In 1885 Shostka, Russia, the Mousekewitzes, a Russian-Jewish family of mice, decide to immigrate to America after an army of cruel cats that belong to the Cossacks destroy their village, believing there to be no cats in the America. During the trip overseas, the family's young son, Fievel, gets separated from the others and washes overboard in a storm. They arrive sadly on Ellis Island, New York, believing they've lost their son.
Fievel, however, floats to nearby Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty was being built in a bottle and after a pep talk from a French pigeon named Henri, embarks on a quest to find his family. He is waylaid by conman Warren T. Rat, who gains his trust and then sells him to a sweatshop. He escapes with Tony, a street-smart Italian mouse who nicknames him "Filly", and they join up with Bridget, a very beautiful Irish mouse trying to rouse her fellow mice to stand up to cats. When a gang of some called the Mott Street Maulers attacks a mouse marketplace, the immigrant mice learn that the tales of a no-cat country are false.
Bridget takes Fievel and Tony to see Honest John, a drunk (but reliable) politician who knows all the voting mice in New York City. But as the Mousekewitzes have not yet registered to vote, he can't help Fievel find them. Meanwhile, his pretty big sister, Tanya, tells her gloomy parents she has a feeling that he is still alive, but they urged her that the feeling would soon go away.
Led by the rich and powerful Gussie Mausheimer, the mice hold a rally to decide what to do about the cats. Warren T. Rat is extorting them all for protection that he never provides. No one has any idea what to do about it until Fievel whispers a plan to Gussie.
The mice take over an abandoned building on Chelsea Pier and begin constructing their plan. On the day of launch, Fievel gets lost and stumbles upon Warren T.'s lair. He discovers that he is actually a cat in disguise and the leader of the Maulers. They capture Fievel, but a goofy, soft-hearted orange cat named Tiger takes a liking to him and sets him free.
Fievel races back to the pier with the cats in hot pursuit when Gussie orders the mice to release the secret weapon. A huge mechanical mouse, inspired by the bedtime tales Papa told to Fievel of the "Giant Mouse of Minsk", chases the cats down the pier and into the water. A tramp steamer bound for Hong Kong picks them up and carries them away.
During the battle, Fievel is once again separated from those he loves and falls into despair when a group of orphans tells him that he should have given up a long time ago. Papa overhears Bridget and Tony calling out to Fievel but is sure that there may be another "Fievel" somewhere until he sees Mama picking up his son's hat. They team up for a final effort to find him, and in the end, Papa's violin playing leads Fievel back into the arms of his family. The journey ends with Henri taking everyone to see his newly completed project—the Statue of Liberty, and the Mouskewitzes' new life in America begins.
- Phillip Glasser as Fievel Mouskewitz, the protagonist of the film. While "Fievel" is the generally accepted spelling of his name, the opening credits spell him as "Feivel" which is technically the correct Yiddish transliteration of the name (see also Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and Feivel Gruberger) since Yiddish evolved from a medieval form of German and its rules for transliteration are therefore based on German orthography (the ending credits spell his name as "Fievel"). However, many English-speaking writers have come to adopt the spelling Fievel (with reversed i and first e) especially for this character; it was this spelling which was used on the film's poster, in promotional materials and tie-in merchandise, and in the title of the sequel An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. He was named after Spielberg's maternal grandfather, Philip Posner, whose Yiddish name was Feivel. The scene in which he presses up against a window to look into a classroom filled with American "schoolmice" is based on a story Spielberg remembered about his grandfather, who told him that Jews were only able to listen to school lessons through open windows while sitting outside in the snow. His last name is a play on the Jewish-Russian last name "Moskowitz", the name of the human occupants of the house his family is living under in the beginning of the film.
- Amy Green as Tanya Mousekewitz (singing voice provided by Betsy Cathcart), Fievel's big sister. Beautiful, cute, optimistic, cheerful and obedient, she continued to believe that her brother was alive after he was washed off the ill-fated SS Austria en route to America. She was given an American name 'Tillie' at the immigration point at Castle Garden on Ellis Island.
- John P. Finnegan as Warren T. Rat, the main antagonist of the film's story. He is really a cat disguised as a rat and the leader of the Mott Street Maulers, a gang of cats who terrorize the mice of New York City. He is accompanied nearly all the time by his accountant Digit, a small British cockroach. He is based on the famous anti-immigrant Nativist, Bill Poole, a.k.a: "Bill the Butcher". His name seems to be a play on words of the word "warranty".
