Animation Cel-ebration
November 15, 2021 posted by Michael Lyons

A Fievel Revival: The 35th Anniversary of “An American Tail”

Through the years, in the vast array of movies that had gone up against Disney in the realm of animation, many had tried, but few had succeeded… until November 21, 1986.

It was on that day that An American Tail opened. It was a new, full-length animated feature, directed by Don Bluth and produced by Steven Spielberg, one of the most famous names in film and the maestro behind almost all of the significant movie blockbusters of the ’80s.

Don Bluth

An American Tail was a hit with audiences, generating the attention and box-office returns usually reserved for Disney.

This month marks the 35th anniversary of An American Tail. A perfect time to look back at the film that showed that competition in animation was most definitely a healthy thing.

“Steven provided an arena; he provided the money and plenty of ideas,” said Bluth in a 1997 interview when discussing An American Tail. Bluth is known for his much-publicized defection from Disney. He led a walkout of a group of animators during the production of 1981’s The Fox and the Hound.

Bluth and the artists who left intended to make animated features that they felt re-captured a spirit that was missing from Disney’s animated movies at the time. Their first was 1982’s The Secret of NIMH, which made a respectable, but disappointing, $13 million at the box office and received praise from critics.

The film also caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who had an idea for an animated TV special that he wanted to expand into a theatrical feature. It was a story about the immigrant experience in New York City in 1885 and told of a young mouse named Fievel (also the name of Spielberg’s grandfather), who comes to America, from Russia, with his family.

Writers Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg (who had written for Sesame Street) penned the screenplay and director Don Bluth and his producing partners Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy brought the story to life in animation.

An American Tail takes place in the human world. Still, much like Disney’s The Rescuers (1977), the perspective is from Fievel and the other animals in the film, which opens in Russia, with Fievel Mouskewitz celebrating Hanukkah with his family.

Their celebration is interrupted when the “the Catsacks” raid the village. After this, Papa Mouskewitz decides to bring his family to America. On their way to New York City, Fievel is separated from his family, meeting an eclectic melting pot of characters while trying to elude the villainous cats, throughout the film, before eventually being reunited with his family.

Young actor Phillip Glasser voiced Fievel, with a roster of well-known and character actors rounding out the cast, including Nehemiah Persoff as Papa Mousekewitz, Madeline Kahn as Gussie Mausheimer, a German-born mouse who rallies the other mice against the cats, Neil Ross as Honest John the Irish-mouse politician, Christopher Plummer, as Henri, a French pigeon, who befriends Fievel, John Finnegan as the villain, Warren T. Rat, Hal Smith as Moe, the rat who runs the local sweatshop, veteran voice actor Will Ryan, as Warren’s sidekick cockroach Digit and Dom DeLuise (who would become a Bluth voice mainstay), as Tiger, the large, friendly cat, who winds-up becoming Fievel’s best friend.

There was also the decision to make An American Tail a musical. Spielberg enlisted Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann to create songs for the film, with composer James Horner to craft the score.

One of the songs created for An American Tail, “Somewhere Out There,” went on to be a runaway Top 40 hit, receiving a tremendous amount of airtime on radio stations, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

Sears and McDonalds had Christmas tie-ins with Fievel – despite the fact the character was Jewish

It’s just one example of the marketing machine that was part of An American Tail’s release. In addition to the song, Fievel could be found on plush toys, books, and fast-food promotions, as the film was ubiquitous during the holiday season of 1986.

Bluth and his team of artists brought rich, full animation to An American Tail. One example is the scene with Fievel on the deck of a ship during a storm at sea. It is filled with impressive staging and effects, as the ocean seemingly comes alive. Excellent character design fills the film as well as lovely moments of personality animation, particularly in Tiger’s interactions with Fievel.

An American Tail did draw the ire of some film critics, who felt that the tone was bleak and depressing and that the immigrant experience was told through stereotypes. New York Newsday’s Joseph Gelmis wrote in his review at the time: “As for getting laughs by caricaturing ethnic types, it’s witless at best and, in at least one instance, offensive.”

