For a film aimed at kids, An American Tail is surprisingly full of historical references, human prejudices and the pain and suffering of those less fortunate. Released in 1986 it was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Don Bluth, the well known animator who outside of the efforts of the Walt Disney company is probably the most successful name in traditional animation alive today.
The film tells the story of young Jewish mouse Fievel Mousekewitz, whose family have fled their home town after it was invaded by Cossack soliders during the Serbo-Bulgarian war in 1885, which leaves them easy prey for the cats in the area. They board a ship headed for America, which at that time was seen as a place of great hope to the poor people of Eastern Europe and Russia. The mice wrongly believe that America is free of cats, and that the streets are paved with cheese, which isn’t far from what humans in a similar predicament thought at the time – just substitute cheese for gold and your probably a bit closer.
All seems good until the ship is approaching America, when a storm causes Fievel to be separated from the rest of his family. Fievel finally arrives in New York City lost and confused, and is taken in by a rat named Warren, who says he will help him out. Warren’s help is anything but, and Fievel ends up working in a sweatshop. Eventually, accompanied by his new friends Tony and Bridget he manages to escape, but things aren’t much better with his new found freedom.
The mice of New York are being terrorised by gangs of cats, and are being forced to pay Warren protection money to keep the cats away. Fievel decides this is wrong and encourages the mice to fight back by building a giant “Mouse of Minsk” to scare them away. The mice set to work but Fievel wanders off when he hears violin music coming from the sewers. Believing it to be his fathers violin, he follows the sound but ends up surrounded by cats and is caught. Fievel discovers however that Warren is not actually a rat but a cat in disguise, but also befriends a cat named Tiger who disagrees with Warren and the other cats.
Tiger frees Fievel, who flees back to the other mice to let them know about Warren, and their plan is put into place. A fire is inadvertantly started during the confusion, but this turns out to be a good thing for Fievel as it brings him and his family back together, allowing the Mousekewitz family to finally be happy.
The film has since spawned several other films and a TV series, none of which were actually associated with Don Bluth and so aren’t quite of the same level of sophistication. The film also enjoyed some UK chart success with the release of one of its songs, “Somewhere Out There“, which in the film was sung by Fievel and his sister Tanya at the same time, despite them being separated at the time and not knowing where the other actually was.