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

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.