I don’t remember the first time I saw An American Tail, but I do remember this musical animated adventure film directed and produced by Don Blueth, and Steven Spielberg, along with Sullivan Bluth Studios and Amblin Entertainment, at a very young age. This film has particular connection to my Jewishness that resonated deeply with me as it “imparts the importance of trust, perseverance, and family,” as well as to trust “friends, even if stereotypes tell…[you]..not to” and “always cling to hope and love and to never give up.” According to My Jewish Learning‘s Southern & Jewish blog post, “Why I Loved Those Jewish Mice“:
When I saw Don Bluth’s now-classic animated feature, An American Tail, I was thunderstruck. The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes, gathered together to celebrate Chanukah. They even pronounced the “ch” right. The father played a violin, just like in Fiddler on the Roof, but for kids! And then, of course, the Cossacks raided their little Mouskewitz home in The Old World, and then the little mouse family was off to America, going through Ellis Island… just like my family.
Those mice are Jewish, I thought. Fievel and Tanya, they’re Jewish.They’re like me.
But here’s what I really loved about those Jewish mice: Their Jewishness was just part of who they were, and the story was about big ideas that everyone could relate to—starting somewhere new, family, growing up. The same way that in most of the other movies and TV shows I watched, the show wasn’t about them being Christian—they just were Christian, and therefore celebrated Christmas and Easter and everything, but their stories were about big ideas. My friends who weren’t Jewish still loved Feivel and related to his little Jewish-mouse family.
Even later, when I started going to Hebrew School and watched Torah-toons and holiday specials that reflected Judaism in the characters onscreen, there was something special to me about those Jewish mice. When Fievel is searching for his family, he didn’t stop along the way to explain what “kosher” is, or to teach the viewers how to play dreidel. He wasn’t a token Jewish character in a holiday special, designated as “The Jewish One.” He was Fievel, a lost immigrant kid who happened to be Jewish (and happened to be a mouse). I loved that in his little mouse family, they justwere Jewish, and that fact was treated as casually as other movies treated the Christianity of their characters.
That felt like my own American tale. Being Jewish is part of my story, and influences my experience. Even when I’m not “doing something Jewish,” it’s still part of who I am. Those are the characters that still resonate with me most: not the ones overtly teaching us something about Something Jewish (or, sadly, playing into one of those old Jewish stereotypes), but the ones who just are Jewish. Like Fievel.
Seeing that reflected onscreen as a little kid had a lasting impact on me. Maybe that’s why I still tear up when I hear Somewhere Out There.
Mickey and Minnie are great. But Fievel and Tanya? Those mice helped me feel a little more included. They helped me believe that somewhere, out there – all of us can be represented.
According to the Washington Post review:
Does it ever strike you as odd that rodents give us the willies, but we’re forever starring them in kiddie cartoons? Perhaps the hairy little cheese-nibblers have been typecast because of Mickey. Whatever the impulse, here comes another mousecartoon, this one from the stupefying Steven Spielberg.
“An American Tail,” with a family of Russian mice, a gang of rats and a cockroach in a cameo appearance, is the amazing storyteller’s first animated feature. It’s a melting-pot movie for little Americans, full of immigrant dreams and as patriotic as Frosted Flakes. It’s not as grabbing as many of the Disney classics, but it builds on that tradition.
Director Don Bluth and a cadre of other Disney emigres create this classically drawn and effect-filled tale whose characters themselves are refugees. A family of Russian mice flee the Cossacks for the cobblestones of New York — where, as the show-stopping song says, there are no cats and the streets are paved with cheese, oh ho, the streets are paved with cheese.
There’s lots of music, mostly mild-mannered, to sweeten this rather serious story by “Sesame Street” writers Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg. Bluth, whose similarly socially conscious “The Secret of NIMH” was about a widowed mouse and a race of super-intelligent rats, has not come far afield. All the better to understand the mighty motivations of young Fievel, who’s separated from the Mousekewitz family on the voyage to America.
Luckily, Fievel (the voice of seven-year-old Phillip Glasser) washes into New York Harbor safe in a bottle. It’s 1885, and the teeming shores are ethnically diverse, with mice from many lands seeking the American dream. Bluth and company recreate the tenements, the sweat shops, the harbor as it was 100 years ago. Fievel is rescued by the French pigeon Henri (Christopher Plummer), who is overseeing the completion of the Statue of Liberty, the Lady without her face on. Henri takes Fievel under his wing, restores his flagging spirits and sends him on his search for his family.
Fievel, named for Spielberg’s granddad, is also aided by Tiger, a splendid pussycat played by adorable Dom DeLuise; Gussie Mausheimer, a lisping anti-cat activist acted by madcap Madeline Kahn; and Honest John, a shady Tammany Hall boss played by crusty Neil Ross. Papa and Mama Mousekewitz are performed by Nehemiah Persoff and Erica Yohn, who had personal links with their roles, both being offspring of Russian-Jewish parents.
“An American Tail” — unlike the sobering holocaust comic “Maus” — is a bright-eyed tale of Jewish triumphs that will find a place in many young hearts. It reiterates the happiness of homogeneity, prepares the pups for both brotherhood and the free enterprise system. And it’s as pretty as a cascade of soap bubbles.