20 Heartbreaking Facts About An American Tail
Many of us love a good cry, and we’re not afraid to admit that some movies make us bawl like a baby no matter how many times we watch them.
If Fievel Mousekewitz getting separated from his Russian mouse family wasn’t bad enough, there’s one moment in An American Tail that is guaranteed to have us blubbing. “Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight,” – does it ring any bells?
Below are 20 fascinating facts about this brilliant animated drama from 1986, produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.
20. It was created by the man behind the Child’s Play movies
Curiously, An American Tail creator David Kirschner later went on to bring us another, far less family-friendly film series.
Kirschner came to film through illustration in the 70s, designing album covers and illustrating characters for Jim Henson’s Muppets and Sesame Street.
An American Tail was Kirschner’s own original story, and its success would help him go on to become chairman of beloved animation house Hanna-Barbera in 1989.
However, by that point Kirschner had also produced the popular 1988 horror movie Child’s Play, for which he also designed the animatronic killer doll Chucky.
Kirschner went on to produce every Child’s Play sequel, aside from the 2019 remake.
19. Steven Spielberg hired director Don Bluth after watching The Secret of NIMH
After working as an animator with Disney for many years, Don Bluth made his directorial debut on 1982’s independently produced The Secret of NIMH.
This dark animated fantasy was an adaptation of 1971 novel Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – and, as that title might suggest, it like An American Tail also features rodents in prominent roles.
While The Secret of NIMH wasn’t a huge hit on release, it impressed Steven Spielberg enough for him to offer Bluth the director’s chair on what would be the first animated film that Spielberg had produced.
Reportedly Spielberg told Bluth to “make me something pretty like you did with NIMH.”
Bluth brought along with him many of the people who worked on The Secret of NIMH, including producers Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy.
18. It was originally going to be a full-on musical
Steven Spielberg’s original vision for An American Tail was for it to be an out and out musical sung from beginning to end.
Spielberg was believed to have said that he wanted his own “Heigh-Ho,” referring to the song from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Numerous songs were actually written and recorded for An American Tail, but not all of them made the cut.
One deleted scene would have seen Fievel singing a happy song whilst trapped in the sweatshop.
Ultimately, An American Tail boasts just four key songs: There Are No Cats in America, Never Say Never, A Duo – and one more we’ll come back to later…
17. It was Universal Pictures’ first animated movie for two decades
For many years in Hollywood, the major studios steered clear of making animated feature films.
Disney had always dominated in that field, whether with new films or re-releases of their old favourites, so the other studios felt any competing film was doomed to fail.
However, with Spielberg’s name attached, Universal Pictures finally felt confident enough to take Disney on.
An American Tail would therefore be the first animated movie released by Universal for 21 years.
Their last, 1965’s Pinocchio in Outer Space, did exactly what it said on the tin, taking Pinocchio and his extendable nose on a science fiction adventure!
16. Don Bluth discovered Fievel voice actor Phillip Glasser in a commercial by chance
Reportedly, child actor Phillip Glasser was discovered by An American Tail director Don Bluth quite by accident.
Bluth and his associates happened to overhear Glasser, who was 7 years old at the time of production, while he was recording a voiceover for an Oscar Mayer wiener commercial.
On hearing Glasser’s adorably squeaky tones, Bluth and co knew they’d found their little rodent hero.
An American Tail wasn’t Glasser’s first film credit, however, as he’d previously done voice work on TV’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, and The Care Bears Movie.
Glasser went on to continue with the acting work until the early 2000s, but today he works mainly as a producer.
15. No humans featured in the film originally
While most of the main characters in An American Tail are mice, cats and birds, we do also see humans in the movie.
Fievel and his family flee Russia and hop ship to America whilst people from their country are doing the same, although the humans remain background figures.
This wasn’t always the plan, though; initially An American Tail was intended to have an exclusively animal cast of characters.
It was Don Bluth’s suggestion that the film should also show humans, with the animals functioning as a hidden society below the eye level of mankind.
Bluth pointed to Disney’s The Rescuers as an example of this, and Spielberg agreed it was the best course of action for An American Tail.
14. Steven Spielberg couldn’t believe making a cartoon was “so complicated”
When work got underway on An American Tail, Steven Spielberg was at the height of his powers in mid-80s Hollywood, but he was a novice when it came to animation.
