The film starts off with a montage of snowflakes, and a haunting melody that is guaranteed to bring tears of nostalgia to anyone who hasn't seen the movie in years. This, is An American Tail. After going through the credits (a trend most modern movies forgo, but was common from the beginning of cinema up through the 1980's), we're brought to a snowy Russian house, with a sign over the door reading Moskowitz. The camera pans down to a much smaller door, with a sign reading Mousekewitz, and the subtitles tell us that this is Shostka, Russia in 1885. The Mousekewitz family are celebrating Hanukkah while Papa Mousekewitz plays the violin. Enter Fievel, who asks about the presents excitedly. Because we all know that's what Hanukkah is all about, same with Christmas. Papa gives his daughter Tanya a babushka (or so he calls it). And then he gives Fievel a very special present; his hat, which has been in the family for three generations. Unfortunately it's a little too big for Fievel. Papa then sits tells Fievel and Tanya stories, the first one being about the Giant Mouse of Minsk, and the next one is about the mythical land of America, where there are bread crumbs on every floor, mouseholes in every wall, and absolutely no cats. Mama is quick to dismiss every point Papa makes as nonsense, and shushes Papa when he mentions the word 'cats'...for fear that they might be heard. Just then their home begins to shake. The Cossacks are attacking Shostka, along with their mouse-hungry pet cats! Oh but Fievel's not going to stand for that.
Fievel takes a spoon and pan and runs out to chase the cats! Instead what we end up seeing is a cat-chases-mouse scene that would make Tom and Jerry proud. This is our first glimpse into the wrecklessness that lands Fievel into his unfortunate predicament later in the movie. His family catches up with him after the cats have left, and his Mama scolds him. However, they soon find that their village has been set aflame by the Cossacks. Where could they go now? Why of course, someplace where there are no cats...that someplace of course is America!
The scene then cuts to Hamburg, Germany. We can assume it must have taken quite a long time to travel from Russia all the way to Germany, and since it was Hannukah 1885, we can assume the year is most likely 1886 now. Fievel's curiosity continues to get the better of him as his family and other mice walk up a rope onto a ship going to America. His endless fascination with the birds, the water and the smoke coming from the ship stalls everyone behind him, angering the immigrants and the German polka band. Papa tells Fievel jokingly that this is the last time he takes him to America.
Next we're shown a glimpse of what life on board the ship was like for the Mousekewitz family and the immigrating mice. The ship sails in the night, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and we see the Mousekewitz's, sitting around being bored. Fievel asks if they're there yet, and Tanya wonders if they should have stayed in Russia. "You two pipe down or I vill turn zis boat around RIGHT NOW!" The next scene cuts to barrels of herring situated at the side of the stairs going up to the deck of the ship. Fievel evidently had wandered off there at some point, and peeks over the edge of the barrel, marvelling at the fish. Thus begins his fish fascination. Papa catches up to Fievel, and explains to Fievel about the types of fish that can be found in the ocean. Tiny fishes, not so tiny fishes, fishes as big as a boat. This stirs Fievel's imagination to no end, and Fievel runs off back to his Mama, giving his father quite a workout in the process. Mama brings up the subject of cats, and that gets every mouse on the ship talking. Together they share stories about how bad things were in the countries they were from, and share a belief that America has no cats. They do this by singing "There Are No Cats in America".
And as soon as the song ends, a cloud burst. The ship is tossed around in the waves during the storm, water seeps down below deck. A couple of mice use this to their advantage in a game of checkers, and a particularly overweight mouse eats to his hearts content, not the least bit sea sick, but when he offers a bite to his friends they almost lose their lunch at the very thought. And we see Fievel trying to warm his behind in front of an ember, but when the ship tilts the ember burns poor Fievel's little bottom (see above). He lands on a travelling bar of soap, surrounded by a bubble. The tilt of the ship brings the soap over to his family, but the next wave causes the soap bar to slide away through a hole. Fievel almost gets cut by a razor along the way, but when the soap stops he is brought back to the steps up to the deck of the ship. The doors fly open, and flopping fish fall through with a splash of water. Fish? Did somebody say fish? Fievel gets a very, very bad idea...
