Jeremy Clark has been to see An American Tail. He examines the plot structure and finds resonances from Shakespeare and Hitchcock to King Kong and Disney.
When Don Bluth left the Disney organization, to produce his own feature films, his intention was to undertake work worthy of the standards set by Disney in the heyday of the studio. His first feature, The Secret of N.I.M.H., contained remarkable character animation and memorable scenes which were indeed worthy of the early Disney. Sadly, the plot of N.I.M.H. was more of a hit-and-miss affair, a fault which has been largely rectified in his recently released, An American Tail.
Roughly speaking, the storyline of An American Tail is as follows. The Mousekevitzes, a family of Russian mice, become refugees after an attack on their village by Cossack Cats, in which their home is destroyed. Legend has it that “there are no cats in America”, so the family cross the Atlantic. Fievel, the adventurous little boy of the family is washed overboard during a violent storm. Presumed dead by his family, he undergoes solo adventures in America. It turns out that there are cats in America after all. Fievel devises a plan to rid New York of cats, and leads an army of mice in the plan’s execution. Finally, he is reunited with his family.
This synopsis demonstrates the intrinsic strengths of the plot, which enable it to act as a backbone supporting the rest of the film. If a single strand connects the rest of the story, it is surely its hero, Fievel Mousekevitz. The Cossack Cats scene shows him as a typical, high spirited young boy, both brave and foolhardy, trying to stand up against the terrifying, marauding cats. He is really too small to have any impact in the face of such danger, yet his courage is impressive even if his general lack of sense worries us somewhat, and the viewer therefore identifies strongly with him. Like all little boys, he also exhibits an immense amount of curiosity – this is another of his reasons for wanting to do battle with these cats. Curiosity nearly kills the mouse rather than her more usual feline victim!
Fievel is one of those characters who ought to learn from his narrow escapes to mend his ways, but he never does. It is curiosity again, coupled with the same bravery and foolhardiness, which leads him out onto the ship’s deck during the violent storm and consequently separates him from his family. From this point on, Fievel’s dramatic motivation becomes the desire to find his family, and it follows naturally that they are reunited towards the film’s end. Indeed, the most memorable of the four songs in the film is the duet between the lost Fievel, alone in one location, and his sister Tanya, in another, who is sure that her brother is alive “somewhere out there”. Absolutely integral to the character of Fievel, this song perfectly expresses his dramatic need, the driving force behind this section of the film.
There are a number of elements in the film’s opening scene which demonstrate a strong understanding of dramatic form. The scene introduces us to the Mousekevitz household as Papa is giving out presents to the children. One of the elements is the establishing of the mice’s fear of cats – a taboo sublect as far as Mama Mousekevitz is concerned. It might seem obvious that cats are enemies of mice, but we are dealing here with an imaginary world of such anthropomorphic characters as mice who live in little human-dwelling- like houses, and the ground rules of this small world have to be clarified in order to make them believable. Then there is the legend of ‘the Giant Mouse of Minsk’, told by papa, which concerns a mouse so huge it terrified the cats for miles around. This very legend will later provide Fievel with the raw material for ridding New York City of cats, but the ideal is introduced here in a subtle, parental-storytelling-to-children context which is impressive in its lack of obvious contrivance.
Even more impressive is the dramatic device of Fievel’s hat, which employs all the plotting skill of a prop in a Hitchcock thriller. As Papa gives out the presents, Fievel is given a hat which has been in the Mousekevitz family for generations, but which is too big for him. Papa again presents this hat to Fievel at the end of the film – only this time it fits because Fievel has grown: the hat thus becomes a device to demonstrate that Fievel has reached maturity during his solo adventures. Ironically, the hat is also the means by which Fievel gets onto the ship’s deck during the storm at sea. Papa’s worried calling for his son are met with Fievel’s impish “I’m going to fetch my hat”, which he then throws out of the cabin door onto the deck as his excuse for seeing the stormy sea and satisfying his curiosity.
If a good story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, it must be said that despite a superb beginning and end, the second two-thirds of the middle of An American Tail, after Fievel’s arrival in America, are not without their problems. These stem from the fact that this section of the film contains a complete sub-plot which for the most part lacks the interest of the main plot. During little Fievel’s search for his family (the main plot) he is introduced to a plethora of new characters when he undergoes a series of adventures, culminating in his plan to rid New York City of cats, thereby bringing it into line with stories told about it in Russia (the sub-plot).