An American Tail
|An American Tail|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Don Bluth|
|Music by||James Horner|
|Edited by||Dan Molina|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$150 million|
An American Tail is a 1986 American animated musical adventure film directed by Don Bluth and produced by Sullivan Bluth Studios and Amblin Entertainment. The film tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family as they immigrate from Russia to the United States for freedom. However, Fievel gets lost and must find a way to reunite with his family.
Steven Spielberg's first foray into animation and his first with Bluth, the film was released on November 21, 1986 to positive reviews and was a box office hit, making it the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time. The success of An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit as well as Bluth's departure from their partnership, prompted Spielberg to establish his own animation studio, Amblimation.
In 1885, Shostka, Russia, the Mousekewitzes—a Russian-Jewish family of micewho live with a human family named Moskowitz— are having a celebration of Hanukkah, where the father gives his hat to his son Fievel and tells of a future life in America, where there are no cats. The celebration is interrupted by Cossacks in an arson attack, when the Cossack cats likewise attack the village mice. In Hamburg, Germany, the Mousekewitzes board a tramp steamer for the United States. During a storm, Fievel becomes separated from his family and washed overboard, and his family reach New York City without him. Fievel, however, floats to America in a bottle and, with the encouragement of a French pigeon named Henri, determines to find his family. He is waylaid by conman Warren T. Rat, who sells him to a sweatshop. He escapes with Tony, a street-smart Italian-American mouse, and they join with Bridget, an Irish mouse trying to rouse her fellow mice against the cats. When a gang of cats called the Mott Street Maulers attacks a mouse marketplace, the immigrant mice learn that the tales of a cat-free country are not true. Bridget takes Fievel and Tony to Honest John, an alcoholic but reliable politician who knows all the voting mice in New York City; but because the Mousekewitzes have not yet registered to vote, he cannot find them. Fievel's sister Tanya tells her parents that Fievel is still alive, but they disbelieve her.
Led by the rich and powerful Gussie Mausheimer, the mice hold a rally to decide their rebellion against the Maulers; but decide nothing, until Fievel whispers a plan to Gussie. Although the Mousekewitzes attend the rally, they are unable to see Fievel onstage. Later, the mice assemble on Chelsea Pier and begin construction of a 'Secret Weapon'. On the day of its launch, Fievel stumbles upon Warren T.'s lair, where he learns that Warren T. is a cat in disguise, and the leader of the Maulers. Warren T.'s followers imprison Fievel; but his guard, a reluctant, clumsy, soft-hearted cat named Tiger, befriends Fievel and frees him. Thereafter Fievel races back to the pier with the Maulers after him when Gussie orders the mice to 'release the Secret Weapon'; whereupon a giant mechanical mouse, inspired by the bedtime tales told to Fievel of the "Giant Mouse of Minsk", chases the Maulers onto a tramp steamer bound for Hong Kong. When the Secret Weapon sets the pier aflame, the mice flee as human firemen arrive. Fievel is again separated from his family and falls into despair. Papa Mouskewitz overhears Bridget and Tony calling out to Fievel; but is not convinced of their friend's identity with his son, until Mama finds their son's hat. Tiger allows the Mouskewitzes to ride him in their search; and in the end, the sound of Papa's violin leads Fievel into the arms of his family. The journey ends with Henri taking everyone to see the newly-built Statue of Liberty, and the Mouskewitzes' new life in America begins.
- Phillip Glasser as Fievel Mousekewitz. While "Fievel" is the generally accepted spelling of his name, the opening credits spell it as "Feivel", the more common transliteration of the Yiddish name (פֿײַװל Fayvl). (Cf. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and Feivel Gruberger.) (The ending credits spell his name as "Fievel".) However, many English-speaking writers have come to adopt the spelling Fievel (with reversed i and first e) especially for this character; it was this spelling that was used on the film's poster, in promotional materials and tie-in merchandise, and in the title of the sequel An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. His last name is a play on the Jewish-Russian last name "Moskowitz", the name of the human occupants of the house his family is living under in the beginning of the film.
- Amy Green as Tanya Mousekewitz (singing voice provided by Betsy Cathcart), Fievel's older sister. Optimistic, cheerful, and obedient, she continued to believe that her brother was alive after he was washed off the ship en route to America. She was given an American name 'Tillie' at the immigration point at Castle Garden.
- John P. Finnegan as Warren T. Rat, a cat disguised as a rat and the leader of the Mott Street Maulers, a gang of cats who terrorize the mice of New York City. He is accompanied nearly all the time by his accountant Digit, a small British-accented cockroach.
- Nehemiah Persoff as Papa Mousekewitz, the head of the Mousekewitz family who plays the violin and tells stories to his children.
- Erica Yohn as Mama Mousekewitz, Fievel's mother. Countering Papa's dreamy idealism, Mama is a level-headed pragmatist, and appears to be the stricter of the two Mousekewitz parents. She also has a fear of flying.