Papa had come to chase after Fievel, and was calling for him. But Fievel wanted to go up and see the fish. So, with an evil little grin on his face, he decides to tell his Papa that he's getting his hat, and he throws it up to the door, going to retrieve it. What he sees when he gets to the top is a nightmarish scene, with huge waves and fish flopping everywhere. He slips onto the deck. Papa tries to reach for Fievel's hand but a wave splashes Fievel away. He grabs on to the top of a fish, almost swept overboard until he grabs a rope. He tries desperately to stay on deck by hopping on debris, he grabs another rope which is then somehow pulled up into the mast of the ship. Then...something even more terrifying happens. The waves start to form into a monster! Possibly even the Greek water god Poseidon. Whatever this monster is, it's angry.
Yep, the above was my reaction too when I was a kid.
The water god/monster is relentless. He pounds the ship several times until finally Fievel is thrown overboard. Papa screams Fievel's name into the night, as Fievel drifts away in the ocean, in one of the most frightnening and heart-wrenching scenes in animated movie history. The next thing we see is the ship docking at New York's Castle Garden. The Mousekewitz family gets their names catalogued at Immigration and Papa is forced to tell the mouse working there that the Mousekewitz family is now a family of four. If you're confused by that number, it's because they have this baby that you rarely ever see who disappears halfway through the movie named Yasha. And then, Tanya wonders why they changed her name to Tilly. Don't worry Tanya, it's not like you'll ever have to go by that name in the sequels or anything.
But what's this? The scene changes to a lone bottle floating in the ocean. And guess what's inside? It's Fievel! Somehow he was lucky enough to survive by climbing into a bottle, and was able to catch a current in the Atlantic Ocean that took him directly to New York, being washed up on Ellis Island. Hey, it could happen! That is when he is discovered by Henri, a pigeon from France who's been working on a statue called Liberty. Fievel tells the pigeon he's lost his family, and Henri informs Fievel that he's in America. The scene switches to Henri giving Fievel a bath, and the audience is treated to a brief nude scene. Gasp! Oh it's okay, Fievel's got fur. Fievel laments that America is so big he may never find his family. As it turns out, the word 'never' is a bit of a pet peeve of Henri's. And to lift Fievel's spirits he sings to Fievel "Never Say Never", a song which encourages Fievel not to give up the search for his family. After the song, Henri sends one of his female pigeon friends to fly Fievel over to Immigration. But, incidently that's not where he's dropped off. Perhaps out of error, coincidence, or even a conspiracy, Fievel is dropped off onto a suitcase and blown into a hole, landing him right into the office of Warren T. Rat.
Warren had just been informed by his accountant Digit that his profits were down fifty cents. And this little boy who'd dropped in suddenly looking for his family was an opportunity to make it up. Hey, fifty cents was a lot back in them days. Warren tricks Fievel into thinking he was going to help the child look for his family, misquoting Shakespeare in the process. In the next scene we see an altar the Mousekewitz family has built to Fievel. Tanya says she has a feeling that Fievel is still alive, but Mama assures her that the feeling will go away. What a depressing thing to say to a child. We then are taken back to Fievel and Warren. He leads Fievel into a building and they ride up a basket, right past where the Mousekewitz family is living. That's how we know Warren's a fake. They reach the top, and Warren opens the door for Fievel. Fievel exitedly exclaims "Papa!", only to be grabbed by an insanely scary rat named Moe. Moe is so big he dwarves Warren, which is extremely bizzare, especially given what we learn about Warren later on. It turns out Moe runs a sweatshop, and Warren is selling Fievel for fifty cents, and Fievel's salary. We can assume this is extra incentive to keep the cats away. Why Moe would be afraid of a cat at his size, who knows.
