Our Cinematic Autobiography: An American Tail

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Our Cinematic Autobiography: An American Tail

By TK | Think Pieces | July 31, 2012 | Comments ()


I harbor no illusions -- An American Tail is not a great movie. It barely registers on the list of memorable animated fare of the last 30 years, and when it was initially released in 1986, it had its fair share of critics. I was not one of those critics. I loved the movie with all my heart when I was a boy, and surprisingly, it became one of the more important movies in my life for some very unusual reasons.

The film is a quaint one, the rare non-Disney production (especially in the '80s) to achieve some financial success. Directed by Don Bluth, it capitalized on the trials and tribulations of immigrants to frame its story, a theme that I was not unfamiliar with, even at that young age. The story of An American Tail concerns the Mousekewitzes, a family of Jewish mice living in 1885 Russia who flee the tyrannical Cossacks (represented by evil cats) to come to the United States. During a perilous overseas journey, their son Fievel is swept overboard and feared lost. The film then follows Fievel's poignant adventures as he desperately seeks his lost family. It's the usual kiddie fare about never giving up hope and love and staying true to yourself, yet it was relatively clever in its execution.

What separated An American Tail from many of its contemporaries was that it was actually surprisingly serious -- and at times quite grim -- in its tone, and also had a decent amount of historical education mixed in. Fievel ends up being sold into a sweatshop, has to fight roving gangs of criminal cats, deals with some Tammany Hall-esque political machinations (not the least of which is a New York politician named, no joke, Honest John), and encounters all manner of immigrants on these strange new American shores. There's a surprising amount of subtext for such a simplistic film. While Feivel is fighting for his friends and struggling to find his family, his family is struggling through their own new lives, all while his sister Tanya refuses to accept that he is dead. The brother-sister bond is summed up in the musical number "Somewhere Out There," wherein the siblings sing to each other from miles apart. It was quite stirring.

OK, perhaps not. But I was a boy, you see. A boy who had moved to this country only a year or so prior, and was having a hard time finding my place in the new world. I didn't have quite the same working class struggles that Feivel and his family had -- no, we had moved to a rather affluent suburb where I was one of the few minorities. I was working on ridding myself of my mock-worthy South Africa accent, to little avail. So yes, An American Tail resonated with me in ways I neither expected nor fully understood. All I know is that I loved the damn film, and insisted that my parents eventually buy it for me on VHS, which I eventually watched until the ribbon became as thread.

And that song.

My sister, who is a theater director of some note, once printed in the Playbill of one of her productions that I used to sing "Somewhere Out There" every day for a whole year. I'd like to believe that she exaggerates because the song is cheesy as hell and more saccharine than Tab, but I'm not certain that's true. Regardless, it too struck a chord with me. The sense of loneliness touched upon me and I never could quite let it go. 26 years later, I'm fairly certain I can recall most of the lyrics.

The story doesn't end there. That sense of loneliness, the confusion and unfamiliarity that is unique to the American immigrant experience, may have subsided, but the effect was a lasting one. Ten years later, my parents would return to South Africa, this time permanently -- and without me or my sister. I was a grown man at that point, or close enough, anyway. Still in college, I'd decided I was ready for anything, with a brain full of theory, a heart full of stubborn determination and no understanding of the real world. In a single day, that changed. My parents actually moved separately due to their employment obligations, and my father was the first to leave. My dad and I had an occasionally tempestuous relationship, yet there has never been -- and never will be -- a man I loved and respected more. On the day he left, we spoke of things as men do as we drove to the airport together. We joked about me being the man of the house -- an empty house, but still. We shared a cigarette together, a first-time occurrence. And when the time came, I casually threw my arm around his shoulder and walked him to the gate, as if I was seeing an old buddy off.

And then my heart exploded in my chest. My sense of loss was total, and I was completely destroyed. I died that day, as a piece of me shattered inside and never fully healed. I cried like I never have, clutching at him and sobbing into the strength of his shoulder. My family had moved from country to country repeatedly, lived in all kinds of homes and cities, constantly having to readjust to new surroundings -- hell, we'd lived through Apartheid -- but always together. Even when I went to college, they were always there, a mere 1,000 miles away. But now I was lost, adrift without that support, that strength, searching for a family that wasn't there anymore. I no longer had a home. I simply couldn't fathom how I would survive.

Of course, I did. And later that year, I returned to college. One night, I was home alone as my roommates had left to go out to party and I was too hungover to deal with people. So I wandered into a video store and randomly found myself walking through the animated aisle, probably considering renting Fritz the Cat again. And there it was. Son of a bitch. An American Tail. I rented it, and sat home alone that night and watched it again and thought of home and hope and love and family. I watched Feivel and Tanya sing about finding one another in that big somewhere out there, and for a moment, it all came crashing back to me. And strangely, everything was OK. My parents had left but weren't gone -- I was seeing them that Christmas, in fact. The story was cheesier and sillier than I'd remembered, and the animation clunky and mottled. The voice acting wildly inconsistent and the humor occasionally flat. But it didn't matter. It reminded me of home, and for that night, that's all I needed.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Aaron Schulz

    That movie will make me scared, cry, lonely, hopeful and filled with unbridled joy even to this day. 29 years old now but when i watch that im 4 again clutching my fievel plush and praying he finds his family. Gave me a lifelong fear of losing my family but also a strange sense of hope. To this day If things seem like they will never get better i can hear Henry the pidgeon say never say never again.

