When looking back at all the creepy childhood movies that we watched, it's a wonder how any of us turned out okay. Ostensibly, children's movies should be pure, unadulterated fun, and yet if you pay enough attention, it can feel like every third film is kind of terrifying. Don Bluth's An American Tail (1986) is no exception to this rule.
The first time you watched An American Tail, you probably saw it as a fun adventure starring an anthropomorphic mouse. If you watched it again today, however, you'd realize it's one of the most serious and darkest children's films to come from the '80s. The whole thing is allegedly a metaphor for Jewish immigration in the 19th century. This dark American Tale interpretation makes us wonder if the movie is appropriate for kids at all.
Given the movie is chock-full of religious oppression, desperate families assuming their relatives have passed, and more, we should probably think twice about letting our kids watch Fievel's adventures, especially if they're not yet mentally and emotionally prepared to handle these heavy topics.
Having their house burned down becomes an impetus for Fievel and his family to come to America. But this is no accident. The scene in question is dark and terrifying: Russian Cossacks motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment break into the village and set fire to the homes of anybody they dislike.
Similarly, cats attack the mice who come with the Russians. It's disturbing, though not particularly different from what actual Jewish people were experiencing during this time. Back then, this sort of transgression - called a pogrom - was surprisingly common.
America is a huge step up for the Mousekewitz family, especially when compared to Russia, but not everything is wonderful. Before leaving, the family sings a song expecting "streets paved with cheese," but what they instead find is a great deal of hardship.
The process to enter the United States is difficult, mirroring the real-life struggles of past and present immigrants trying to become American citizens.
While it's commendable how An American Tail aims to be an allegory for American immigration in the 19th century, it tends to water down the characters to get there. The Mousekewitz family comes across as stereotypical, and almost everybody Fievel meets along the way also fits into broad categories.
There's a fancy French character; a principled Irish character; a wealthy German character; a big, mean, New Yorker boss-type character; and so on. These general characterizations adversely affect the story, as they can confuse kids who are learning about foreigners for the first time.
An American Tail is more than a mere story of mice moving to America. It's supposedly a direct metaphor for Jewish immigration in the 19th century. The film deals with anti-Semitism in a way few children's movies ever do.
Fievel and the Mousekewitz family have to move away from their home country simply because they are of Jewish heritage and considered "different." They think leaving Russia will rid them of racist cats, but it turns out racism and oppression also exist in America.