The scene soon cuts to the workers at the sweatshop sleeping at night (the amount of time that has passed is uncertain but in a novelization I have, Fievel is in the sweatshop for days). Fievel states that he has to get out of there, to find his family. A mouse with a thick New York accent agrees. The other mice however have become pessimistic, among them a mouse we later see living in Orphan Alley. Fievel comes up with an idea based on a Rapunzel-like fairy tale about a mouse with long hair and begins tying sheets together. The New Yorker mouse likes this idea, introducing himself as Tony Toponi. When Fievel introduces himself Tony dislikes the name 'Fievel', choosing instead to call him Philly. They tie the blankets together long enough so that they can sneak out the window. Everyone escapes, but Fievel runs off before Tony can speak to him again and offer to help finding Fievel's family.
Next we are given a montage of Fievel searching New York for his family, to no success. He sadly presses his nose up to a school house window as they give the pledge of allegiance before it was invented, and next he hears someone calling his name, but it happens to be a different mother with a son also by the name of Fievel. One of the most random parts of the movie occurs next, when the mother drops a piece of cheese. Fievel hungrily goes to grab it, but is chased away by a rat that randomly comes out of nowhere going "Mine! Mine! Mine!" Next we see Fievel walking onto elevated train tracks. Why he thinks his family would be up there, who knows. He narrowly misses being run over by a train and falls onto a pile of coal below. Just when he's feeling very down-hearted, he hears the distant melody of a violin. Could it be his Papa? He crosses the street, narrowly avoiding horse hooves, climbs up onto a clothes line, and goes straight to the source of the music...a speaker on an old fashioned phonograph. He curls up in it sadly, until the music changes to something louder and he slips down into the speaker and onto the phonograph. A lady screams and hurls things at him. Fievel falls out the window, his fall slowed by a parachuting piece of cloth he hangs onto. He falls into a bucket which is poured out onto the sidewalk. This is when Tony Toponi finds Fievel once again. He offers to help Fievel find his family, to which Fievel quickly glomps Tony's arm. Tony pulls away in disgust. Obviously he's too manly for cute little cuddles and glomps.
So they start off looking for Fievel's family (passing right above Papa and Tanya), when suddenly Tony's direction is diverted to a firey young Irish lass, Bridget, giving a speech to a group of nervous mice at a market about how cats are unfair. It's love at first sight. Tony temporarily forgets about Fievel and goes up to give her a flower. Bridget falls in love with Tony just as quickly, and Fievel accidently pushes Tony into a kiss. Fievel wanders off as they sigh to each other lovingly. But wait a minute, what's all this talk about cats? Fievel tries to assure the crowd now scattering that there are no cats in America, and nothing to be afraid of. After all, that's what his papa told him. Oh boy how wrong he was. The next thing Fievel knows a cat picks him up, roars loudly, and eats Fievel. Well, almost. Fievel is able to climb up the cats throat, grab onto its uvula, and force his way out. This kid has natural skill when it comes to getting away from cats. Meanwhile the cats attack other mice, driving them out of the market. Tony and Bridget pick themselves up out of the debris when Tony suddenly remembers Fievel. He finds him hiding in an overturned box, and introduces him to Bridget. When Bridget hears that Fievel is looking for his family she suggests that they meet with Honest John, who knows every mouse in the city. So they head to Tammany Hall. Meanwhile nearby, Mama rubs the fact that there are cats in America in Papa's face, true to her character.
The next thing we see is Honest John drunkenly attending the wake of Mickey O'Hare, victim of a cat attack. A police officer states that they need to do something about those cats, to which Honest John answers, "Besides paying Warren T. Rat for no protection." He then goes on to add Mickey's name to a list of ghost votes, showing that he isn't exactly as 'honest' as he claims to be. Just then, Gussie Mausheimer bursts through the door. Tony is suprised to see a mouse as rich as she is in this poor part of town. Gussie has come in order to organize a 'wowie' as she pronounces it, in order to bring all the mice in town together to do something about the cats. She offers to bring the mice from uptown if Honest John brings the mice from downtown, and with that she leaves. Bridget is overjoyed to hear that something is finally being done about the cats. When Fievel reminds Bridget to ask Honest John about his family, Honest John answers that because they weren't registered to vote yet he hadn't met them. Another hope shot down for poor Fievel. Not to mention he gets burped on.
Here's the abridged gif version of the scene someone made.
