“I’m your guard, Tiger. Don’t make any sudden moves, cause I’m crafty and I’m quick. I’ve got the instincts of a cat. What am I saying? I am a cat.”
I adored this movie as a child. I had a Fievel stuffed animal, and I loved that thing. While all the other stuffed animals of mine were shafted to the top bunk of my bunk bed, I’m pretty sure Fievel had the seat of royalty in the bed next to me. That’s saying something. I had a LOT of stuffed animals. If at any time I had to find one of them, it was like army crawling through a cotton candy forest to find them up on my second bunk. It was almost impossible.
As a kid, this movie to me was about a little mouse who moved to America and got lost and tried to find his family. Essentially, in a nut shell, that is what this movie is about. But oh my goodness is it so much more. It’s an allegory. Don Bluth created this family movie based around the historical events that occurred in Russia (I’m not going to pretend I know exactly when that was or what exactly happened). There is so much truth and reality behind this movie that as an adult, I have to remind myself that these are mice. They’re just cats. Because I’m sure in his mind, they stood for so much more.
I’m going to back up a bit and explain a little about Don Bluth. In the 80s and early 90s, he was a household name. Now? Not so much. Earlier, in the 60s and 70s, Bluth was an animator for Disney. The last picture he was credited on working on with Disney was The Small One (I recently remembered this short and am very sad it doesn’t exist unedited on dvd). He did not think the direction that Disney was headed in was a good one, so he left to start his own animation company. Long story short, it wasn’t until he teamed with Steven Spielberg that he saw anything come to fruition. His first motion picture was The Secret of Nimh (which I can’t believe I don’t own…) followed by this one. There. Now you’re all caught up. At least through 1986.
One thing that I really admire about Don Bluth’s early pictures is how dark he was willing to go for a kids movie. Not violent dark, or even extremely scary dark (although plenty of stuff is scary for a small kid), but serious dark. He wasn’t afraid to shy away from tough subjects. I mean, there’s a point where Fievel is pretty much forced into child slavery! There’s a dead mouse on the table in another scene. It’s all there. The other thing that I feel Don Bluth was extremely good at was getting inside a child’s head. He somehow could take one thing that to an adult was mundane and look at it through the eyes of a child and see that it was the most scary thing in the universe. He was good at making entertainment for children. He was good at being serious with them and speaking to them in a way that they would somehow understand. Kids knew what fievel was feeling when he lost his family. Heck, adults did too!
I do have a few qualms about this movie, however. The first is that honestly? The characters are rather one dimensional, and they don’t really get developed. The one exception might be fievel, but that’s just because he’s the protagonist. There’s also a lot of characters that pop in for five minutes and then they’re out and we never see them again. I honestly forgot there was even a mother in this story until I saw her, because I always remembered the father and his violin. The only thing I ever remembered about Tanya (his sister) is that she was the other mouse singing “Somewhere out there” with Fievel. These side characters are somewhat memorable, but only for one stupid thing they do to help Fievel as opposed to something concrete about themselves. They’re typical historical/time period characters, or “wouldn’t that be funny” characters: The french pigeon who’s building the Statue of Liberty. The “Artful Dodger”-like mouse Tony that helps him. The drunken politician mouse who just knows everyone because he wants their votes. The vegetarian cat. The villain, who is a cat pretending to be a rat. While they are a bit interesting and they are, even just a bit, memorable, I feel like they’re a little cliché.
The songs are very hit or miss. Of course everyone knows “Somewhere Out There,” and that is a great song. I also enjoy the one the pigeon sings “never say never,” although it’s kinda short. Same with “we’re a duo.” Although again, I’m pretty sure that song is how I learned what the word “Duo” meant. See? Kids movies DO teach things!
I do have one more thing to say. There’s a scene after Fievel gets captured by Warren T. Rat and Tiger (the vegetarian cat) is watching him. They find out they have a lot in common and end up being friends. Well… during this “let’s get to know you,” phase, they talk about their favorite food and whatnot, which end up being the same. Then Tiger asks Fievel what his favorite book is, to which he answers The Brothers Karamozov. As a kid, I never caught it. This time, I caught it, laughed out loud, then rewinded it and watched it again to make sure I heard it correctly. This kid is supposed to be… I dunno, 4 or 5? How would he even know about this book? Did his father read it to him? Cause that would be scary. That would be like you asking a four year old now “what’s your favorite book?” and they answer something crazy like “1984,” or “Animal Farm.” Yeah. Did Don Bluth just think that that book sounded russian enough? I dunno. But it had me chuckling.
All in all, An American Tail is an American animated classic. I believe it does have some flaws, and I’m sure a lot of people will be thinking I’m being picky. This is just the way I see it. It’s a great movie for kids, and not a bad one for adults to watch as well, even if it might be a bit boring.
I give An American Tail (1986) 3.25 stars out of 5
Btw, it took me till I was about 13 to realize that “tail” was a play on “tale.” yeah…
Up next: The Land Before Time