    Damn you Im going to cry.

  • brite

    What a lovely little piece ... thanks TK!

  • Bodhi

    I fucking HATED this movie my entire childhood. Why? Because there ARE cats in America, goddamnit!

    I clearly saw this as a damn near infant & never wanted to see it again. Maybe I should watch it again... if only to traumatize my 15 month old son...

  • Anne Lucchesi

    We watched this in school when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, along with Ben and Me. There is a generation out there who will all smile if you tell them we must have a wawwy. Thanks for the reminder. This was lovely.

  • Huh. It appears to have been raining on my face.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    These stories need to come with some sort of warning system so that I can not be caught off guard and all of a sudden sobbing at my desk in front of my coworkers. Honestly, this is costing me a lot of street cred. I'm thinking a key in the upper right corner: 3 tears means total tear jerker, 2 tears mean a faceful of tears and some hearty sniffles. 1 tear means a sniffle, a brave, wavery smile, and a drop or two. I give this 2.5 tears.

  • Return of Santitas

    Dude. I was all, 'pssh, An American Tail, I got this". No I did not. I live across an ocean from my parents and I am permanently an errant thought away from full tears at all times. As this proved. Luckily I am at home, so my street cred remains undamaged.

  • TK, this is perfection. And you're not wrong about the song, it even gets me in "Community." Every. Damn. Time.


  • Listening to "Somewhere out there" While reading your story = Manly tears.

  • Tinkerville

    Dammit, dammit, dammit. I can't even hear the opening notes of Somewhere Out There without crying and now this has set me off at work. This was beautiful, TK. Thank you.

  • Sofia

    Oh, this one...

    In Spanish it translates to An American Dream. I watched it every time it was on TV (this one and All Dogs Go To Heaven) and I always felt so afraid for him because I couldn't imagine living without my family.

    This was beautifully written. Very touching, TK.

  • Jim

    I have a vivid memory of the trailer playing before some summer blockbuster of the day. The audience was in the middle of "settlin' down" and the mouse said "Poppa?" plaintively ... and as one we said "Awwwwwwwww.." to the screen.

    Just like those manipulative movie honchos wanted us to.

  • Megsie

    Love this one too, but my fave was always Rats of Nimh...wonder if that's on Netflix?

  • ShagEaredVillain

    I'm just old enough to remember '86 and this awesome movie.
    As a child, I fell hook, line and sinker for this schlock and loved every minute of it. As an adult, I can't help but notice the animation stumbles and what a horrendous role model Fievel is.

    However, my adult self loves the hell out of three key things you missed: -Dom Deloise -Ridiculously French Christopher Plummer -Madeline Kahn with a speech impediment
    Also, "Somewhere Out There" is my go-to karaoke duet. I rock that bitch.

  • tamatha_uhmelmahaye

    Lovely column.
    And I love the image of "young, angry" TK watching this movie in college while his roommates are out partying.

  • Nieve 'The Threadkiller Queen'

    I adored this film the song always made me cry and the reunion at the end always had me jumping for joy. Great review

  • E-Money

    My 3 year old nephew lives in Texas with his parents and I only see him once or twice a year if that. He is the only little kid in my life and despite my typical hatred of the small ones he has a very special place in my heart. He LOVES to sing somewhere out there. He, of course, has no idea the power it has on me but nevertheless when his parents call me he always sings somewhere out there into the phone. Chokes me up every time. When I was studying abroad and feeling homesick I would watch the video of him singing somewhere out there I had stored on my computer. It might be cheesy as hell but it can be very poignant. Troy and Abed would agree.

  • mb

    I loved this, so much. Thank you TK!

  • BobbFrapples

    I often find myself singing "There are No Cats in America," at odd moments in my life.

  • Anne Lucchesi

    Yes! And the streets are paved with cheese!

  • Tinkerville

    My god, I thought I was the only one..

  • Aaron Schulz

    Our family was traveling, through the snow to minsk. Suddenly papa saw those huge paw prints. When i heard him screaming i fainted dead away. And i woke up an orphan. Oy Vey.


  • KatSings

    It's so dusty in here! Seriously, this column is awesome. I love reading how each of you connect to these films.

  • *snf*

  • Julie Chase

    Aaaand tears.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Wewease the secret weapon!

    This is a sweet movie. Of course it's cheesy, but it really is a good kids flick - yes, full of optimism, but as you noted, not glossing over unpleasantness, even the brusqueness of the world.

    And there are no cats in America.

  • Stacey

    (And the streets are made of cheese!)

  • mairimba

    DUDE! Why did you make it all dusty in here?

  • Oh man. This kinda wrecked me. "Somewhere Out There" always makes me cry (I know, I'm a saccharine sucker) but now when I hear it I'm gonna picture a sad little TK.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  • AngelenoEwok

    At any given time, I'm usually a couple thousand miles away from most of my family and friends. Week before last, I was texting back and forth with a friend about awesomely-cheesy karaoke options. We started talking about "Somewhere Out There," and I got verklempt, ver real.

  • BarbadoSlim

    Wow, I'm going to have to watch this now. I'm pretty sure Netflix added it to their streaming recently.

  • Bedewcrock

    Please let's include the Fievel Goes West song "Dream to Dream". And Tiger's cowboy walk.

  • Pinky McLadybits

    You have a heart! This is proof! Beautifully written, touching, and poignant PROOF!

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