Thursday, April 14, 2016

Blast from the Past Movie Review: An American Tail (1986)

My friend Jamie, a noted animation buff and a major fan of Don Bluth, was back in Atlanta for Christmas and so Nick decided to host a very special episode of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood just for him. Jamie decided to defend An American Tail, which I first saw on a rented video (yes, an actual VHS tape) probably in the late 1980s. I later reported on the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in which the movie was screened and interviewed Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, two of the masterminds behind the film.

So how did it hold up? Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's December of 1885 and the Mousekowitz family, the mouse neighbors of the Jewish Moskowitz family in Russia, are celebrating Hanukkah. The festivities are rudely interrupted by human Cossacks who rampage through the village throwing torches onto the roofs and even shooting a fleeing man dead while cats in fur hats rampage alongside them. The Mousekowitz family, who are aware of a happy, safe place called "America," travel to Hamburg, Germany and set out across the Atlantic for this new Promised Land. Along the way, young Fievel is washed off the ship during a storm and must reunite with his family on Manhattan Island, which is not nearly as friendly as the naive immigrant mice think...

The Good

*Except for a bit in the third act, the movie moves along pretty briskly and isn't boring.

*There's a lot of historical humor that kids won't understand, but adults will. The mouse politician Honest John from Tammany Hall, for example, and we see that corrupt political machine in action. There's also a wealthy female mouse who seems to be a stand-in for the Progressive reformers who sought to aid immigrants as well.

*The movie teaches kids a valuable history lesson about what brought immigrants to America and their experiences when they got here, which weren't always positive. The French pigeon Henri seems to be doing pretty well, but many of the immigrant mice end up exploited in a sweatshop alongside human immigrant workers.

*There are a couple songs that are massive, as TVTropes puts it, Ear Worms. In "There Are No Cats in America," the immigrant mice of different nationalities (Sicilian, Russian, Irish) sing about the horrible conditions back in their home countries (where their oppressors are depicted as cats) and how things are better in the United States. And when Fievel meets Henri, they have a musical number about positive thinking, "Never Say Never."

*The Giant Mouse of Minsk, foreshadowed by Fievel's father early on, is really cool when it's unleashed.

*There's a scene where a despairing Fievel thinks he'll never find his family again that's genuinely sad. When I interviewed Goldman years later, he said that was his favorite part of the film.

*A cat who claims to be a vegetarian admits that he does eat fish. Given how cats are obligate carnivores, that's kind of important.

The Bad

*The third act, in which Fievel is held captive by a group of cat gangsters and has a duet with the friendly cat Tiger, kind of drags. I really didn't like the song "A Duo," even though there is a funny bit about how Tiger has three fathers that those who are aware of cats' promiscuity will find funny.

*There's at least one big anachronism--the young Fievel sees a group of American school-age mice saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which didn't exist at the time. Furthermore, they're saying the version with "under God," which wasn't introduced until the 1950s. I think Steven Spielberg's grandfather remembers looking into a school he wasn't able to attend because he was Jewish, but they could have had Fievel seeing something else.

*The radio version of "Somewhere Out There" (sung by James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt) is a beautiful song, but when Fievel and his sister Tanya sing the song themselves, I didn't find it very impressive.

The Verdict

It's an entertaining and educational children's movie, but for an adult I'd say just see it once. 7.5 out of 10.

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