What 'American Tail' Taught Us About Refugees
Don Bluth’s animated movies have always been envelope-pushing. Where Disney kept its animation pretty and its sins to its fairy tale villains, Bluth served up mangy criminal dogs who kidnap orphans, gamble with meat, and fire laser guns. He trusted that children could handle more “mature” narratives, but kept kids invested by making his heroes plucky animals. That’s how he made the harrowing story of a child refugee lost in the dangerous streets of 1885 New York City a beloved blockbuster. Today we revisit An American Tail.
As a kid, I didn’t know what the word “refugee” meant. But I knew the story of Fievel Mousekewitz, a brave little mouse who left Mother Russia for America, where mice say the streets “are paved with cheese.” It took me years to realize that Bluth was telling a pretty common story of American immigration in the 1800s. And now, this cartoon classic, that just celebrated its 30th anniversary, calls out to remind us that America was built on the blood, sweat, tears, passion, pains and push of immigrants and refugees.
Our story begins in an unforgiving Russian winter in 1885, Shostka. However inside their cozy mouse hole, the Mousekewitzes—a family of Russian-Jews—are cozy and warm, celebrating Hanukkah with music, presents, and fairy tales of the wonder of America (“What a place!”). But their celebration is shattered when marauding Cossacks—accompanied by monstrous, snarling cats—ravage their village, setting fire to homes and chasing panicked families into the street for the slaughter. Narrowly escaping extermination, this humble but happy family of five decides they must leave all they know behind, and seek salvation in America, the land of glorious opportunity.
“In America there are mouse holes in every wall!” Papa proclaims. “In America there are breadcrumbs on every floor! In America, you can say anything you want! But most importantly, in America there are no cats.” During a long and arduous ocean-crossing, mouse immigrants from all over the European continent join together to share their own tales of woe, before breaking into a joyful chorus in praise of their new homeland, “There are no cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese!”
But the Moskowitz family’s trials have not yet ended. During this journey, Fievel is ripped away from his loved ones by a vicious storm. It’s impossible to watch these scenes—where his father desperately reaches for his son as he’s swept away by an uncaring current—and not think of the Syrian toddler, dead and facedown on an unforgiving shore. It’s an image that’s gone viral again and again, most recently when Trump’s bans close the golden doors on Syria’s refugees.
But Fievel survives, surfacing fortuitously on the banks of Liberty Island, where a massive statue is being constructed. Yet, he’s downtrodden and in despair. He fears he’ll never see his family again. But a jolly New Yorker, Henri—a French pigeon voiced by Christopher Plummer—comes to his aid. He feeds, bathes, and encourages the lost boy. Guiding Fievel through the in-construction Statue of Liberty, Henri sings, “Keep up your courage. Don’t ever despair!…Take heart and then count to ten. Hope for the best, work for the rest, and never say never again!” Fievel joins him in song, and also in his work. A scared refugee helps construct Lady Liberty in a moment that elegantly reflects our nation’s founding by refugees, scared but eager to make their (American) dreams come true.
But the road to rediscovering his family is not so easy. As an undocumented immigrant, Fievel is forced into child labor. He scurries to find food and safety. But worst of all, Fievel is conned by opportunistic “businessman” Warren T. Rat, who is secretly a cat who promises protection to New York’s mice as he robs them blind and serves them up to his fat cat cohorts. In a moment too real to today, Warren’s true identity as a conniving cat is revealed and he challenges the crowd, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes!?” Yet Fievel overcomes all this to forge a community that becomes stronger together.
With the help of street smart Italian Tony Toponi, outspoken Irish activist Bridget, Tammany Hall’s Honest John, and the wealthy and privileged Gussie Mausheimer, Fievel drives the fat cats out of New York. Inspired by the folklore of his native culture, he concocts a plan to topple Warren T. and his minions. In cover of night, immigrants and refugees from all over gather to plan their resistance. Unseen is their days where they presumably work jobs, care for families, and live their lives. But at night, they go from everymice to heroes. Alone, each is just a mouse, powerless and small. But together they construct a movement, and more specifically their very own Giant Mouse of Minsk, which tips the scales of power.
Feivel is not from the United States. He’s a refugee and an illegal immigrant who washed ashore lost and alone. But while America’s streets weren’t paved with cheese, they were filled with potential friends and opportunity. And Fievel gives back with his hard work, his ideas, and his culture, making America greater than it was before he arrived. It is his American Tail. It was ours, and it can be again.
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