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An American Tail movie poster

An American Tail is a 1986 American animated comedy-drama film directed by Don Bluth.

The film was produced by Amblin Entertainment and Sullivan Bluth Studios and distributed by Universal Pictures.

It was released on November 21, 1986.

The movie spawned a sequel "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West" in 1991 and two direct-to-video sequels: "An American Tail: The Treasure of Manhattan Island" (in 1998) & "An American Tail: The Mystery of the Night Monster" (in 2000).

PlotEdit

The Mousekewitzes, a family of mice living with a human family called the Moskowitz in Shostka, Russia, hold a celebration in which Papa Mousekewitz gives his hat to his son Fievel. Papa Mousekewitz tells his family of America, which supposedly has no cats. However, the celebration is interrupted when the Cossacks attack the village, and the Cossack cats likewise attack the mouse village.

The Mousekewitzes board a tramp steamer headed to the United States, hoping to finally be free of the cats. However, during a storm, Fievel is washed overboard the ship and presumed dead by his family, who nevertheless proceed to New York City.

Fievel floats to America, where he meets a pigeon named Henri, who encourages him to reunite with his family. On his quest, Fievel meets a conman named Warren T. Rat and his accountant Digit. Warren T. sells Fievel to a sweatshop run by a rat named Moe. While at the sweatehop, Fievel befriends an older mouse named Tony Toponi, who helps him escape. The two arrive at a mouse marketplace, where Fievel's family have also taken residence in. There, Tony falls in love with a mouse named Bridget, who attempts to inspire the other mice to stand up to the cats terrorizing them. Shortly afterwards, a gang of cats called the Mott Street Maulers attack the marketplace, causing Fievel and his family to realize that the tales of a cat-free county are false.

Bridget takes Fievel and Tony to see Honest John, a politician who knows all the voting mice in New York City. However, as the Mousekewitzes have not yet registered to vote, Honest John is unable to help Fievel locate them. Meanwhile, Fievel's sister Tanya tells her parents that Fievel may have survived, but they refuse to believe her.

Led by Gussie Mausheimer, the mice hold a rally to decide what to do about the cats as well as to discuss Warren T., who has been extorting the mice for protection against the cats that he doesn't provide. Fievel, inspired by his fathers tales, formulates a plan with Gussie. The mice take over an abandoned building in the Chelsea Pier and begin construction of their plan. On the day of launch, however, Fievel is separated from the other mice and stumbles into Warren T.'s lair, where he discovers that he is really a cat and the leader of the Mott Street Maulers. The cats imprison Fievel, but he befriends his guard, a cat named Tiger, who frees Fievel and allows him to escape.

Fievel returns to the pier, pursued by the cats, disrupting the plan as the cats had arrived earlier than expected. Tony exposes Warren T. as a cat, and the Maulers retaliate by setting the museum aflame. However, Gussie orders the mice to release their weapon, a giant mechanical mouse inspired by Papa Mousekewitz's stories of the Giant Mouse of Minsk. The cats are chased down the pier and they dive into the water below, where they are picked up by a tramp steamer headed for Hong Kong. However, the mice are forced to flee as human firemen arrive to put out the fire. In the process, Fievel is once more separated from the other mice and runs afoul of a group of orphans, who tell him that he should've given up on looking for his family years ago. Falling into despair, Fievel loses hope of ever reuniting with his family.

The Mousekewitzes overhear Tony and Bridget calling out for Fievel, and Mama Mousekewitz finds her sons hat. Tiger helps the family to try and locate Fievel, and Papa playing the violin leads Fievel back into his family, and they reunite. Some time later, Henri shows the family his newly completed project, the Statue of Liberty, and Fievel and Tanya fly off with Henri.

Voice CastEdit

  • Phillip Glasser as Fievel Mousekewitz
  • Amy Green as Tanya Mousekewitz
    • Betsy Cathcart as Tanya Mousekewitz (singing voice)
  • Nehemiah Persoff as Papa Mousekewitz
  • Erica Yohn as Mama Mousekewitz
  • John P. Finnegan as Warren T. Rat
  • Pat Musick as Tony Toponi
  • Dom DeLuise as Tiger
  • Christopher Plummer as Henri
  • Cathianne Blore as Bridget
  • Neil Ross as Honest John
  • Madeline Kahn as Gussie Mausheimer
  • Will Ryan as Digit
  • Hal Smith as Moe
  • Dan Kuenster as Jake

ProductionEdit

DevelopmentEdit

Production for "An American Tail" began in December of 1984 as a collaboration between Steven Spielberg, Don Bluth and Universal, based on a concept by David Kirschner. 

Spielberg had asked Bluth to "make me something pretty like you did in NIMH...make it beautiful."