While Bluth was the director, Spielberg had a large degree of creative control, regularly checking in on Bluth’s progress and giving him notes.
However, Spielberg had to learn that when working on an animated movie, he couldn’t just add scenes whenever and wherever he felt like it.
This was due to the high amount of time that even an extra two minutes of screen time would take animators to create.
“At this point, I’m enlightened,” Spielberg was quoted as saying in 1985, “but I still can’t believe it’s so complicated.”
13. Fievel Mousekewitz was named after Spielberg’s grandfather
One significant contribution Spielberg made to An American Tail was the name of its protagonist.
Spielberg named the character Fievel Mousekewitz in honour of his grandfather Philip Posner, whose Yiddish name was Fievel.
The movie’s director Don Bluth had doubts about the name, believing that it was too ‘foreign-sounding’, and that audiences wouldn’t remember it.
However, Spielberg was insistent – and was ultimately proved right, as Fievel became a beloved character with younger viewers.
Fievel even worked his name into the title of An American Tail’s eventual sequel, plus its TV spin-off series.
12. Fievel’s nickname ‘Filly’ was Phillip Glasser’s grandmother’s pet name for Glasser
Actor Phillip Glasser says that Fievel’s New York nickname, Filly, came from his own grandmother.
Glasser would be dropped off at the recording studio by his grandmother – herself a New Yorker, from the Bronx, apparently a woman with a thick local accent.
The actor recalls her saying to him, “Hey Philly, time to learn your lines,” while Don Bluth was in earshot.
On hearing this, it dawned on Bluth that Filly could work as an abbreviation of sorts for Fievel.
Once Spielberg agreed, this provided a compromise over the director’s concerns about the character name.
11. One scene was inspired by a tragic story Spielberg’s grandfather told him
Even though Spielberg couldn’t get every story idea he had into An American Tail, he did still conceive of some significant scenes.
One such scene sees Fievel looking through a window into a classroom filled with American school mice.
This based-on-a-true-story was told to Spielberg by his grandfather (who, as you’ll recall, Fievel is named after).
Spielberg’s grandfather told him that, where he came from, Jews were only able to listen to school lessons through open windows while sitting outside in the cold, and sometimes even snow.
This kind of detail helped make An American Tail that bit more emotionally moving and educational than many animated movies of the era.
10. Fievel went on to become a ‘spokesmouse’ for Unicef
As cute as An American Tail may be in some respects, the story represents every parent’s worst nightmare for their child.
Fievel spends the bulk of the film living rough on the street surrounded by strangers, separated from his family who think he’s dead.
Small wonder, then, that the character resonated with children’s charity Unicef.
The United Nations Children’s Fund named Fievel their official ‘spokesmouse’ in 2000.
The fact that this happened 14 years after An American Tail was released demonstrates how the franchise continues to resonate.
9. Henri the pigeon was re-designed to look like Christopher Plummer after he was cast
Henri, the friendly pigeon who welcomes Fievel to America, is voiced by Christopher Plummer.
A prolific star of the screen with a career covering eight decades, Plummer remains best known for his role as Captain von Trapp in classic 1965 musical The Sound of Music.
However, Plummer’s casting in An American Tail prompted a rethink regarding his role.
Originally, the character that became Henri was named Bobo, and was intended to be a very untidy-looking, hobo-like bird.
Plummer’s vocals were far too classy for that, and so the character was renamed and given a far more debonair appearance.
8. Some scenes deemed too scary for children had to be cut from the film
An American Tail may be a family-friendly animation, but it deals with some harsh and serious subject matter – the plight of American immigrants, for example, and the hardships that send them overseas in search of a better life.
It’s only fitting, then, that the film has some fairly frightening scenes, such as the Cossack attack on the mice’s Russian home, and Fievel being accidentally washed out to sea.
However, Steven Spielberg insisted that some cuts were made to the finished movie to ensure it wouldn’t be too scary for young children.
Spielberg also vetoed a number of scenes at the development stages, for fear that they would be too much for younger viewers.
One such abandoned sequence, which director Don Bluth had actually started work on when Spielberg canned it, featured ‘wave monsters’ attacking the mouse family whilst they are out at sea.
