Revisiting ‘An American Tail,’ a Deeply Jewish Immigration Story

For an animated kids movie about a family of mice, the film tackles the inevitable disillusionment of the American dream with nuance.

“Fiiiiievel! Fievel Mouuuuuskewitz!” If reading that made your heart race, or your eyes well up with tears, take a deep breath. Fievel’s fine. He’s a hero. And he’s about to be reunited with his family. They found him, finally, in a slum on New York’s Lower East Side. It’s 1886. And you’re with your family, in a suburban movie theater or cozy on the couch, somewhere in the United States. It’s 1986.

“An American Tail” is the first animated feature about the Mouskewitzes, a family of Russian Jewish immigrant mice. The Mousekewitz family is comprised of Papa, Mama, Fievel and Tanya, a poor Jewish family that emigrates from antisemitic Russia to New York City. On the passage over, Fievel is separated from his family. They all land in New York, facing various hurdles they did not expect in the “land of opportunity.” They struggle and persevere, but they eventually find each other and start a new life.

Their story continues in “Fievel Goes West,” the cowboy-themed sequel from 1991, but I’m here to talk about the original. I recently revisited “An American Tail” for the first time since childhood, curious to examine its depiction of tsarist Russia, a subject about which I have, over the course of my life, come to learn quite a lot. Would it be wildly inaccurate, like Don Bluth’s animated “Anastasia,” a historical fantasy of the Russian Revolution? Or would it be subtle and provocative, like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a family memoir in the form of a graphic novel that similarly uses mice to represent Jews and cats for their oppressors?

I wished I could have begun my “American Tail” re-watch with the whirr of a rewinding VHS tape but it’s 2021, not 1991. I streamed it. Seen through the eyes of a 35-year-old Jewish woman with a PhD in Slavic literature, “An American Tail” falls squarely between “Anastasia” and “Maus.

The opening scene is a snowy night in a shtetl. A title card reads “Shostka, Russia. 1885.” Shostka is in Ukraine today, but it was then technically part of the Russian Empire. We can let that one slide. Inside the family’s humble and cozy home, they’re exchanging Hanukkah gifts. The girl, Tanya, gets “a new babushka” and our hero, Fievel, gets his father’s cap which is far too big for his little head. There’s a few inaccuracies in this: Babushka is an American word for an Eastern European headscarf; it comes from the Russian word for grandmother, or babushka. And, a Hanukkah gift exchange is really more of a 20th-century American thing than a 19th-century shtetl thing. But we’ll let it all slide, because this was, ultimately, a film released in 1980s America reflecting American Jewish life at the time.

In this opening, there are tender and thoughtful touches. The Mouskewitz parents evoke Tevye and Golde from “Fiddler on the Roof”: Papa is a dreamer and his violin-playing is a crucial plot point; Mama, on the other hand, is more pragmatic. Papa tells stories about the “Giant Mouse of Minsk” using the cadence and conventions of a Yiddish folk tale. And Fievel’s favorite book is “The Brothers Karamousov,” a fun play on Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.”

The cozy Hanukkah scene is interrupted by a pogrom. “An American Tail” isn’t set in a mouse world — the mice live in small corners of a human village, which is torched by ruthless Cossacks on horseback (the Cossacks are a diverse ethnic group native to Russia and Ukraine, and well-known for their vigorous military tradition). Accompanying the Cossacks are vicious, bloodthirsty cats, racing across the grounds to terrorize the mice.

The feline oppressors are an artistic touch, but the larger historical conditions are quite accurate. 1885 was not a great time to be a Jew in Russia. (Nu, when was it ever?) The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 sparked a wave of pogroms, as did a series of antisemitic laws passed in 1883 by his successor. These conditions were at the heart of the mass emigration of Jews from the Russian Empire to the United States in the decades before WWI and the Russian Revolution. It’s the emigration story of my own family, and the tide of history that sweeps up the Mouskewitzes.

I remembered the song “There Are No Cats in America” as allegorical, but I thought the cats stood for the Cossacks themselves. And for the Mouskewitzes, they do. But the song is sung during the mice’s overseas voyage, in concert with other refugee mice — Italian and Irish. For each of them, the cats represent the specific oppressors in their homeland. And for all of them, America represents a land without oppression.

“An American Tail” does have something to say about history — not Russian but American, because the bulk of the story is about the immigrant experience in late 19th-century New York. We see harried and involuntary assimilation, as Fievel’s sister Yasha is renamed Tessie and Fievel starts to go by Filly. We see ethnic differences grow insignificant as class differences become more meaningful: The poor Jewish mice have more in common with other poor immigrant mice than they do with the Jewish Gussie Mousenheimer, the richest mouse in New York (voiced by the legendary Jewish comedian Madeline Kahn). We see graft and corruption, the construction of the Statue of Liberty, horrendous conditions in tenements and sweatshops. And, of course, there are cats in America.

I was surprised to realize that, ultimately, “An American Tail” is about the inevitable disillusionment that comes from holding up the United States as the promised land. As cynical and informed as I thought I was about this country, I myself experienced this disillusionment acutely over the past few years. The rise of violent Trumpist populism and its attendant disenfranchisement of all but white cis-het US-born males, not to mention climate disaster and the catastrophically mismanaged pandemic, gives the lie to the notion that this is a “First World” country. Those global refugees who pin their hopes on the United States, do they find it better or worse than their native countries? Better or worse than refugees did 150 years ago? Maybe better and worse, both in different ways.

Because “An American Tail” is a kids’ movie, it’s also about the “American dream.” For Fievel, that means drawing strength from his identity as a Russian Jew to confront the unique problems this country poses. When the family is reunited, the foes are vanquished and Fievel’s too-big hat suddenly fits, Papa intones, like a rabbi congratulating a bar mitzvah boy, “Now, you’re a mouse. Now, you’re an American.”

In the end, the movie endorses the idea that the United States is a “land of opportunity,” but it’s a qualified endorsement. The Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” is cast on the pedestal of the giant statue at Ellis Island, didn’t call her Lady Liberty, but Mother of Exiles. That’s how Fievel, pluck notwithstanding, experiences this country: In some ways it’s as hostile as the one he left behind, compounded by the trauma of immigration itself, but in others, it’s a place where he can dream, grow and better himself and his community. It’s a deeply Jewish immigration story, and it’s a hallmark of Jewish storytelling that the songs and humor are what we remember.

Although the movie became a cultural touchstone for its generation, my generation, it didn’t achieve the status of a classic kids’ movie. Singing mice notwithstanding, my guess is it’s too rough, too real, too truthful. “An American Tail” takes place in a mythic United States — not an unreal place, but a place powered by its mythology. And with that as the setting, the story can never be a fairy tale.

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Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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