- Pat Musick as Tony Toponi, a streetwise young mouse of Italian descent and with a "tough New Yorker" attitude. The name "Toponi" is a play on "topo", the Italian word for "mouse".
- Dom DeLuise as Tiger, a very large, cowardly, long-haired orange tabby who also happens to be vegetarian (with the exception of the occasional fish).
- Christopher Plummer as Henri, a pigeon of French descent, who is in New York City while building the Statue of Liberty.
- Cathianne Blore as Bridget, an attractive mouse with an Irish accent and Tony's girlfriend. Kind, passionate, yet soft-spoken, Bridget acts as a kindly motherly figure to Fievel.
- Neil Ross as Honest John, a local Irish-born mouse politician who knows every voting mouse in New York City. An ambulance-chasing drunkard who takes advantage of voters' concerns to increase his political prestige, he is a stereotype of the 19th-century Tammany Hall politicians.
- Madeline Kahn as Gussie Mausheimer, a German-born mouse considered to be the richest in New York City, who rallies the mice into fighting back against the cats.
- Will Ryan as Digit, Warren T.'s British cockroach accountant who has a fondness for counting money, but is plagued by frequent electrical charges in his antennae whenever he gets nervous or excited.
- Hal Smith as Moe, a fat rat who runs the sweatshop Fievel is sold to by Warren T.
- Dan Kuenster as Jake, 1st and burly Member of Warren T.'s Gang, The Mott Street Maulers. Enjoys listening to his boss' music on the violin as he, Tiger and the other Maulers play poker. He later catches Fievel after the very 1st chase with the rest of the gang members. He guards the poor imprisoned Fievel until Tiger wakes him up and comes to take his place. Jake and the gang later chase Fievel again after Tiger has freed him. But they never catch him again. They chase him all the way to the Chelsea Pier . Then he, Warren T., Digit and the rest of the entire gang are later chased away by the Giant Mouse of Minsk.
Production began in December 1984 as a collaboration between Spielberg, 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, Spielberg 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 Don 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 Spielberg's 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."
Originally, the concept consisted of an all-animal world, like Disney's Robin Hood, but Bluth suggested featuring 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 was heavily edited before its final release. Bluth felt uncomfortable with the main character's name, thinking "Fievel" was too foreign-sounding, and he felt audiences wouldn't remember it. Spielberg disagreed. The character was named after his maternal grandfather, Philip Posner, whose Yiddish name was Fievel. (The scene in which he presses up against a window to look into a classroom filled with American "schoolmice" is based on a story Spielberg remembered about his grandfather, who told him that Jews were only able to listen to school lessons through open windows while sitting outside in the snow). 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 Bluth was developing revolving around wave monsters while the family was at sea.
Bluth described the process of voice casting as "sometimes you can select a 'name' voice [i.e., a well-known actor] 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."
- Glasser (Fievel) was discovered by accident when Bluth and his crew overheard him auditioning for an Oscar Mayer commercial.
- Green (Tanya Mousekewitz) was a young actress who had done some previous television series work and several commercials.
- Persoff, a respected actor in many films, was chosen to play the part of Papa Mousekewitz mostly because he had a similar role as Barbra Streisand's father in Yentl.
- Yahn (Mama Mousekewitz) has appeared in many features, but her work as a Russian gypsy on a TV show attracted the attention of Bluth and John Pomeroy.
- Finnegan won 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.
- Musick (Tony Toponi) is one of a small number of women in animation chosen to voice a male character. She based his voice on a friend she knew from grade school.
- DeLuise (Tiger) 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 later Plummer was 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.
- Kahn was chosen to play 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' Blazing Saddles.
Will Ryan (Digit), Neil Ross (Honest John), Cathianne Blore (Bridget), and Hal Smith (Moe) are all voice actors well known in the animation industry.
In designing the look of the film and its characters, Bluth worked with Amblin Entertainment and the Sears marketing department (Sears 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 successful, and at 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 seeking products for their young children, and only three years before the beginning of the Disney Renaissance for the studio Bluth once worked for.
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 also used in many Disney films.
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 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 song writers 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 film's story line look jumbled. Notable cuts include the Mousekewitz family's journey across Europe, a scene in which the Mouskewitzes 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 which gave greater explanation of the changing of names at Ellis Island. Cuts are also responsible for the 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 the film 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 which 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.
Spielberg's original vision for the film was as a musical—it is said he wanted a "Heigh-Ho" of his own (referring to the popular song from Disney's Snow White). The score for the film was composed by James Horner, recorded in England, and performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and the Choir of King's College. Two excerpts of period music also appear in the film, the John Philip Sousa march Stars and Stripes Forever, and Poor Wand'ring One from the 1880 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. There is also a musical reference to the 1947 song Galway Bay popularized by Bing Crosby. Initially Bluth and his team were disappointed with the first score recording, but once edited, they found the music worked quite well. Ironically, the final score became one of the film's strongest points.
