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'An American Tail'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 21, 1986


Don Bluth
Dom DeLuise;
Phillip Glasser;
Madeline Kahn;
Nehemiah Persoff;
Christopher Plummer
General audience

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DOES IT ever strike you as odd that rodents give us the willies, but we're forever starring them in kiddie cartoons? Perhaps the hairy little cheese-nibblers have been typecast because of Mickey. Whatever the impulse, here comes another mousecartoon, this one from the stupefying Steven Spielberg.

"An American Tail," with a family of Russian mice, a gang of rats and a cockroach in a cameo appearance, is the amazing storyteller's first animated feature. It's a melting-pot movie for little Americans, full of immigrant dreams and as patriotic as Frosted Flakes. It's not as grabbing as many of the Disney classics, but it builds on that tradition.

Director Don Bluth and a cadre of other Disney emigres create this classically drawn and effect-filled tale whose characters themselves are refugees. A family of Russian mice flee the Cossacks for the cobblestones of New York -- where, as the show-stopping song says, there are no cats and the streets are paved with cheese, oh ho, the streets are paved with cheese.

There's lots of music, mostly mild-mannered, to sweeten this rather serious story by "Sesame Street" writers Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg. Bluth, whose similarly socially conscious "The Secret of NIMH" was about a widowed mouse and a race of super-intelligent rats, has not come far afield. All the better to understand the mighty motivations of young Fievel, who's separated from the Mousekewitz family on the voyage to America.

Luckily, Fievel (the voice of seven-year-old Phillip Glasser) washes into New York Harbor safe in a bottle. It's 1885, and the teeming shores are ethnically diverse, with mice from many lands seeking the American dream. Bluth and company recreate the tenements, the sweat shops, the harbor as it was 100 years ago. Fievel is rescued by the French pigeon Henri (Christopher Plummer), who is overseeing the completion of the Statue of Liberty, the Lady without her face on. Henri takes Fievel under his wing, restores his flagging spirits and sends him on his search for his family.

Fievel, named for Spielberg's granddad, is also aided by Tiger, a splendid pussycat played by adorable Dom DeLuise; Gussie Mausheimer, a lisping anti-cat activist acted by madcap Madeline Kahn; and Honest John, a shady Tammany Hall boss played by crusty Neil Ross. Papa and Mama Mousekewitz are performed by Nehemiah Persoff and Erica Yohn, who had personal links with their roles, both being offspring of Russian-Jewish parents.

"An American Tail" -- unlike the sobering holocaust comic "Maus" -- is a bright-eyed tale of Jewish triumphs that will find a place in many young hearts. It reiterates the happiness of homogeneity, prepares the pups for both brotherhood and the free enterprise system. And it's as pretty as a cascade of soap bubbles. AN AMERICAN TAIL (G) -- At area theaters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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