In a 1985 interview, he described his role in the production as "first in the area of story, inventing incidents for the script, and now consists of looking, every three weeks to a month, at the storyboards that Bluth sends me and making my comments."

Bluth later commented that "Steven has not dominated the creative growth of Tail at all. There is an equal share of both of us in the picture." Nevertheless, this was his first animated feature, and it took some time for him to learn that adding a two-minute scene would take dozens of people months of work.

In 1985, he stated, "at this point, I'm enlightened, but I still can't believe it's so complicated."

It was Universal Pictures' first animated feature film since "Pinocchio in Outer Space" in 1965.

WritingEdit

Originally, the movie's concept consisted of an all-animal world like Disney's "Robin Hood", but Bluth suggested that it shoud feature an animal world existing as a hidden society from the human world, like Disney's "The Rescuers".

After viewing "The Rescuers", Spielberg agreed. Emmy-award-winning writers Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss were brought in to expand the script.

When the initial script was complete, it was extremely long and heavily edited before its final release.

Bluth felt uncomfortable with the main character's name, thinking that "Fievel" was too foreign-sounding and felt audiences wouldn't remember it, but Spielberg disagreed.

The character was named after his maternal grandfather, Philip Posner, whose Yiddish name was Fievel, but Spielberg eventually won out, though something of a compromise was reached by having Tony refer to Fievel as "Filly."

Spielberg also had some material cut that he felt was too intense for children, including a scene that Bluth was developing revolving around wave monsters while the family was at sea.

CastingEdit

Don Bluth described the process of voice casting as "sometimes you can select a 'name' voice because it fits the essence of the character so well. Other times, you need to seek an obscure voice, close your eyes, and just listen to it. If it has the highs and lows in the deliverance of lines and it captures the focus of the character, it allows the animators to get a true fix on the action."

Phillip Glasser (who did the voice of Fievel) was discovered by accident when Bluth and his crew overheard him auditioning for an Oscar Mayer commercial.

Tanya Green (who did the voice of Tanya Mousekewitz) was a young actress who had previously done some work on television and in several commercials.

Nehemiah Persoff was chosen to play the part of Papa Mousekewitz mostly because he had a similar role as Barbra Streisand's father in the film "Yentl".

Erica Yohn has appeared in many feature films, but her work as a Russian gypsy on a TV show attracted the attention of Bluth and John Pomeroy.

John P. Finnegan got the role of Warren T. Rat by reciting excerpts of Shakespeare's Hamlet in the voice of a Brooklyn taxi driver; this idea inspired the writers to make Warren a pretentious illiterate who continually misquoted Shakespeare.

Pat Musick (who did the voice of Tony Toponi) based Tony's voice on a friend that she knew from grade school.

Dom DeLuise (who did te voice ofTiger) had worked previously with Bluth in "The Secret of NIMH" and DeLuise even added material to the script at various points. During the song "A Duo", he suggested they stop the music where the lyrics mention "back scratch" and have Fievel actually scratch Tiger's back.

Henri was originally to be voiced by comedian Sid Caesar and was conceived as scraggly and worn, but Christopher Plummer was later cast for the part and Henri was drawn with a more dignified look.

Bluth felt Henri was an essential character to act as a voice for the statue "welcoming" Fievel to the new world.

Madeline Kahn was chosen for the part of Gussie Mauseheimer with the hopes that she would use a voice similar to the one she used as a character in Mel Brooks' film "Blazing Saddles."

DesignEdit

In designing the look of the film and its characters, Bluth worked with Amblin Entertainment and the Sears marketing department (who had a major marketing push on the main character).

He decided to make a stylistic shift from the more angular "modern style" of animation of the time to a style similar to Disney animation from the 1940s where the characters have a more soft and cuddly feel. This proved to be successful and at the film's release, many critics praised the "old fashioned style" of the film's look and feel.

This was during a period when the market for nostalgia was particularly strong among baby boomers (who at this time were looking at products for their young children) and only three years before the beginning of the Disney Renaissance for the studio that Bluth once worked for.

AnimationEdit

Bluth preferred to storyboard an entire picture, but it soon proved to be an enormous task. Larry Leker was brought in to assist, turning Bluth's rough sketches into final storyboard panels.

Bluth commented that he would then "send them over to [Spielberg]. Often I brought them over myself, so that I could explain them. Steven would get very excited by what he saw, and we'd edit the boards right there...adding more drawings, or trimming some back."

A large crew of animators was pulled together from around the world, utilizing cel painters in Ireland. Discussion arose about moving the entire production to Ireland, but Spielberg balked at the idea of a story called "An American Tail" being produced overseas.

At this time, Bluth and his crew discovered that using a video printer greatly increased their productivity.

They could videotape an action & then print out small black and white thermal images from the tape for reference for both human and animal characters, a shorthand method similar to the rotoscoping technique (called in fact xerography) used since the earliest days of animation, in which sequences are shot in live action and traced onto animation cels.