After the first round of songs were written, it was decided a special song would be written for Linda Ronstadt (at that time the girlfriend of George Lucas) to sing over the end credits with James Ingram. The song "Somewhere Out There", composed by Horner and written by Barry Mann, won a Grammy Award and became one of the most popular songs from an animated feature since the 1950s.
The soundtrack was released in November 1986 by MCA Records:
- "Main Title"
- "The Cossack Cats"
- "There Are No Cats in America" – sung by Papa Mousekewitz, and an Italian and Irish mouse, and the Chorus
- "The Storm"
- "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor" – Chorus
- "Never Say Never" – sung by Fievel, Henri, and the chorus of female pigeons
- "The Market Place"
- "Somewhere Out There" – sung by Fievel and Tanya (Betsy Cathcart)
- "Somewhere Out There" – sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram
- "Releasing the Secret Weapon"
- "A Duo" – sung by Fievel and Tiger
- "The Great Fire"
- "Flying Away and End Credits"
At the time of its release, An American Tail became the highest-grossing non-Disney produced animated feature, drawing over US$47 million. It was also one of the first animated films to outdraw a Disney film, beating out The Great Mouse Detective (also released in 1986 but four months earlier) by over US$22 million. It would later be outgrossed by the next Bluth film, 1988's The Land Before Time, which marginally outperformed Oliver & Company. The record would quickly be shattered with the release of The Little Mermaid three years later.
An American Tail has grossed up to $47 million in the United States and $150 million worldwide.
The staff of Halliwell's Film Guide gave it one star out of four. "[This] expensive cartoon feature", they wrote, "[has] not much in the way of narrative interest or indeed humor." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two stars out of four, calling it a "dark and gloomy story", adding that "only a few children will understand or care that the Mousekewitzes are Jewish." Vincent Canby of the New York Times gave the film two stars out of five, calling the film "witless if well-meaning."
- American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
- Somewhere Out There – Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Animated Film
The film was released on VHS in 1987 by MCA Home Video, and again the same year by CIC Video, with a Spanish dubbed version separately released on VHS as Un cuento americano (An American Tale, dropping the pun inherent in the English title), and was released in 2003 on DVD which contains the main English track (but however there were new added voiceovers and sound effects throughout the film, and the two of the Orphans are re-dubbed.), as well as dubbing for French and Spanish. The French title, Fievel et le Nouveau Monde (Fievel and The New World), also drops the English pun. The film was released on both DVD and Blu-ray for the first time on March 4, 2014 as a single-disc set.
A Fievel-themed playground was built at Universal Studios Florida, featuring a large water slide and many over-sized objects such as books, glasses, cowboy boots, and more. It is the only such playground at any of NBC Universal's theme parks.
Sequels and spin-offs
In 1991, the film was followed by a theatrical sequel, entitled Fievel Goes West, the television series Fievel's American Tails, and two direct-to-video follow-ups: The Treasure of Manhattan Island and The Mystery of the Night Monster, none of which Don Bluth had any involvement with.
Fievel later served as the mascot for Spielberg's Amblimation animation studio, appearing in its production logo. Also, as reported on the official An American Tail website, Fievel has become the mascot for UNICEF as well.
Art Spiegelman accused Spielberg of plagiarism due to the fact the Jews are depicted as mice in An American Tail just as in Spiegelman's earlier Maus, a metaphor Spiegelman had adopted from Nazi propaganda. Instead of pursuing copyright litigation, Spiegelman opted to beat the film's release date by convincing his publishers to split Maus into two volumes and publish the first before he even finished the second.
- Finding Nemo, a 2003 animated film with a similar premise
- "AN AMERICAN TAIL (U)". British Board of Film Classification. November 20, 1986. Retrieved August 2, 2015.
- Cawley, John. "The Animated Films of Don Bluth". Retrieved 2013-08-23.
- Cawley, John. "The Animated Films of Don Bluth". Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- Canby, Vincent (November 21, 1986). "An American Tail". The New York Times.
- Baby Name Feivel – Origin and Meaning of Feivel
- Behind the Name: Meaning, Origin and History of the Name Feivel
- Joseph McBride. Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Simon & Schuster 1997, pages 20-21.
- William Grimes The New York Times: The Times of The Eighties. The Culture, Politics and Personalities that Shaped the Decade, from a November 29, 1989 New York Times article The Past Is Now The Latest Craze by Randall Rothenberg, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2013, page 184.
- "An American Tail". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-07-05.
- Gritten, David, ed. (2007). "An American Tail". Halliwell's Film Guide 2008. Hammersmith, London: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 37. ISBN 0-00-726080-6.
- "3:AM Cult Hero: Don Bluth". N/A. 3:AM Magazine. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees
- AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
- Billen, Andrew (December 2, 2003). "The mouse with the sting in his tale". London: Times Online. Retrieved 2009-05-19.
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- Official website
- An American Tail at the Internet Movie Database
- An American Tail at the Big Cartoon DataBase
- An American Tail at Box Office Mojo
- An American Tail at Rotten Tomatoes
- Fievel Mousekewitz at Don Markstein's Toonopedia. Archived from the original on April 4, 2012.