On a recent lazy Sunday, my friend and I (both adults), found ourselves sobbing on the couch while watching An American Tail—an animated movie, from the 80s, about a mouse. I had been excited to revisit a childhood favorite; the film was on heavy rotation at my elementary after-school program, along with The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and other Don Bluth movies. My friend, a self-identified “hater of long mouse cartoons” was less enthusiastic. Neither of us expected to become emotional, but in 2019, this film about an immigrant child separated from his family hits hard.
Released 33 years ago on November 21, 1986, An American Tail is a story about anti-Semitism, immigration, and the American Dream—with a bangin’ soundtrack by James Horner. The film begins in 1885 Shostka, Russia, where the Moskowitzes and their mouse counterparts, the Mousekewitzes, are celebrating Hanukkah. Holiday festivities are cut short when the Jews in the village are attacked and their homes, destroyed. In order to escape further anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe, the family travels to the United States—“There are no cats in America.” Along the journey, Fievel Mousekewitz is separated from his parents and spends the rest of the movie searching for them in New York, which isn’t the catless utopia with cheese-paved streets the mice had hoped for.
Over the phone, I ask Don Bluth, director, producer, and animator of the film, about the decision to portray the main characters as mice; although there is a long history of anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda depicting Jews and immigrants as rodents, more recently, cartoonists have reclaimed the mouse as a symbol of resistance. Bluth tells me the connection is coincidental; it was Steven Spielberg who first approached him with an idea for a story about a mouse inspired by his family’s history. (Bluth laughs, “I said, ‘Oh no! Every movie [I make] is about mice!’” He had previously worked on The Secret of NIMH and The Rescuers.) It was also Spielberg’s idea to give the main character the Yiddish name “Fievel,” after his grandfather, a Jewish-Russian immigrant to America. In an email, Phillip Glasser, who describes his experience voicing Fievel as a child “beyond a joy,” says that he also personally relates to the Mousekewitzes’ story. “Both of my grandfathers immigrated from Russia after World War I,” he writes.
In part because of the movie’s historical context, critics in 1986 worried that the cartoon was too melancholy for young audiences; Roger Ebert called An American Tail “gloomy” and “depressing.” But, Bluth contends that creating an overly romanticized version of the world is a disservice to viewers. “Now shall we manicure this and make it look like everything’s wonderful in America… and people are all good to each other? That’s certainly not real,” he says. Bluth paraphrases a quote he remembers by actress Lillian Gish: “A movie is not an innocent thing… All you directors out there, you’re changing the way people think. Be very careful that you tell the truth.”
An American Tail mostly follows this advice, but the animated feature is at times an aspirational depiction of the American immigrant experience. The film’s New York is very much the melting pot we were taught about in grade-school history class. There, we meet animal residents voiced by Hollywood stars: Henri (Christopher Plummer), a French pigeon roosting in the half-constructed Statue of Liberty; German Gussie Mausheimer (Madeline Kahn), “the most powerful mouse in New York”; and Tiger (Dom DeLuise), a tenderhearted member of the cat-gang Mott Street Maulers, among others.
However, the film is honest in its portrayal of the violence that can spur people to immigrate, the difficult journeys they face, and the hardships that await in their new homes. Bluth comments, “We put a lot of struggle in there, which was [how] New York” was. Indeed, the movie’s Big Apple is both figuratively and literally dark: The film’s dim color pallette mimics the real-life dinginess of late 19th-century American cities; cartoon tenement buildings line cobblestone streets; and debris litters narrow alleyways. (For reference, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published just 20 years after this movie is set.)
An American Tail certainly doesn’t shy away from representing the harsh, exploitative conditions experienced by American immigrants in the 1800s. Soon after Fievel arrives in the city, lost and alone, he’s sold to a sweatshop by villainous, cigar-smoking Warren T. Rat (John Finnegan). In this scene, viewers can see the feet of human garment workers toiling at sewing machines, a la the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The movie also depicts political corruption and alludes to class struggle. At an Irish wake, Honest John (Neil Ross), a crooked mouse politician perhaps based on John Kelly, can be seen adding the name of a dead mouse to his list of “ghost votes.” And when wealthy, “uptown” mouse Gussie Mausheimer arrives at the event, Fievel’s friend Tony (Pat Musick) jokes, “What’s she doin’ slummin’ in this part of town?”
The film not only acts as a gritty look at the United States of the past, but also illuminates painful truths about our present. Glasser, who has watched the movie with his three sons, says the film “is as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1986.” It’s difficult to watch An American Tail now and not think of the current refugee crisis, rising anti-Semitism, and the thousands of children who have been separated from their families at the US-Mexico border. When Tanya Mousekewitz (Amy Green) asks her father why the official at Mouse Garden (the animal version of Castle Garden) changed her name to Tilly, or when Tony tells Fievel his “name’s gotta go,” there's a clear parallel to still-common microaggressions today. Modern America’s treatment of immigrants is reflected in An American Tail: from the pressure to assimilate, to the whitewashing, to the outright violence—often committed by our own government.
It becomes painfully obvious while watching this film that the US has not lived up to the promise of the American Dream—there are cats in America, which Bluth calls “just symbols” for injustice, discrimination, corruption, violence. But the film presents many of these realities as changeable, showcases acts of resistance, and introduces us to brave heroes. Mouse rights champion Bridget (Cathianne Blore) and her fellow protestors are analogous to the real-life unionists and socialists of 19th- and 20th-century New York. The same young immigrant women who worked in sweatshops like the one depicted in An American Tail helped jumpstart the US labor movement. As in real 1880s New York, the world of the film is a harsh one, rife with exploitation and corruption—in other words, a hotbed for activism.
During a mouse rights rally led by Gussie Mausheimer, a member of the crowd yells out, “[The cats] are bigger than we are!” She responds, “Not if we work together.” At the end of the movie, this conviction bears fruit: Fievel is found when his entire community converges to search for him; the cats are defeated when the mice band together to drive them away. The underlying ethos of this animated movie about a small rodent seems to be an unexpectedly radical one: Organize. Today, many Jewish activists are doing just that—honoring the memories of our immigrant ancestors to defend immigrants now.
The movie not only shows us the imperfect America that was and is, but also asks us to envision the America that could be and make it real. An American Tail is dark, yes, but it’s also compassionate; the film is a celebration of difference, a call to action, and, as both Glasser and Bluth note, a testament to the power of hope. Bluth quotes a song from the film when talking about the movie’s message, “‘Never say never.’ That’s what America’s about. This is a land of dreams.”
In the last scene of An American Tail, Henri flies Fievel and Tanya—his "little Americans"—next to the newly completed Statue of Liberty, who winks at them. During our conversation, Bluth remembers something Walt Disney used to say when measuring the success of an animated movie: “We can make people laugh… but can we make people cry with just drawings?”