We are next taken to a scene where Fievel is spending the night at Bridget's home, inside a water tower overlooking the city. Bridget explains about how the cats got her parents two years ago, but assures Fievel that his parents are alive and out there somewhere. After she leaves, Fievel stares out at the rising moon, and sings 'Somewhere Out There', a song he and his sister must have made up together. At that very moment, Tanya was staring out at the night sky as well, singing the exact same song. I think I need a tissue. *sniff*
The next morning (if we can assume it's the next morning), the rally begins. Gussie makes a motivational speech to stir up the spirits of the mice, but when it comes to the question of what they're actually going to do about the cats, the crowd is stumped. Fievel had been sitting on stage next to Bridget being bored, but when no one had an answer, he snuck up to the podium and told Gussie his idea, whispering it into her megaphone. She seems overtaken by Fievel's cuteness. She whispers the plan to Honest John, and they agree that Fievel just might be onto something. The crowd cheers for Fievel. And Tanya would have seen Fievel on stage if it wasn't for a woman with a big hat getting in her way. Don't you just hate that?
Next we're treated to a rather odd scene, where mice are gathered at the pier in a building called Professor Digitalus' Museum of the Wierd and Bizarre to build something. I would have liked to have had this place expanded upon in the sequels actually. Ah, but you'll see why it couldn't have been later in the movie. The next thing we see is Tony waking up to an alarm clock, who rushes in a panic because he should have been at the pier an hour ago. Fievel meanwhile was giving himself a bath and hardly had time to get his clothes on as they rushed out of the restaurant Tony is now living in. Tony runs off faster than Fievel can keep up with because his pants are falling down, and Tony leaves him behind. Fievel however, gets distracted by the distant melody of a violin coming from below a storm drain. Of course whenever Fievel hears a violin he assumes its his Papa. He crawls down into the sewers, into the spooky underground caverns. At one point he is chased away by a bunch of cockroaches (and not cute ones like Digit), and he leaps over a deep chasm. The bugs are then eaten up by a...by a what?
A sewer mutant!! Augh!! Run Fievel, run!!! One of the most random, off-the-wall moments of the entire film in my opinion. Well after this, Fievel goes on, following the sound of the violin through the sewers. That is when he comes across the secret hideout of the Mott Street Maulers, the cat gang that has been terrorizing the mice of New York. A group of cats sit around a table playing cards, when the large, orange cat declares he got a rummy. A short, stout cat puffs on his cigar. "For the hundredth time, we're playing poker." When the orange cat complains he can't concentrate because of the noise in the room, another cat by the name of Jake says "Hey Tiger, when the boss plays, it's culture." The camera pans up, and we see that their boss is none other than Warren! Warren is dressed in lavish clothing, misquoting Shakespeare and playing his violin, which continuously squeaks because his nose gets in the way. So...he pulls it off. The nose was fake. His real one is much shorter. After threatening to eat Digit for complaining about his music, he undoes his ears. They're pointy, not rounded. As he admires himself in the mirror, he sees a surprised face staring back at him.
"You're not a rat, you're a cat!!"
We don't know how Fievel got behind Warren's mirror, but he did. Warren reaches behind the mirror to grab Fievel, only to have Fievel bite him, causing him to howl in pain. (Quite like a dog actually. He's rather confused about his species.) After Fievel scurries off, Warren orders his underlings to capture Fievel. Fievel utilizes his expertise at getting away from cats by running from them through the sewers, but just when he makes it out of the sewers and stops to gloat, he's dragged back in. We're then taken to a scene in which Gussie Mausheimer explains their plan to get rid of the cats. They are to be lured to the pier, boxed in by junk, and then chased away by the 'Secwet Weapon' onto a ship that will take them to Hong Kong. It cuts back to the sewers, where Fievel is now imprisoned in a bird cage, crying his poor eyes out because he's trapped, and wants to find his family. Tiger takes over the guard shift, and begins talking to the mouse. He proves to be rather soft hearted, trying to cheer Fievel up and relate with him by sharing the fact that he lost his family as well. He then confesses that he's a vegetarian, who only eats fish every now and then. They then begin to discuss the things they have in common, such as similar preferences in ice cream, books and butterflies. Tiger decides to befriend Fievel and let him out of his cage, and the two of them sing "A Duo", accompanied by bizarre visions in a nearby mirror.
