This movie has always existed. Or at least, it’s always existed in my world. As my ability to remember the past coalesced, this title was among the ones that was already in our collection, which I was watching regularly. Maybe not as regularly as others, but I can’t clearly remember how much I watched one or the other. Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to watch anything more than once in a day, which I came to realize later in life was probably mostly for the preservation of my parents’ sanity, and in a distant second, the cassette tapes my brother and I were wearing out.
I’m not sure if I have actually watched An American Tail since we gave up on our Betamax player long, long after that format war had been lost. Maybe I felt I’d rewatched it so many times I didn’t need to see it anymore. It didn’t hold all that much special significance for me to seek it out. Don Bluth movies are a little weird anyway, and of those that I was regularly exposed to in my youth, this doesn’t have the “wait, I don’t think I got the complexities of the plot” that The Secret of NIMH had, the polished, hit-me-in-just-the-right-moment chemistry of Anastasia, or the dinosaurs of The Land Before Time. And so I come back to it only now in a spirit of “wait, I don’t think I grasped the complexities of the emotions and satire”. By the time I really comprehended that it was about the immigration experience, I was too busy for it.
In Russia in the late 1800s, the Mousekewitz family lives in fear of cats, but otherwise content, though Papa will tell anyone who will or won’t listen of a land called America where there are no cats, a place of such abundance the streets are paved with cheese and a mouse can live at peace. When the human village their mousehole is in is burned in a pogrom and Cossack cats terrorize the fleeing mice, the Mousekewitz family boards a boat to New York. Shortly before arrival, the middle child Fievel is swept out to sea in a storm and given up for lost by his family. Luckily, Fievel ends up in a bottle and floats to shore on his own, where he is found by a French pigeon who assures him it’s possible to find his family and directs him to the harbor they would have come in through. However, before he can reach the immigration office, he is instead found by Warren T. Rat, who promises to take Fievel to his family but instead sells him to a sweatshop. With the help of an Italian teen named Tony, Fievel escapes the sweatshop and sets off looking for his family in a city that is not as free of cats as the tales they old in the Old Country.
Dom DeLouise’s friendly cat character is a much smaller part than I remembered, which is honestly just as well, though I think they corrected the oversight of having their biggest star in such a small role for the sequel. Christopher Plummer was completely unrecognizable with a French accent. I’m sorry to say that when I try to decide how I feel about Fievel’s performance, what mainly comes to mind is Caillou, the public television bane of parents everywhere. What is absolutely perfect, however, is Papa Mousekewitz, who sounds exactly like a beloved Jewish Russian father should (though that’s probably partly from stereotypes). There’s so much warmth there.
When I was very young, I didn’t really understand accents. That is, in the sense that I didn’t understand that they connoted something about the person speaking. This meant I lost a lot of information as a kid watching this movie, especially the other people telling their cat attack stories on the boat, who were not Italian and Irish stereotypes to me, just cartoon people with silly cartoon voices. So I guess I never picked up how just about every person Fievel interacts with in America is an immigrant, including Honest John the politician and Gussie Mausheimer the wealthiest mouse in town. The people helping Fievel, from the bottom to the top, are from elsewhere, even the ones who have cemented their place in American society. And by the end, so has Fievel.
I came into it this time expecting a relatable story of immigration, but I kind of feel like while Fievel’s circumstances get him into a variety of places that allow us to see a spectrum of life in a city full of immigrants, his own story is so out of the ordinary that I didn’t get that sense. Also, the story was a hundred years in the past when the movie came out, so culture has significantly changed. I guess the point of the story is that anything can happen in America, and when I think about why that’s more likely than in Europe, I have to come to the conclusion that social hierarchies were in flux because it was still a new society. That’s less true now than a hundred years ago. What hasn’t changed is the stark contrast between the reputation and reality of the New World, and the harsh conditions desperate people brave for their fresh start.