“‘An American Tail’ suc­ceeds because Bluth’s ani­mation fit Spielberg’s desire for the simul­ta­neous horror and humor unique to Jewish story-telling.” | Courtesy

When Steven Spielberg saw “The Secret of NIMH” (1982), Don Bluth’s ani­mated film about tena­cious field mice caught in a mental ward, the director loved it so much that he asked Bluth to do it again — only this time starring Jewish émigré mice.

Bluth jumped aboard imme­di­ately and, with Spielberg’s col­lab­o­ration, he spun “An American Tail” (1986), the story of Fievel Mousekewitz, a young Ashkenazi mouse fleeing with his family from north­eastern Ukraine to New York City in the 1880s. Fievel runs into a car­nival of adven­tures along the way: a sweatshop in the Flatiron dis­trict, Tammany Hall politi­cians, and a host of Know-Nothing cats attempting to purge Man­hattan of all immi­grants.

The film was a runaway success and became the highest grossing non-Disney ani­mated film at the time of its release. Its pop­u­larity spawned a the­atrical sequel, “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” (a lesser film in every respect save one: It con­tains Jimmy Stewart’s final per­for­mance before his death). A horde of direct-to-DVD sequels fol­lowed, as well as a TV show and, even­tually, a PlayStation 2 game.

Fievel’s success led Spielberg to create Ambli­mation, a pro­duction company designed to rival Disney’s dom­i­nance over ani­mation. The effort did not last long. After “An American Tail,” Ambli­mation only pro­duced two more movies, “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story” (1993) and “Balto” (1995), both of which under­per­formed at the box office. The release of Pixar’s “Toy Story” in the same month as “Balto” was espe­cially dis­as­trous — and spelled out doom for Ambli­mation.

But Spielberg and Bluth’s ambition in “An American Tail” still shines through the former studio’s wreckage. It’s the only children’s movie I know of that gets away with a violent pogrom in the opening scene. And it’s one of the few films where the violent con­clusion — a feline slaugh­terfest at the hands of “The Giant Mouse of Minsk,” a steampunk golem — is fun for the whole family.

“An American Tail” suc­ceeds because Bluth’s ani­mation fit Spielberg’s desire for the simul­ta­neous horror and humor unique to Jewish sto­ry­telling. And for Spielberg, the film was a per­sonal statement, too: Fievel takes his name from Spielberg’s own émigré grand­father.

It’s no wonder Spielberg later picked Fievel as the logo for Ambli­mation. The company may have col­lapsed, but the ragged Jewish mouse still stands in proud oppo­sition to Disney’s squeaky clean Mickey.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    a tail that still speaks to our modern times, if you can pardon my similar pun. The bad cat fighting the immi­gration of those viewed as “mice”. It’s almost as if there is a whole caravan of them heading toward our border!! But this is the world that Dr. Arnn was hoping for when he pub­licly threw his (and the college’s, to most alumni dismay) weight behind Trump.

    • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

      Oh my goodness, the cam­paign is OVER Jen­nifer. Time to laugh again!

      Do you really believe ‘most alumni’ would prefer that Dr. Arnn sup­ported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election?????????????.……????

      Wanna bet?

      • Jen­nifer Melfi

        No they wouldn’t have wanted him to support Hillary clinton. Would +90% have wanted him to do the job of a college pres­ident and not pub­licly support anyone, or at least just support a limited agenda (not name ny any can­di­dates)???? That’s a bet I would take.

        • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

          As Dr. Arnn noted, Donald Trump was not his first choice but Winston Churchill was not on the ballot. That’s the same dilemna that con­fronts all of us at election time.

          Did Nebraska win today?

          • Jen­nifer Melfi

            They did. Pounded illinois. Big game next week against MSU. Dr. Arnn did say that, he also extended way more support for trump than any other pre­vious can­didate in a pres­i­dential election. Since he was in the running to be a cabinet member, I think he did some things he oth­erwise wouldn’t have. Kind of shameful from someone who spends 99% of his time in front of students/parents talking about “the higher things”.

          • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

            Political pas­sions are high at this point in our nation’s history and I rec­ognize that some people absolutely hate Donald Trump. They will never like him no matter what he does or what success he has, it’s vis­ceral with them. I under­stand that.

            Perhaps Pres­ident Arnn should have been more vague in his per­sonal pref­er­ences with that in mind? It might have been the better way to answer the question.