The mirror spontaniously shatters after they finish the song (they broke it along with reality it seems), and an alarm sounds. Digit wakes up and chases after Fievel but proves to be useless in stopping him. The other cats chase after Fievel, who makes it out of the sewers and runs for the pier. Warren then fires Tiger from the gang. Fievel makes a mad dash for the pier, screaming for help as the cats chase him. He makes it to the museum, warning the sleeping mice that the cats are coming. Once the mice in charge hear about it they call to release the secret weapon. Honest John attempts to stop it because it is too early, but he can't. Meanwhile outside, the mice have a standoff with the cats. Warren, wearing his fake nose and ears once again, demands that they throw down all their money and Fievel, so that his gang will leave them alone. Tony instead fires a slingshot at Warren, knocking off his nose. Warren misquotes Shakespeare, saying "What's in a nose?" Tony then fires at Warren's ears, undoing them (somehow, maybe along with his night cap). Now the other mice know Warren is a cat. Warren's "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" line does nothing to change their mind. When it becomes apparant that Warren's officially exposed and will never be able to continue his scheme again, he decides there's only one thing to do...torch the place to the ground!
As you can see, he lights a match by striking it on his teeth, which is pretty awesome if you ask me. Then he flicks it into a basket of cotton and it spreads, lighting up the whole building, just as they were able to hold back the secret weapon. That is when the boat horn sounds, and Gussie Mausheimer commands them to "Wewease, the secwet, weapon!" But it was tied back, now they had to do the work of releasing it all over again. As Warren cackles at the burning building, Fievel takes a torch and burns one of the ropes holding back the weapon, releasing it, and hitting his head hard against a piece of metal. The roar of a beast could be heard as it pressed against the doors of the museum. Warren and his gang gasp, and the fire blows out. The doors explode open, and there, standing twenty feet tall, surrounded by sparks, looking as if it had emerged from the very bowels of the Underworld itself, is the Giant Mouse of Minsk!
Yikes!! The mice inside operating the mechanical beast shoot fire crackers at Warren's gang, and they turn tail and flee down the pier. They become cornered. Warren is almost run over by it as it rolls along, roaring, forcing all of the cats into the ocean. As the mice celebrate their victory, the Mott Street Maulers cling to the anchor of the ship that will take them to Hong Kong. Warren shakes his fist and vows revenge, before wondering how to say "Trust me" in Chinese. One can only wonder what became of them all. They might have been served up in a dish of chow mein for all we know. Tiger is lucky he got fired from the gang when he did.
After Honest John gives 'Philly Mousekewitz' a shout out for coming up with the Giant Mouse of Minsk idea, Tanya overhears and reasons that because they changed her name to Tilly, maybe Fievel's name was changed to Philly and he's still alive. Papa didn't want to listen though. Oh...oh but wait. Perhaps Warren's revenge wasn't too far out of the question. Back at the museum, where Fievel lays unconscious, there is a kerosene leak. And an ember still burning from Warren's fire comes in contact with the kerosene. Soon it ignites, and an even bigger inferno than the first one erupts. The mice flee as human fire fighters show up to put out the fire, while meanwhile beneath their feet, a worried Tony and Bridget search fearfully for Fievel, finding his hat but not him. Tanya happens to overhear them calling for 'Philly', and tugs at her Papa's hand, who refuses to even entertain the notion that Fievel is alive. Eventually he gives in, tracks Tony down and confronts him, demanding that he tell Tanya that he's searching for a Philly Mousekewitz and not Fievel. When Tony tells him that his name is Fievel, Papa still doesn't believe it. But the doubt is erased when Bridget shows Mama Fievel's hat. And you know I would have loved to have seen what happened next, but the scene cuts away. We see Tiger spying in on them but we don't get to see them meet Tiger. Blame Universal's budget retraints.