Despite such reviews, An American Tail would gross $88 million at the worldwide box office. At the time, it was the highest-grossing animated feature in its initial release (beating Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, released that summer).

The film’s success spawned the sequel An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1991 (celebrating its 30th anniversary this month), which didn’t fare as well at the box-office. However, Universal studio embraced the films, opening American Tail-themed playground sections in their theme parks and eventually producing a Saturday morning series.

The popularity of An American Tail was a “wake-up call” for many in an industry where Disney had dominated the box office for so long.

Three short years after the release of An American Tail, Disney’s The Little Mermaid would kick off an immensely successful decade for that studio. Other studios would then also throw their hats into the ring during an unprecedented renaissance period.

Many say that these “non-Disney” studios took a chance on animation at this time because of a mouse named Fievel, who cleared that path thirty-five years ago.

13 Comments

  • I remember Siskel and Ebert both hated this movie. They began by asserting that it was only for very small children, and then went on to criticise it for containing elements that would upset, or go over the heads of, its young audience. A few weeks later I saw it with my parents and my aunt, and afterwards we had a very lively discussion of the themes explored in it, including the immigrant experience, the history of New York politics, and comparisons with classic Disney features. In other words, it was the sort of conversation any four adults might have about any movie they’d just seen. My aunt, who’d have been 65 then, was quite taken with the main character and later amassed a little collection of Fievel knickknacks. “An American Tail” could not have been the success it was without appealing to people of all ages. “General audiences” need not mean “juvenile” or “unsophisticated”.

    We all liked it, though not without reservations. My father just couldn’t reconcile himself to the pun in the title. (“Why is it ‘tail’? His tail isn’t American! It comes from Russia like the rest of him! It’s the TALE that’s American! Why isn’t it ‘An American TALE’?”) My mother thought Fievel’s parents were too quick to abandon hope of ever finding him again. As for me — well, I don’t want to be hard on the children who did the voices, because they were very young at the time, and I have no complaints at all about their acting. But “Somewhere Out There” is a very difficult song to sing, with a wide vocal range and some tricky modulations, and it’s also the emotional core of the film. It detracts from the emotion of the scene when the singers strain for the high notes and run out of breath at the end of every phrase. They have a charming innocence and sincerity, and they give it all they’ve got; but in a cast alongside music theatre veterans like Christopher Plummer, that’s not enough. I think Bluth and Spielberg should have hired some trained singers who could do justice to that beautiful song. It’s well within the rules.

    By the way, the melody to “Somewhere Out There” is very similar to that of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. Schroeder plays it in “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”. First rule of songwriting: Always steal from the best.

  • Any film that Siskel and Ebert panned was one that I was sure to watch.
    I never put much store in what those overpaid hacks had to say.

    • There were friends of Maltin (who liked the film).

    • I just discovered that Mulholland Drive isn’t on Roger Ebert’s greatest movies list. He gave it four stars but I am still disappointed.

