“An American Tail” (citywide) must rank as the most lavish animated feature in recent decades: The screen overflows with movement, color, sparkles, shadows, reflections and atmospheric effects. Heroic efforts are needed to bring these lush visuals to the screen, and it seems almost churlish not to cheer the film. But rarely has so much animated opulence been wasted on such a thin, badly told story.
The film makers attempt to tell one of the epic dramas of American history--the story of the 19th-Century immigrants who came from Eastern Europe, seeking freedom from persecution--but they trivialize their subject. The central character is Fievel Mousekowitz, an overly cute little mouse/boy, who gets separated from his family of Russian Jewish mice when they come to America to escape cats. Arriving in New York circa 1885, Fievel searches for his family while meeting various characters intended to evoke the Immigrant Experience.
Director Don Bluth and writers David Kirchner, Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss use cats chasing mice to represent religious persecution, a metaphor that glosses over the central horror of the Russian pogroms. Oppression is not a conflict between predator and prey, but the willful cruelty the members of a single species inflict on each other.
In the opening scenes of “American Tail,” Cossacks pillage a Jewish shtetl while “Cossack cats” attack the Mousekowitzes--a juxtaposition that misfires badly. When human lives are being threatened, it’s difficult for an audience to worry about mice. Throughout the film, Bluth cuts between the mice and humans, always to the detriment of the story he’s trying to tell.
The plot is further impeded by the introduction of suspenseful situations that don’t pay off and by moments of dubious taste: an Irish wake for a dead mouse (complete with a body clutching a rosary), an Italian mouse kissing his dead mother’s rosary. After Fievel is finally reunited with his family, a French pigeon flies the mice around the newly completed Statue of Liberty in a heavy-handed patriotic finale that suggests the film was intended for release last July.
As the voice of Gussie Mausheimer, a rich, pushy, social reformer, Madeline Kahn casually steals all her scenes. She may not have every good line in the script, but she makes it seem as though she does. Dom DeLuise’s attempt to turn Tiger the vegetarian cat into Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, falls flat. Christopher Plummer gives Henri a determinedly French accent that sounds like a bad impersonation of Maurice Chevalier--or Pepe LePew.
While the animation is full and fluid, it often seems to be at odds with the characterizations and designs. Nehemiah Persoff provides a heavily accented voice for Fievel’s Papa, but the character doesn’t move with the body language of an old Russian Jew. And Tiger’s obese form quivers like a bag full of mercury, but his weird, squarish head and improbably long tail don’t look anything like a real cat.
The most effective piece of animation occurs during the trip to America: Fievel imagines that the waves of the stormy Atlantic form a monstrous bogyman who attacks the ship. It’s a strikingly original and frightening effect in a film that borrows heavily from other cartoons, notably Disney’s “Pinocchio” and Bluth’s “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” Some unexpected bits of animation demonstrate how good these young artists are--and how much better they could be, given a good script and better direction.
Ironically, the film closes with the Amblin’ Entertainment logo of Elliott and E.T. bicycling past the moon--a moment that evoked the impossible fantasies audiences used to expect from animation. “An American Tail” attempts to recapture that former magic but, unhappily, falls short of the mark.