One of my favourite movies as a child was An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. I watched it a lot, but didn’t often watch its predecessor, Don Bluth’s original 1986 animated movie, An American Tail. I recently re-watched the story of Fievel Mouskewitz and his family’s journey to the “Land of the Free”. Much to my surprise, the film’s story of hopeful immigrants traveling to America is relevant today, but in a different way than what it originally intended.
It strikes a different tone in post-Trump America than it did when it first came out. It presents a hopeful vision of America that ultimately represents a new beginning for immigrants, despite it being occasionally dark underneath the surface. When viewed today, however, it seems to remind us of the heart that America has lost among a surge of white nationalism, racism and walls.
The movie is set in the late 1880s, and follows a young Russian mouse named Fievel whose family flees when their village is attacked and burned down by Cossacks. The Mousekewitz family travels to America, a land where Fievel’s father boasts, “There are no cats” (more on that in a minute). Fievel is separated from his family and goes on an adventure to find them—and in doing so learns that there are, indeed, cats in America.
The movie uses cats as a stand in for oppression—sometimes playfully as the Russian Cossack cats sport huge ushanka-type hats. It reminds me of Art Spiegleman’s excellent graphic novel Maus, where cats represent the Nazis and mice represent the Jews. Given that the film is produced by Steven Spielberg, it wouldn’t surprise me if Maus served as an inspiration for An American Tail.
The movie touches on the less-positive aspects of the immigrant experience. Exploitation, poverty, language barriers, hopelessness, fear—but also the moments of hope and humanity. Through Fievel’s adventures in America, he is kidnapped into child labour, captured by a mob of cats, taunted by street kids, and always one step away from his family. But he is also rescued from the ocean by a pigeon, befriends an older kid named Tony, and makes friends with a loveably dimwitted cat named Tiger.
The movie is intercut with human scenes to remind us that even though we’re following a family of mice, similar things happened to real people in their journey to the Land of Opportunity. And often with less than cartoon-friendly results.
The Statue of Liberty is a centerpiece of the movie. When the movie starts, the iconic statue is just about to be finished construction. It stands as a beacon of hope for those escaping oppression for the chance at a new beginning. Even though the fabled land of America hides a seedy underworld—and that cats do, in fact, live in there— it is a reminder of the hope and optimism it is supposed to represent.
If the Statue of Liberty was built today, she’d sport a bulletproof vest, aviators, with a palm outstretched in a “stop” position and handcuffs at her side.
Optimism and hope have been replaced by paranoia and suspicion. Oppressed people around the world, such as those in Syria, would do almost anything to secure even a chance at escaping to the United States. But today, the cats are in the White House. And every one of them seems to forget that America was built by immigrants. Sometimes it was by force; other times, by choice, by those seeking sanctuary. The black slaves from Africa, in time, developed their own roots and descendants in American’s cultural mileau. The Chinese miners and railway workers lived in ghettos typically labelled “Chinatown”, and adopted their cuisine to suite American tastes—to the point where China doesn’t even recognize American Chinese food. From 1870 to the 1920s, Arab immigrants fled the growing tensions in the Middle East to begin their new lives in America, and worked in steel and automobile factories. New York has long been an immigrant city, since it was the main port for ships crossing the ocean. Many European cultures, especially Irish, grew with the city.
An American Tail is, at its heart, a kids movie. It’s a simplified take on the immigrant experience. Yet it subtly reminds us of the hope that these people carry with them, and the struggles they go through just to start a new life. It would do everyone well to remember that the privileged lifestyle we live—which many can only dream of having—was only made possible by the hands of those who came across the ocean and settled themselves here. America was built largely by immigrants. Their stories are a part of the story of the land.
Even as fear mongering and racism continue to simmer beneath the surface, it would do everyone well to fight against it, and see the humanity above it all.
And it would do everyone well to hope for a better future.
Because, as a little mouse once said, “Never say never”.