “downbeat”, and “way too depressing for young audiences.” The numbers proved them wrong, and never had children so gleefully sang about Cossacks and oppression before. The film’s success inspired Steven Spielberg to pursue this cartoon making, eventually developing DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind Shrek, Madagascar, and How To Train Your Dragon. An American Tail has held up pretty well over time, in part because of its deliberate old-fashioned animation style, hearkening the glory days of 1940s Disney, a huge nostalgia factor for baby boomers. Finally this statueoflibertywas a film they could not only share with their children, but enjoy it as well.

Fievel’s brave adventure and soft, floppy ears has stayed in a small corner of my heart all these years later. It’s a story about freedom and family that spoke to a little girl named Jay in a tutu and maker tattoos.

16 thoughts on “An American Tail

  1. fragglerocking

    I have vague memories of the film, but more of the song as Linda Ronstadt is one of my fave singers, such a beautiful voice, sad that she has Parkinson’s and can no longer sing.


  2. Christopher

    I missed this one when it came out and had been put off by Bluth’s earlier film The Secret of NIMH which I thought made the rats too magical and added unnecessary complications although I still think the animation is amazing. And Dom DeLuise gave a great turn in it too as a hilarious crow.
    And I never made the connection before but An American Tail sounds like it could be almost a sequel to Fiddler On The Roof. I mean that as a compliment, and it may in some ways even be better since Fiddler gets a little heavy-handed at times.
    A friend of mine had a great Fiddler On The Roof joke. When asked, “What’s it about?” he’d say, “It’s about religious and ethnic persecution, economic hardship, the decline of the nuclear family, the struggle to maintain traditional ways of life, and the Jewish diaspora in the early 20th century. It’s a comedy!”
    It sounds like a similar joke could be made about An American Tail, with the added benefit that it’s animated.


  3. Carrie Rubin

    Ah, an oldy but a goodie. I’ve always loved the song ‘Somewhere Out There’. Another blast-from-the-past animated movie I loved was “The Rescuers.” Saw that more times than I care to admit, especially since I wasn’t that young when it came out.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ninvoid99

    I saw this film as a kid in the theaters as it’s a film myself and my siblings grew up on. It was just on TV as my mom loved that film and I ended up recording it. I don’t know how I’ll feel if I see it again.


    1. Jay Post author

      We were weirdly loyal to certain movies as kids. This, The Land Before Time, Labyrinth, and Pippi Longstocking were on constant repeat. I can probably still recite much of the dialogue, so help me baby jebus.



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