They also utilized the process of building models and photographing them, particularly the ship at sea, and the "Giant Mouse of Minsk" (a technique that also used in many Disney films).

Production IssuesEdit

During production, Amblin and Universal expected to view the dailies and approve all major work on the film and various outside parties also requested changes here and there.

This caused the production to buckle from excessive oversight, and made Bluth feel that he was losing freedom of control over the production process.

As the release deadline for the film approached, pressure grew throughout the crew and numerous problems arose, ranging from slower-than-expected cel painting in Ireland to low footage output by some animators.

Also, the songwriters had written the score much later than originally desired. Suddenly scenes had to be dropped to save time and money and new, shorter scenes had to be created to help pick up the story points lost in the process, sometimes making the story line look jumbled.

Notable cuts in hthe film include the Mousekewitzes journey across Europe, a scene in which they first meet Tiger and he gets stuck up in a tree, an upbeat song that Fievel was planned to sing while imprisoned in the sweatshop, and a scene that gave greater explanation of the changing of names at Ellis Island.

The cuts are also responsible for baby Yasha's apparent disappearance after the boat trip.

The film was also plagued by union difficulties. Bluth had agreed to accept $6.5 million to get it produced (which later grew to $9 million), at a time when Disney was spending around $12 million per film.

He knew it would be difficult, but felt it was worth the sacrifice to work with Spielberg on a major project. With the agreement of his employees, salaries were frozen for a year and half.

Unlike the former Bluth studios, the new Sullivan Bluth studios were non-union, and when many workers attempted to withdraw from the union, it sparked a battle between Bluth and the union that continued through most of production.

It was mostly this struggle that later compelled Bluth to relocate to Ireland, which he felt offered a more supportive atmosphere.

MusicEdit

The soundtrack for "An American Tail" was released on November 21, 1986 by MCA Records.

  1. "Main Title" (5:07)
  2. "The Cossack Cats" (2:15)
  3. "There Are No Cats in America" (3:00) – by Papa Mousekewitz, an Italian mouse, an Irish mouse, and the Chorus
  4. "The Storm" (3:59)
  5. "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor" (2:44) – Chorus
  6. "Never Say Never" (2:25) – by Fievel, Henri, and the chorus of female pigeons
  7. "The Market Place" (3:02)
  8. "Somewhere Out There" (2:40) – by Fievel and Tanya (Betsy Cathcart)
  9. "Somewhere Out There" (3:59) – by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram
  10. "Releasing the Secret Weapon" (3:38)
  11. "A Duo" (2:38) – by Fievel and Tiger
  12. "The Great Fire" (2:54)
  13. "Reunited" (4:44)
  14. "Flying Away and End Credits" (5:59)

Box OfficeEdit

"An American Tail" debuted at #2 at the box office (behind "Crocodile Dundee"), grossing $5,234,466 during its opening weekend.

Domestically, it grossed $47,483,002 and $84,54,002 worldwide, making it the highest-grossing non-Disney produced animated feature film at the time. It also beat out Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective" (which was released four months earlier that year).

ReceptionEdit

"An American Tail" received mixed to positive reviews from critics.

On Rotten Tomatoes, it currently maintains a 69% "fresh" approval rating, with an average rating of 6.3/10 with the consensus that says: "Exquisitely animation to rival Disney, An American Tail is a sweet, occasionally melancholy about critters in exodus."

Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it "two thumbs down" on a November 22, 1986 episode of their television program "At the Movies", calling it "the most downbeat children's movie since "Return to Oz" and that it was "way too depressing for young audiences."

Both reviewers also criticized how it gave little mention that the main characters were Jewish, or that the attack on their home at the beginning was an antisemitic one, calling it "a Jewish parable that doesn't want to declare itself" and felt that it "chickened out on its ethnic heritage."

Rita Kempley of the Washington Post called it "a bright-eyed tale of Jewish triumphs that will find a place in many young hearts," adding that "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."

Roger Ebert gave it two stars out of four, giving credit to the animation, calling it "full and detailed, enhanced by computers and an improvement on so much recent animation that cuts corners," but that the story was too "dark and gloomy."

While the films's animation was routinely praised, its narrative was often derided. The staff of Halliwell's Film Guide gave it one star out of four, saying:

"[This] expensive cartoon feature [has] not much in the way of narrative interest or indeed humor."

Vincent Canby of the New York Times gave it two stars out of five, stating that "An American Tail looks good but the tale itself... is witless if well-meaning," adding that its high points were scenes involving the characters Gussie Mausheimer and Tiger.

In his review for the Chicago Reader, Pat Graham panned the film for its "flimsy characterizations," but that "the overall quality of the animation—baroquely executed if rather conventionally conceived—makes it worth a look."