  • I always had mixed feelings about the film. I for one went to the theater wanting to like it, and riding on the memory of “The Secret of Nimh” in hopes of healthy competition to Disney. There was no doubt the animation was full and vivid, and I enjoyed the staging and performance of “Somewhere Out There”, its breathlessness to me sounding accurate to the age of the characters. Yet, by this time I was already noticing some of Bluth’s inherent shortcomings. First, I was beginning to notice his tendency in animating characters to have everyone’s mouth unhinge a little too wide, as if their lower jaws were only held on by hanging skin rather than joint structure. Perhaps this was just a matter of personal taste, which would have been of little import had other presentation elements been in place. Bur I also realized that the storyline just seemed downright cluttered, New characters pop in at the drop of a hat, yet fail to stay long enough to make a notable presence or develop memorable personalities. So many side trips to secondary plotlines (a problem that seemed to be born dating back to work on Disney’s “Aristocats”, on which I presume Bluth worked, which always felt padded by inclusion of cameos for the Gabble Sisters and their uncle and the like, and which further came to a head in the production of “Robin Hood”, which really boils down to three good sequences, with the rest pure padding with incidental characters). And then, the problem that plagued so many of Bluth’s productions – the quantum leap “jump” to a convenient ending that hardly ever seemed to flow plausibly from what preceded it. “The Secret of Nimh” was the first to exhibit this, although I am not sure if falling back on the magical amulet was something Bluth got saddled with from the literary work – in the film, it just seems to happen too suddenly and too pat. By the time of “American Tail”, the problem was jarring. Young Fievel is supposedly credited with whispering the big idea on how to defeat the cats to the elders. Except the contraption that is built to accomplish the purpose is so complicated and outlandish, no one could conceivably believe it was the brainchild of a greenhorn minor like Fievel. To me, it was so implausible that it destroyed the effect and purpose of all that had preceded it. Then, to make matters worse, just when it seems we’re supposed to be experiencing euphoria at the defeat of the cats, Fievel gets lost again, and spends another five or so minutes in another random subplot that appears to have no purpose for being included in the film, and is a total downer to the effect of the ending. I came away from the screening asking myself the pressing question, “What the heck is going on?” I felt that Bluth redeemed himself somewhat with “The Pebble and the Penguin”, and even the overly short and derivative “The Land Before Time”, but then came disasters such as “Thumbelina” and “Rock-a-Doodle”, and I never could find myself holding out significant hope for any classic to spring from his pen again. (Admittedly, “Anastasia” wasn’t bad, but no others personally impressed me.) A final note: while I have never found myself inclined to go back for a reviewing of “American Tail”, I recall spending a Christmas Eve seeing back-to-back screenings of “Beauty and the Beast” and “An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West” (a Bluth;less production). I found the storytelling in the sequel to be straightforward and engaging, the comedy funny, the performance by Jimmy Stewart priceless, and just the right amount of screen time devoted to Dom DeLuise as the cat who wants to be more like a dog (a major improvement upon the first film). I felt like somebody had really rethought the franchise through, and learned to capitalize upon its best attributes. While I may not carry the same view today after multiple rescreenings of the Disney epic, I came away from the theater actually having enjoyed “Tail 2″ better than :Beast”! One can thus wonder how much better the original might have been if placed in the hands of a more capable director – for example, the same crew that produced the sequel. Bluth never caught on that his best work at Disney probably happened only when there was someone else looking over his shoulder, to act as story editor and guide him in the fine art of Disney story development – a skill which, thankfully, Pixar’s staff has been much more quick to pick up on and carry the torch for through the present day.

    • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH did not have the amulet, or any supernatural elements (beyond rodents having human-level intelligence, of course), so that’s all on Bluth.

      Given your (minor) praise for The Pebble and the Penguin, I’ll have to seek that one out and watch it; even his disasters, like Rock-a-Doddle (seriously, what happened?), have moments that I get a kick out of.

    • A most interesting analysis, and one I agree with for the most part. I’ve never seen ‘Pebble and the Penguin’ or ‘Thumbelina’ so I’m more intrigued than ever to see those now. Do you have any thoughts on ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven’? That picture seemed equally convoluted but it still seems to be considered one of Bluth’s better films.

      As for ‘Fievel Goes West’ something just dawned on me about it, but I’ll save those thoughts for if there’s a post about that film’s 30th anniversary some time this month.

  • One quite delightful aside regarding all of the voice actors in An American Tail is that Papa Mousekewitz is still amongst the quick. By that I mean Nehemiah Persoff, who turned 102 years old in August. He is doing reasonably well and has turned his hand to painting over the last decades. Offhand I don’t recall the birth year of Hal Smith but I think it ironic that the oldest of the voice actors is still around to tell the tale/tail. I have a musician friend in Oklahoma who turned 102 years old on October 5th, my friend Mercedes. I spoke to her last week and she sounds just as lively as the average 80 year old. 1919 must have been a very good year. It certainly was the greatest year for the Ziegfeld Follies, with at least half a dozen great hit songs written by Irving Berlin for that show, many of which are still familiar to fans of Broadway musicals.

