Our Cinematic Autobiography: An American Tail
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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