Whilst it fits in with the idea of Fievel’s growing up while separated from his parents, there is insufficient dramatic material here to furnish a workable sub-plot. Mice plotting against cats does have such potential, but the cats’ visual design lets it down. Low-life, street criminal type New York Cats seem trivial after the truly ferocious Cossack Cats seen earlier on. This situation is worsened by the introduction of Tiger, an annoyingly vegetarian cat who befriends mice rather than eating them. Tiger bears remarkable resemblance to Gilbert Shelton’s ‘60’s strip cartoon character, ‘Fat Freddy’s Cat’, who always seemed more of a nuisance to human beings than as a threat to mice.
The one genuinely interesting character to be found among the New York Cats is their leader, Warren T. Rat, racketeer, conman and crook, who sells immigrant mouse children into slavery in textile sweatshops. Warren T.’s sidekick is a cockroach named Digit who lives – quite literally – in his boss’s pocket, and whose antennae spark electricity like some antiquated electrical generator whenever he counts up money coin by coin and calculates his arithmetical sums in his head. Warren T.’s opportunism is perfectly demonstrated by his continual mis-quoting of Shakespeare. “If music be the food of love”, he quips, “play on, Macduff, play on”. That Digit is the ideal companion for this character is demonstrated by a similar remark: “…as Shakespeare said – and I quote – “Opportunity knocks but”, and Digit has to prompt ‘‘once’’ when Warren T. forgets the quantity concerned.
Warren T. Rat is a very effective villain, but the problem is that he is introduced as a rat when he is in fact a cat in disguise as a rat. Unfortunately, he is so well disguised prior to this revelation that it is difficult to think of him, once so revealed, as the ferocious cat he actually is, rather than the crooked rat he pretended to be. Besides, he is much too small to be a ferocious cat.
As for the mice, they are by and large a fairly tedious lot apart from the Mousekevitz family themselves. Fievel’s American companion, Tony Toponi, seems little more than a loud-mouthed kid who thinks he knows it all and does little to inspire our sympathy. Bridgit, an Irish activist mouse who speaks out against cats in front of small crowds promises to be interesting, but is quickly relegated to love interest for Tony, and a sub-plot which the film could well do without. The prim, Germanic Gussie Mouseheimer, the richest mouse in New York, looks like something out of a mouse version of Amadeus, and is little more than a grating caricature, although comedienne Madeleine Kahn’s voice is an inspiration sadly let down by the boring visual concept.
There is, however, one mouse character who is genuinely amusing. Honest John is a drunken, vote-fixing Irish mouse. He is immensely big and fat – the latter from consuming, one suspects, excessive quantities of food and drink at wakes of the recently deceased members of the New York electrol roll. Although not averse to fiddling the odd few votes, he seems the sort of mouse who would never harm a fly. In short, a marvellous comic character.
Like The Secret of N.I.M.H., An American Tail is visually of a standard which compares well with the classic Disney features. If one winces a little at the occasional rotoscoped human beings, the lavish painted backgrounds more than compensate. Particularly impressive are the briefly seen eleated New York railway system and the interiors of “Dr Digitalis’ Museum of the Bizarre”, dark, mysterious, and full of strange items like human skulls.
There are even a few moments which recall ideas or techniques of that great filmic storyteller Alfred Hitchcock. When the ship rolls around in the storm, and Fievel is in danger of being washed overboard, his father grabs at Fievel’s shirtsleeve to save him. However, Fievel’s arm slips through his sleeve in much the same manner as the dangling villain in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1941) who falls to his death, a ploy the director reworked in numerous subsequent films. There is a whole sequence in the Digitalis Museum where we watch kerosene spreading out over the floor near a fire, a scene almost lifted straight out of The Birds (1963). The best of the lot are Fievel’s hat, discussed earlier, and the deceptively simple nautical chart of Fievel’s plan to rid New York of cats. It shows the Digitalis Museum housing the secret weapon, and the trajectory of the cats which will be directed along the pier as they flee from the secret weapon onto a ship sailing for Shanghai. The shot is onscreen only a few seconds, but in that time conveys a wealth of information in visual form which would otherwise have required several tedious minutes of dialogue. Neither of these two latter examples are exactly steals from Hitchcock, but they are very much in his directorial manner.