  • David Kirschner should be credited with the film’s creation; a fantastic writer/producer who would go on to design Chucky for Child’s Play and create with the help of Mick Garris the Disney Halloween cult classic Hocus Pocus (PS, he’s returning to produce the sequel!).

  • Yes. I do remember An American Tail and its first sequel Fievel Goes West! And also, I do remember watching those two films on TV or VHS tape long ago…SO LONG AGO now, when there was once a time when I was a little child or even a very small fry.

    In fact, I actually am, was, and always will be, a huge fan of An American Tail’s main character Fievel Mousekewitz…and also the Fievel Goes West version of his eldest sister Tanya as well. Fievel himself, in fact, and being a very cute, yes, but also an adventurous, courageous and brave little cartoon mouse, was one of my first childhood favorite non-Disney animated cartoon characters as a young child growing up).

    I also seemed to remember being very upset or traumatized when I hear Fievel’s Papa Mosuekewitz screaming out a very loud, blood-curdling, and ear-piercing, if now legendary cry of “FFFIIIIEEEEEVVVEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Thrice during the storm sequence and again towards the end of the movie when Fievel was finally reunited with his family.

    Anyway, speaking of An American Tail’s first sequel, 1991’s Fievel Goes West, yes, it will always and forever be best remembered for featuring one of James Stewart’s last roles in cinema (as the voice of the dog Wiley Burp, of course) but after less than 30 years, I can still relate to the subplot in Fievel Goes West that involves Fievel’s sister Tanya Mousekewitz and her singing career, or ‘Tanya’s epic dream quest to sing a song or two for the whole wide world to hear’, as I often described it.

    And don’t get me wrong about it, everyone, but not only do I love Tanya’s Fievel Goes West songs ‘Dreams to Dream’ and ‘The Girl You Left Behind’ which represents a beautiful music collaboration between the late James Horner and The Powerpuff Girls’ Blossom’s original voice actress Cathy Cavadini (who also got to voice Tanya in Fievel Goes West after James Horner was so moved — and have his very heart so touched all the way down to its very core — by Cavadini’s singing demo of ‘Dreams to Dream’ that he successfully implore Steven Spielberg to have her voice Tanya and she really did so, even though Tanya was supposed to be voiced by somebody else in Fievel Goes West), but I also find Tanya’s saloon girl diva dress and makeup during the Girl You Left Behind sequence to be not only cute, but also pretty, lovely, beautiful and even stunning to behold!

    But I have to say that while Tanya gets to sing the now-famous James Horner duet standard ‘Somewhere Out There’ in the original 1986 Don Bluth film, but mostly in the belief that her missing little brother, the more popular Fievel character, is still alive somewhere in 1880s New York City, and was accorded a subplot involving her desire to become a singer or an actress in its first sequel, the aforementioned Fievel Goes West, the character of Tanya Mousekewitz, Fievel’s oldest sister in the An American Tail franchise, had never been fully fleshed out, beefed up or let alone greatly expanded outside of Fievel Goes West itself.

    Long story short, everyone, but I do remember seeing the first two American Tail films, the Don Bluth original and its only theatrical sequel Fievel Goes West when i was very young. and plus, after less than 30 years, being a big, ambitious dreamer who still aspires to make some great, big huge epic movie or something for the whole world to come and go see someday, I can also still relate to Fievel’s sister Tanya’s epic dream quest to sing a song or two to the whole entire world in Fievel Goes West.

    That is all I can say about it.

  • Okay, but where’s Fievel now? A generation brought up on strictly CGI animation probably never heard of “American Tail.” It never even got to be a Broadway musical!

  • Ah yes, American TaLE. The movie that never had its theatrical version available on Blu-Ray. Thank the gods for the Laserdisk preservers.

  • Of all the animated films I’ve seen throughout my life, An American Tail remains my most favorite of them all. It’s no secret that it came into the world at a time when the animation industry needed a miracle, and yet Universal to date has never given the movie a proper home media release, along with The Land Before Time. If I were to make a list of animated features that are deserving of proper recognition these days, An American Tail would be #1 on my list. I would give anything to see Universal and Amblin give it the same kind of treatment that Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and even Pixar’s films usually receive.

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