- Nehemiah Persoff as Papa Mousekewitz, the head of the Mousekewitz family who plays the violin and tells stories to his children. Too overcome with grief and believing his son to be dead after being separated during the sinking of the SS Austria, he stubbornly refuses to search for him after they land in America.
- Erica Yohn as Mama Mousekewitz, Fievel's mother. She appears to be the stricter of the two Mousekewitz parents and has a fear of flying.
- Pat Musick as Tony Toponi, a streetwise young mouse of Italian descent and with a 'tough New Yorker' attitude and the film's deuteragonist. He meets Fievel during their slavery at the sweatshop. He takes a liking to him and gives him an American name: "Philly" (Philip). After they escape the sweatshop, he becomes Fievel's friend and guide to the town.
- Dom DeLuise as Tiger, a very large, cowardly, long-haired orange cat who also happens to be vegetarian and the film's tritagonist. He was a member of Warren T. Rat's 'Mott Street Maulers' cat gang until he met and befriended Fievel, whom he helped to escape.
- Christopher Plummer as Henri, a pigeon of French descent, who is in New York City while building the Statue of Liberty. He is the first to meet Fievel upon entering America. He nurses him back to health, and tells him that he should never give up in his search for his family (via the song "Never Say Never"), a message which he takes to heart.
- Cathianne Blore as Bridget, an Irish activist, and Tony's beautiful girlfriend.
- Neil Ross as Honest John, a local Irish-born politician who knows every voting mouse in New York City who presides over a wake for an Irish Catholic mouse done in by cats at his headquarters. He's a constant drunkard who takes advantage of every voter's concern to increase his political prestige and a stereotype of the 19th century Tammany Hall politicians.
- Madeline Kahn as Gussie Mausheimer, a German-born considered being the richest in New York City, who rallies the mice into fighting back against the cats.
- Will Ryan as Digit, Warren T.'s British cockroach accountant who has a fondness for counting money, but is plagued by frequent electrical charges in his antennae whenever he gets nervous or excited.
- Hal Smith as Moe, a fat rat who runs the sweatshop Fievel is sold to by Warren T.
- Lara Cody as Roc, a first orphan who bullies.
- Barbara Goodson as Pee Wee, a second orphan who bullies.
- Diane Michelle as Noodles, a third orphan who bullies.
- There Are No Cats in America - Papa Mousekewitz & Chorus
- Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor - Chorus
- Never Say Never - Henri & Fievel Mousekewitz
- Somewhere out There - Fievel Mousekewitz & Tanya Mousekewitz
- A Duo - Tiger & Fievel Mousekewitz
An American Tail was a box office success, the first among Universal's animated releases to do so. The film has grossed up to $47 million in the United States and $84 million worldwide.
Currently, An American Tail has a "B" rating at Box Office Mojo. After years of its Rotten Tomatoes score going back and forth between "fresh" and "rotten", it has managed to settle above the line at 70%. Its score among the website "community" is more secure at 84%.
The staff of Halliwell's Film Guide gave it one star out of four. "[This] expensive cartoon feature," they wrote, "[has] not much in the way of narrative interest or indeed humor."
Common Sense Media gave it largely positive reviews, as the group stated "This is a heartwarming animated tale about the experience of immigrants coming to America. Told from the perspective of an adorable young mouse, An American Tail should engage kids in an important part of U.S. history.".
- American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
- Somewhere Out There - Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Animated Film
Sequels and spinoffs
The film was followed by its theatrical sequel An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), the television series Fievel's American Tails, and two direct-to-video sequels: An American Tail: The Treasure of Manhattan Island and An American Tail: The Mystery of the Night Monster, none of which Don Bluth had any involvement with.
Fievel later served as the mascot for Steven Spielberg's Amblimation animation studio, appearing in its production logo. Also, as reported on the official An American Tail website, Fievel has become the mascot for UNICEF as well. There is also a Fievel-themed playground at Universal Studios Florida, featuring a large waterslide and many over-sized objects such as books, glasses, cowboy boots, and more. It is the only such playground at any of NBC Universal's theme parks.
Art Spiegelman suspected Spielberg of plagiarism due to the fact the Jews are depicted as mice in An American Tail just as in Spiegelman's earlier Maus, a metaphor Spiegelman had adopted from Nazi propaganda. Instead of pursuing copyright litigation, Spiegelman opted to beat the movie's release date by convincing his publishers to split Maus into two volumes and publish the first before he even finished the second.
- To date, this film and The Land Before Time are currently the only two feature-length Don Bluth films not owned by 20th Century Fox (Now owned by Disney) or MGM.
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