Lost in the Movies: An American Tail

An American Tail

My interest in An American Tail, the 1986 animated immigrant's tale which I probably hadn't seen since childhood, was reawakened by Molly Haskell's recent biography of Steven Spielberg. She spends several pages analyzing this film and its sequel (obviously objects of deep fascination for her, particularly given this study's place in a series called "Jewish Lives"), whereas some of the director's later movies are lucky to garner a paragraph. This despite the fact that Spielberg didn't even direct An American Tail; the project results at least as much Don Bluth's distinctive vision as anyone's. Still, Spielberg contributed to the writing and was a very active producer; Haskell rightly points out how personal the story is by drawing connections to other Spielberg films. The main character, a curious, guileless little mouse (Phillip Glassner) who wanders the dangerous streets of nineteenth century Manhattan after being separated from his Russian Jewish family during a transatlantic voyage, is even named after Spielberg's grandfather Fievel. When Bluth pushed for a more Americanized name, Spielberg held his ground. Seven years before Schindler's List (and arguably, more explicitly given the Holocaust film's ambiguous point of view) this may be the first time that Spielberg - so eager, by his own admission, to be the all-American filmmaker from the twentieth century suburbs - foregrounded his Jewish identity as an act of storytelling.

That said, critics in '86 were ambivalent about the film's willingness to locate its cats vs. mice parable as an explicit depiction of antisemitism, with Siskel & Ebert offering a particularly harsh condemnation of the narrative vagueness. True, no one in the film ever says the word "Jewish" and once the Mousekewitzs get to America - indeed, even on the ride over - it's clear that many gentiles are mice too. Italian and Irish mice get their own comically exaggerated verses in the song "No Cats in America" with the former's feline enemy depicted as a Mafioso. The Irishmouse's tormentor is only described as a calico but if we want to extend the metaphor, we can picture a British soldier to stand alongside the Sicilian don and Russian cossack. The allegory is further muddled when it loses the class character suggested by this musical number; eventually Gussie Mausheimer (Madeline Kahn) protests that prowling cats don't even distinguish between rich and poor mice (perhaps the mice are supposed to just be all recent immigrants...but what happens when they give birth?!). Of course, the film's primary audience is children who only need to get the idea in broad strokes. And whatever the religion or ethnicity of the other mice, the Mousekewitzs, with their Yiddish banter and explicit celebration of Hannukah, are quite clearly Jewish.

That in itself was a point of contention for Art Spiegelman, a classmate of Bluth's at the School of Visual Arts when he began creating comic strips of Maus (the celebrated work in which the Holocaust is depicted with mice as Jews and cats as Germans). He feared that the animator had stolen his animal analogy, and even split the graphic novel publication of Maus into two volumes, racing the first to the presses, specifically to beat An American Tail. In retrospect, the works don't feel very similar aside from that one crucial conceit and a generally dark, beleaguered outlook on the world (far darker in Maus' case, of course). In addition to objecting to alleged ethnic whitewashing, Ebert was depressed by the film's "tragic, gloomy story," comparing it to "'Return to Oz,' which opened with Dorothy strapped to a table receiving electroshock therapy: It has been written by people who want to prepare kids for the worst." I'm particularly amused by Ebert's glum observation that "This bleak view of a cold and heartless universe is enforced onboard the ship to America, where little Fievel amuses himself by staring at barrels full of pickled herring with much the same delight that a modern mouse child might tune in Pee-Wee Herman's Saturday morning show."

Sometimes, however, adults can forget that children are already prone to dark, worried visions of loss and peril that many adults (if they're among the lucky ones) have managed to convince themselves aren't really threats. If Ebert thought kids would balk at this sour vision, he appears to be wrong: An American Tail was a big hit, becoming the most successful non-Disney animated feature. The mousey irony must have made this victory particularly sweet, given Mickey's provenance as well as the recent release of The Great Mouse Detective (Disney's own reimagining of Victorian tropes in a mouse microcosm just under the noses of mostly offscreen human characters - in this case, Sherlock Holmes). An American Tail beat Mouse Detective's recent gross, launching an ongoing late eighties competition between Bluth and his former studio that would see him win the next round round with The Land Before Time vs. Oliver & Company before the phenomenon of The Little Mermaid swamped the plucky All Dogs Go to Heaven at decade's end.

Just barely three on November 21, 1986, I was a little too young to see An American Tail in theaters (The Land Before Time in '88 was my Bluth breakthrough, a seminal experience and probably the first new release I ever viewed in a cinema). I only caught up with Fievel's adventures on video, as well as in the (literally) much sunnier Fievel Goes West in '91. The latter means that I share with Great Depression moviegoers the experience of watching, or rather listening to, Jimmy Stewart in a new movie on the big screen (he voices the canine sheriff). I haven't seen the sequel in a long time either but I vaguely remember that its action-packed, comforting genre tropes appealed greatly to my classmates and I in a way that the grimmer, bleaker desperate city life of An American Tail did not. However, it also stuck with me less over the years. Revisiting An American Tail now, I am struck by how dark the film feels - not just in the spooky, pleasing ways but in its familiarity with systems of oppression, however dressed up in slapstick comedy, catchy songs, and happy endings. The film's narrative action and worldbuilding are a bit wobbly (the purpose and organization of animal society is drawn in conveniently broad brushstrokes, while in a metropolis even more massive for mice than men Fievel and his family keep coming within a whisker of one another), but the conceptual novelty and individual detail make up for whatever the film lacks in streamlined storytelling.

The two films provide an interesting study in contrasts, one Haskell is eager to dig into as she muses on the attraction of the familiar American West mythology to Jewish baby boomers. By contrast, the grungy, poverty-stricken milieu of An American Tail feels a bit more anachronistic. The departure from the mist-shrouded Old Country of Europe, the sepia-tinged arrival at the crowded Ellis Island, even the less-lingered-over months, years, or decades in crowded, disease-ridden tenements are all familiar passages in the American myth, but they've never quite managed to garner the same romantic gloss, nor obsessive attention, as westward expansion. Still, there was a longing in the air to reconnect with this distant but still reachable past around the time An American Tail was released. With the massive influx of European immigrants now a century-old phenomenon, the first generation dead but well-remembered by their postwar grandchildren (like Spielberg) entering middle age, the timing was right to attempt a universalizing look back. In a way this process may have begun in the sixties, but perhaps it took on a new tinge as the twentieth century approached its close (Barry Levinson's Avalon would provide another, less profitable attempt a few years later).

Haskell notes that 1986 "was a moment of immigrant influx," citing Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, but it was also the centennial of the Statue of Liberty (which I'm sure is no coincidence, given the half-built Lady Liberty's prominent place in Fievel's journey - the completed statue even winks at him in the end). And perhaps most tellingly of all, in contrast with these backward-looking gazes at what it means to emigrate to America, this was also the year that President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, providing a sweeping amnesty to undocumented immigrants, far more Latin American than European by this point. With no such measure on the horizon at the time this review is being written - indeed, with the opposite gestures in evidence everywhere - the troubled real world hinted at by this animated allegory may have improved in certain respects, but it looks even more dire in others. The immigrant's story is often pitched as one of liberation, but in its own family-oriented way, Fievel's saga reminds us that it's also a story of the continuity and even intensification of claustrophobic entrapment, all the worse for the realization that, no, the streets aren't paved with cheese and yes, there really are cats in America. Indeed, the next film opens with the family even more desperate in their new hovel than they were in their old one, yearning for the fresh air of the open plains. This time, they desperately hope, the dream will be delivered.

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