Anyway, instead the scene cuts to Fievel, stumbling around inside the museum, surrounded by fire and water from the firehoses. He seems to be fatigued and suffering from a headache. As the building is crumbling around him, a firehose sprays in Fievel's direction, washing him and the barrel away and forcing a chest into a bottomless pit, which explodes. Trust me, it seems a lot more dramatic and impactful with the backround music.
The next scene brings us to Orphan Alley, the scene that had scores of kids crying in the movie theaters. It seems that Fievel has given up searching for his family, and at some point, wandered into Orphan Alley...an alley where orphaned mice make their homes out of discarded junk...a place of lost hopes and broken dreams. We see Fievel sleeping on a pile of hay beneath a piece of broken glass from a window when he's confronted by three orphans for sleeping in their spot. Now if you'll notice they've changed their voices on the DVD, I'm not really sure why. When Fievel tells them he's been looking for his family they make fun of him and mock him, saying they'd given that up a long time ago and he's better off without them. Fievel's emotions well up inside, and he has an outburst, saying that if his family cared they'd have found him by now, and that he doesn't care if he never sees them again. The bullying orphans tell Fievel he's one of them now, and they push him into a puddle and throw hay at him, telling him to make himself a bed. Fievel curls up sadly in the puddle, saying that he'll never find his family again anyway, and gives in to this fate by saying "This is my home now." The camera slowly pans out, showing us the dark rainy night, as Fievel buries his face in his arms and cries.
I tell you...this scene still gets me to this day. If you have anything less than a heart of stone, your eyes will water up. It's not even so much because of the backround music either. Fievel's hopes have finally been crushed. We've all had moments like this. But little does Fievel now know, his fate is not to become one of the orphans, because now his family knows he's alive, and it's only going to be a matter of time before they find him.
The scene fades out from Orphan Alley and we see dawn break, and some birds playing in a bird bath, which oddly reminds me of the way the movie Bambi cut to happy birds right after Bambi's mother is shot. Oh yes, show the kids happy birds right after an emotionally traumatic scene, that'll make everything okay again. And we're brought back to Orphan Alley, where Fievel is curled up, shivering in his sleep. And we hear the faint echo of Tanya's voice calling out Fievel's name. Fievel wakes up, but likely doesn't believe what he's hearing. Perhaps it's only a voice in his head, or perhaps he's dreaming. Oh but it is no dream. We see the Mousekewitz family nearby, accompanied by Gussie Mausheimer, Tony and Bridget, and riding atop Tiger, calling out Fievel's name as Papa plays his violin to try to lure Fievel to them. Fievel wanders through the scattered trash in the alley sadly, until listening to the violin more closely. His ears perk up and his face begins to light up. "Papa..." He smiles, and calls out for his Papa. The others hear him, Papa jumps off of Tiger and runs into the alley. The two of them run, calling for each other until finally, finally they are reunited. Fievel jumps into his Papa's arms, soon followed by Mama and Tanya, and they all have a big group hug. This scene will make you cry too, trust me, but it's a happy cry. Fievel finally finds his family, at long last. Gussie even hugs Tiger. Tony complains that no one is thanking him for his part, but Bridget gives him a big thank you kiss.
Papa gives Fievel back his hat during the big family group hug (minus Yasha), and with a little struggle raising his ears, Fievel gets the hat to fit. His Papa says, "Now, you are a mouse."
The scene transitions to Fievel and Tanya riding on the back of Henri, with other pigeons around carrying Fievel's parents, and even quite a few holding up Tiger. Henri unveils his masterpiece, the Statue of Liberty, giving them all a birds-eye view of the towering statue. This could only have happened months later once the statue was finished, in Fall of 1886. As Fievel and Tanya stare at the statue, it suddenly winks at them, and the siblings exchange glances and then laugh. Fievel spots some wide open land to the west, and asks Henri if they can go see it, to which Henri replies, "Someday, you will!" But it will be retconned in later sequels! Forcing fans to come up with elaborate theories to make it all make sense! Anyway, Fievel and Tanya then wave and say "Buh bye!" to the statue, and after one last shot of the statue the credits roll.
Click here for the photo album, with additional screenshots and animation cels.