In the Russia of 1886, the mouse family of the Mousekewitzes lived happily in a village - as long as there were no cats around, for even mention of the C word was banned among the rodent population. Little Fievel (voiced by Phillip Glasser) liked to hear the stories of his Papa (Nehemiah Persoff), especially when he started to rhapsodise about America where the family hoped to go one day; it was the land where no cats lived, according to the old man. But come winter and the pogroms occurred, bringing disaster to the mice and forcing them out of their homes...
An American Tail was an attempt by Steven Spielberg to beat the Disney cartoon industry at their own game, not that difficult in the Western animation climate of the eighties you might have thought. And more so in that the man in charge was Don Bluth, an ex-Disney animator himself and setting out in this decade to bring back a high degree of quality to cartoons that he felt had been missing, particularly in light of the amount of cheap excuses to sell children toys which were plaguing the television stations as programming for younger viewers. All very noble intentions, but how did this effort play?
The answer was sluggishly, as while the affection that was lavished upon the characters and the handpainted backgrounds was evident, this was far too worthy and lacking a plot that dealt in anything but hackneyed aspects to really come alive and dance as it was supposed to. It didn't help that Fievel was a somewhat annoying little tyke who starts off his own adventure through nobody's fault but his own when he insists on heading off by himself during a storm on the immigrants' ship which separates him from his family - parents, sister and incredible disappearing baby - and prompts him to spend the rest of the film trying to be reunited with them.
Fievel was intended to be a cutesy creation with his too-big clothes and hat and ready grin, but only goes to show how such obviousness can be resistable if layered on too thickly as it is here. A pro-immigration story was at least brave in the Reagan era, especially as it bolstered its championing of the aliens as utterly patriotic, but that's another reason why it didn't really play outside of its homeland and below the ages when its messages would be lost on the youngsters plonked down in front of it to keep them quiet for a while. For a potential poster boy, Fievel veered too close to the pathetic to be someone to look up to for the disadvantaged, and besides, he'd already mastered the American accent well before his arrival there.
Notably when Bluth insisted on having him sing the hit song Somewhere Out There, best known from its Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram version, but here murdered by the tone deaf stylings of the junior cast members in a dreadful scene of misjudgement. As for the adventure, it was uninspired stuff once it was acknowledged that there were indeed cats in the States, with the little mouse running away from them and making friends who wish to assist him as he bumbled through the streets of New York City. The whole "God bless America" part was slopped on with a trowel, so much so that it seemed to be an advertisement for the immigration board even if it admitted life was not plain sailing for those forced to up sticks and move country, but more than that this wanted to be a sincere tribute to many of the filmmakers' European Jewish roots, which was fine, but made this too close in tone to some dry historical lesson, even with songs and Dom DeLuise as a friendly kitty. The sequel wasn't bad, though. Music by James Horner.
Bluth is also famous for Dragon's Lair, one of the of the first Laser Disc games and a marvellous cartoon in its own right. He followed that up with Space Ace... both brilliantly animated, even if the gameplay was excruciatingly frustrating! Netflix have reportedly commissioned a Dirk the Daring film!
By the nineties, Bluth just wasn't competing with Disney anymore, despite his talents, and films like Thumbelina and The Pebble and the Penguin were being largely ignored. Anastasia was a minor success, but Titan A.E., touted as a summer blockbuster, was a major flop and Bluth has not directed anything since.