7. The production was kind of a mess
Input from both Spielberg and studio Universal often caused problems in An American Tail’s production.
While Spielberg was the executive producer, he was only one among many studio figures making regular reviews of progress on the film, and pushing for various changes.
This resulted in tension behind the scenes, leaving director Don Bluth feeling that he was losing control of the project.
In addition, output from animators was much slower than expected, and even James Horner’s score was completed much later than originally planned.
As the pressure built, there were real fears that the film would not be completed in time to meet its 21 November 1986 release date.
6. Critics felt it was far too grim for a children’s movie
There’s no doubt that the subject matter of An American Tail is hard-hitting, and a little too close to the bone for some.
In the eyes of certain film critics of the time, in fact, the film went a bit too far for something intended to entertain children.
The highly influential Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film two thumbs down, with Ebert declaring it “way too depressing for young audiences.”
At the same time, Siskel and Ebert also felt the film failed as a parable for the plight of the Jews, as the religion of the mice is never actually addressed.
It should be stressed, however, that the opening scene does show the Mousekewitz family celebrating Hanukkah. Critics – what do they know?
5. A graphic novel artist accused the movie of plagiarism
An American Tail was not the only hand-drawn story of the 1980s to explore the plight of Jewish people in the form of mice.
Artist Art Spiegelman presented a similar idea in his graphic novel Maus, originally published in serialised form beginning in 1981.
When the word got out about An American Tail, Spiegelman considered it an act of plagiarism (though Maus begins in 1930s Poland, as opposed to 1880s Russia as in An American Tail).
However, instead of taking legal action, Spiegelman decided to split his graphic novel into two volumes and release the first before An American Tail reached cinemas.
Spiegelman ultimately completed Maus in 1991, and it has since been widely acclaimed as one of the all-time great graphic novels.
4. Somewhere Out There became one of the most popular animated movie songs of all time
While An American Tail didn’t wind up the full-blown musical it might have been, it did boast one bona fide hit song.
Somewhere Out There, the song that Fievel and his lost sister sing in the movie (which always succeeds in getting our waterworks flowing), was composed by James Horner and Barry Mann with lyrics by Cynthia Weil.
While the young voice actors sing it in the film, a pop version was recorded for the end credits and soundtrack album, by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram.
Somewhere Out There was released as a single, and wound up reaching number 2 in the American top 40.
It also won Song of the Year and Best Song Recorded For A Motion Picture Or Television at the Grammys, although it lost out on Best Original Song at the Oscars to Berlin’s Take My Breath Away from Top Gun.
3. It was the highest-grossing non-Disney animated movie ever at the time
By the end of its run in theatres, An American Tail made $47 million at the US box office alone, and $84 million overall worldwide.
This at the time made it the highest-grossing animated movie ever to have been made outside Walt Disney Studios.
Not only that, but the film out-grossed The Great Mouse Detective, an animated Disney movie that was released four months earlier, by $22 million.
This success helped director Don Bluth to go on to make two more popular animated films in the 80s, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven.
This in turn prompted Disney to up their game, leading to the animation studio’s 90s renaissance with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
2. It spawned three sequels and a TV show
An American Tail spawned the theatrically-released 1991 sequel Fievel Goes West.
Also produced by Steven Spielberg, the follow-up film saw Fievel and his family move from New York to the Wild West.
Don Bluth and company did not return, however, with directorial duties handled by Phil Nebbelink and Simon Wells.
They kept the Western setting for spin-off TV series Fievel’s American Tails, which ran for a single season of 13 episodes in 1992.
Later came The Treasure of Manhattan Island and The Mystery of the Night Monster, two direct to video sequels that were released in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
1. Its success encouraged Spielberg to form his own animation studio
The success of An American Tail, plus other animated hits as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Land Before Time, convinced Steven Spielberg that animation was worth pursuing further.
This encouraged Spielberg to launch Amblimation, an animated-based offshoot of his existing production company Amblin Entertainment.
Amblimation opened up shop in 1989, with its headquarters based in London, England.
However, the company only ever made three movies – An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and Balto – before it shut down in 1997.
Many staff members jumped ship to the next Spielberg-backed animation house, DreamWorks Animation, which went on to considerably greater success.