An American Tail (1986)

 

Highlights

  • Released on November 21st 1986
  • One of the highest-grossing non-Disney animated films of The 1980’s
  • Animated musical adventure film directed by Don Bluth
  • Featuring 1987 Grammy Award Winning Song ‘Somewhere Out There’
  • Song performed by Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram

 

An American Tail is a 1986 American animated musical adventure film directed by Don Bluth and produced by Sullivan Bluth Inc. and Amblin Entertainment. It tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family as they emigrate from the Imperial Russian territory of Ukraine to the United States for freedom. However, he gets lost and must find a way to reunite with them. It was released on November 21, 1986, to reviews that ranged from positive to mixed and was a box office hit, making it the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time. Its success, along with that of The Land Before Time and Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Bluth’s departure from their partnership, prompted Steven Spielberg to establish his own animation studio, Amblimation.

In Shostka in 1885, the Mousekewitzes, a Russian-Jewish family of mice who live with a human family named Moskowitz, are having a celebration of Hanukkah where Papa gives his hat to his 5-year-old son, Fievel, and tells him about the United States, a country where there are no cats. The celebration is interrupted when a battery of Cossacks ride through the village square in an anti-Jewish arson attack and their cats likewise attack the village mice. Because of this, the Moskowitz home, along with that of the Mousekewitzes, is destroyed.

In Hamburg, the Mousekewitzes board a tramp steamer headed for New York City. All the mice aboard are ecstatic at the prospect of going to America as there are “no cats” there. During a thunderstorm on their journey, Fievel suddenly finds himself separated from his family and washed overboard. Thinking that he has died, they proceed to the city as planned, though they become depressed at his loss.

However, Fievel floats to New York City in a bottle and, after a pep talk from a French pigeon named Henri, embarks on a quest to find his family. He is waylaid by conman Warren T. Rat, who gains his trust and then sells him to a sweatshop. He escapes with Tony Toponi, a street-smart Italian mouse, and they join up with Bridget, an Irish mouse trying to rouse her fellow mice to fight the cats. When a gang of them 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 see Honest John, an alcoholic politician who knows the city’s voting mice. However, he can’t help Fievel search for his family, as they have not yet registered to vote. Meanwhile, his older sister, Tanya, tells her gloomy parents she has a feeling that he is still alive, but they insist that it will eventually go away.

Led by the rich and powerful Gussie Mausheimer, the mice hold a rally to decide what to do about the cats. Warren is extorting them all for protection that he never provides. No one knows what to do about it, until Fievel whispers a plan to Gussie. Although his family also attends, they stand well in the back of the audience and they are unable to recognize Fievel onstage with her.

The mice take over an abandoned museum on the Chelsea Piers and begin constructing their plan. On the day of launch, Fievel gets lost and stumbles upon the Maulers’ lair. He discovers Warren there and that he is actually a small cat in disguise and the leader of the Maulers. They discover, capture and imprison Fievel, but his guard is a reluctant member of the gang, a goofy, soft-hearted long-haired orange tabby cat named Tiger, who befriends and frees him.

Fievel races back to the pier with the cats chasing after him. There the disguised Warren attempts to extort the mice again to surrender Fievel and their money in exchange for their safety, but when Tony removes Warren’s disguise in front of the mice with the aid of a slingshot, they defiantly refuse. Warren then sets fire to the pier’s entrance in an attempt to burn the mice alive, until Gussie finally orders the mice to release the secret weapon. A huge mechanical mouse, inspired by the bedtime tales Papa told Fievel of the “Giant Mouse of Minsk”, chases Warren and his gang down the pier and into the water.

A tramp steamer bound for Hong Kong picks them up on its anchor and carries them away. However, a pile of leaking kerosene cans has caused remnants of the fire Warren had started to ignite the entire pier, and the mice are forced to flee when the human fire department arrives to extinguish it.

During the fire, Fievel is once again separated from his family and ends up at an orphanage. Papa and Tanya overhear Bridget and Tony calling out to Fievel, but Papa is sure that there may be another “Fievel” somewhere, until Mama finds his hat.

Joined by Gussie, Tiger allows them to ride him in a final effort to find Fievel and they are ultimately successful. The journey ends with Henri taking everyone to see his newly completed project—the Statue of Liberty, which appears to smile and wink at Fievel and Tanya, and the Mouskewitzes’ new life in the United States begins.

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, 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.

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 “school mice” is based on a story Spielberg remembered about his grandfather, who told him that Jews were only able to listen to 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.

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.

After the first round of songs were written, it was decided a special song would be written for Linda Ronstadt to sing over the end credits with James Ingram. Called “Somewhere Out There“, it was composed by Horner and Barry Mann with lyrics by Cynthia Weil, won a Grammy Award, and became one of the most popular songs from an animated feature since the 1950s.

The film has grossed up to $47 million in the United States, also known as the domestic box office, and $84 million worldwide. At the time of its domestic release, it became the highest-grossing non-Disney produced animated feature. It was also one of the first animated films to outdraw a Disney one, beating out The Great Mouse Detective (another traditionally animated film involving mice that was released in 1986 but four months earlier) by over US$22 million. However, The Great Mouse Detective was more successful with critics, most notably Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The inexpensive success of The Great Mouse Detective played a large role in the Disney Renaissance; due to the fact that it was both a critical and financial success, which saved Walt Disney Animation Studios from going bankrupt after The Black Cauldron had flopped at the box office a year earlier. It would later be outgrossed by Bluth’s next film, 1988‘s The Land Before Time, which marginally outperformed Oliver & Company. However, Oliver & Company did beat out The Land Before Time at the domestic box office by $5,000,000. The record would quickly be shattered with the release of The Little Mermaid, the film that many consider to be the start of the Disney Renaissance, three years later after the release of the film, beating out Don Bluth’s own film, All Dogs Go to Heaven.

The song “Somewhere Out There” written by James Horner received a number of accolades during the 19871988 award season, including Grammys for “Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television” and “Song of the Year”, as well as “Most Performed Song from a Motion Picture” from both the ASCAP and Broadcast Music. It also received a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Original Song from a Motion Picture”, and an Academy Award nomination for “Best Original Song”, losing both to “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun.

The film was first released on VHS in 1987, and later on LaserDisc in both regular and CAV play editions in November 1991 by MCA Home Video in North America, and CIC Video internationally.

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