This is one I haven't actually seen in years - long enough that the last time I saw it, I was totally ignorant to what this was really about. It's essentially a history lesson wrapped up in an adventurous package, giving you some idea of what Jewish families had to go through back in the late 19th century. The film was directed by Don Bluth, but produced by Steven Spielberg, and based on Spielberg's passion for history, this almost comes across as more him than Bluth.
The two would sadly eventually part ways with their creative differences. However, not before establishing the classic titles that are 'An American Tail' and 'The Land Before Time'; a couple of staples of 80s childhood. It's a shame, they seemingly made a pretty good team. Bluth's style of animation along with Spielberg's imagination made for some pretty awe-inspiring stuff. I'm wouldn't pretend to claim this as one of my favorites in the Bluth collection, really. But it does make my list of Screening Suggestions for the month just due to it being a little piece of cinematic history. If you as any 80's kid now (we're all in our late 30s/ early 40s) about 'An America Tail', I think most of us would look at it with fond memories... but we'd probably go on to say 'The Land Before Time' was better. And I say that while maintaining that I still think this is well done.
As the film opens, in 1885, we are introduced to the Russian-Jewish Mousekewitz family as they celebrate Hanukkah. Papa (Nehemiah Persoff) tells his children, Fievel (Phillip Glasser) and Tanya (Amy Green) about the land of America; a land where the threat of cats apparently doesn't exist. Meanwhile, Mama (Erica Yohn) doesn't want Papa scaring the kids with a story about cats. Almost immediately after Papa's story, the human family they live with are the victims of an anti-Jewish attack from a group of Cossacks ("people of southern Russia and Ukraine, noted for their horsemanship and military skill"). To the mice, the threat is represented by cats. When all is destroyed, the Mousekwitz family decides to head to New York and away from the threat - or so Papa believes.
While the family is on board a tramp steamer headed for America, a storm stirs up, and Fievel manages to lose the hat Papa handed down to him during the Hanukkah celebration. While chasing it down, however, Fievel becomes separated from his family and the steamer altogether. He manages to ride a bottle to Liberty Island and arrive safely, but the family is otherwise convinced he was killed in the storm. While on a mission to find his family, Fievel inadvertently finds himself teamed up with a group of mice, lead by Bridget (Cathianne Blore); an Irish mouse trying to rally a group in order to fight off the cats who everyone discovers are a part of America after all.
The main thing I managed to remember from this movie was the song 'Somewhere Out There', which is by and large probably the most famous song to ever come from a Don Bluth film. It was nominated for an Oscar that year, but managed to lose to 'Take My Breath Away' from 'Top Gun' - both would eventually get a ton of radio play. Otherwise, I barely remembered the likes of the comedy relief characters; a bumbling cat named Tiger (Dom DeLouise), and a cockroach named Digit (Will Ryan) who was basically second fiddle to the film's primary antagonist, Warren T. Rat (John Finnegan); a character I forgot about altogether. I remembered the basics of Fievel being separated from his family, and trying to get back to them. All of the other material was something I forgot about, probably because I didn't entirely understand it at the time.
Having said that, I think one would probably actually get a little more out of this as a teenager or adult. It seems to be aimed at impressionable children, but some of them might not be able to grasp some of what's going on. Personally speaking, I definitely got more out of the story now than I did as a kid. In a way, however, that's a bonus, as the film does nothing to talk down to kids. This one is a little more based in history and reality and has a bit more of a serious tone than the wonderful fantasy worlds Bluth otherwise tends to present us with. Personally, I still get more out of 'The Secret of NIMH' and 'The Land Before Time', but I'd still consider this a classic in it's own right.