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An American Tail

Animated / Family
1986 / 80 minutes
RATING: 9/10

This is the immigrant experience, set to music, and seen through the eyes of a 19th-century Jewish animated mouse family who decide to come to America after they’d been driven out of their Russian village by rampaging Cossack cats.

I should end the review right there; what more do you need? But I can’t help myself, because this is as brilliant as it is utterly unique! After escaping the Cossack cats, the Mousekewitz family takes a slow boat to their new land, surrounded by fellow immigrants from other countries. All of them have sad stories to share, usually involving how a cat ate their papa, or mama, or in the case of one Irish lad, his one true love (and all that was left of her was her tail!).

After each story is shared the mice join together to sing of how much better they expect it to be in their new country:

But there are no cats in America,
And the streets are paved with cheese!
Oh, there are no cats in America,
So set your mind at ease!

They’re all so very hopeful, and that’s when the storm hits. Little Fievel, the Mousekewitz’s boy, is washed overboard and presumed lost, and his family is forced to continue on without him. Thankfully (I don’t think I could have taken it otherwise) Fievel has survived. He’s battered, but unbroken, and travels the rest of the way in a bottle, arriving only a short time after his family. Will he be able to find them? There are so many mice in New York! And it doesn’t help that they aren’t even looking for him.

Fievel soon discovers that there are cats in America. Fortunately, there are also mice here willing to fight for their freedoms. So it is, that Fievel, and unbeknownst to him, his family too, help with an audacious plan to force the cats onto a boat heading for Hong Kong. But even as they work on the same plan, Fievel and his family never quite cross paths. Fievel is making friends though, whether it’s a French pigeon helping with the construction of the Statue of Liberty, or a streetwise teen mouse who has Fievel’s back, or even a cat who loves broccoli a lot better than mouse burgers.

Cautions

There are a lot of cats chasing mice throughout the whole story, and these cats are mean and scary. That, along with a brief counter Fievel has with some creepy cockroaches, make this fare for children ten and up.

Also, theres’s a minor character, the politician Honest John, who always seems drunk. Fortunately, he’s onscreen only briefly, and only a few times.

Conclusion

I was struck by how this had, for me, the feel of a 1940s wartime flick. Just like in those films, this celebrates America as a beacon of hope. The darkness it opposes isn’t Nazis this time, but something not too different; An American Tail was made during the Cold War, when the USSR was at its most intimidating, and it’s no coincidence that the main characters are coming from an oppressive Russia to find opportunity in America. While the Mousekewitzs discover that the streets aren’t paved with cheese – that’s too good to be true – there were opportunities in this new land that didn’t exist in the old one. An American Tail is a surprisingly nuanced celebration of the immigrant, showing that it wasn’t easy for those early settlers, whether man or mouse.

So who’d enjoy this? I suspect it’s so unique, so unusual, that excellent though it is, it might not appeal to the whole family. A Jewish Russian American mouse musical? Yup, that is odd, and maybe even weird.

But it really couldn’t be more wonderful!

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Animated, Movie Reviews, Remembrance Day

Sgt. Stubby: an unlikely hero

Animated / Family 2018 / 84 minutes Rating: 8/10 I read a review by a parent who arrived at the movie theater with his four-year-old and picked this film based solely on the smiling ever-so-cute doggie he saw on the movie poster. One problem: while this is about a charming, incredibly clever dog named Stubby, it's also about life in the trenches of World War I. And that's not 4-year-old material. Why, oh why, don't more people read movie reviews! But, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the "Great War" this is a movie that many a ten-year-old and up will enjoy and should watch. It's based on the true story of Sgt. Stubby, the most decorated dog in American history. The story begins with the homeless dog attaching himself to a unit readying itself to be shipped overseas. First, he charms his way into the heart of one Private Robert Conroy, the main two-legged character in the film. Then, one by one, from the lowest private to the general in charge, he wins over everyone. Well, not everyone. Some folks just aren't dog people, and Private Elmer Olsen just doesn't understand what's so special about Stubby. When the unit heads overseas, Stubby manages to sneak aboard the ship, and he too is heading to the fight. From this point onward there's one perilous scene after another, but to make it appropriate for (nearly) the whole family, the filmmakers decided to make this an entirely bloodless film. Even as bullets are whizzing, no one gets shot. German bombardments send both soldiers and dirt flying, but the soldiers get dug out and emerge both unbruised and unbloodied. While parents will appreciate the nonexistent blood and gore, by muting the violence and death the film ran the risk of also muting the sacrifice that these soldiers made. But as the film draws to a close there is one death – to a secondary character, Private Olsen – that drives home, even to the younger audiences, what these men risked and what they lost. Without giving it all away, I'll note that the death happens off screen and we don't even see the body. It is the soldier's absence that is noted – while his friends are looking for him after the last big battle, Stubby brings them his helmet. That'll get some kids crying, and even moisten the eye of many an adult. But it is necessary. And it is done with great care and restraint. As you'd expect with an energetic pooch as its star, there is a lot of fun in the film. Kids are sure to enjoy Stubby training along with his fellow soldiers, getting chased by the cook, and winning over the Colonel after Conroy teaches his little buddy how to salute. In another treat, Gérard Depardieu makes an appearance as a large, wise French soldier, who along with Conroy and Stubby is tasked to spy out German positions. These "three musketeers" become fast friends, saving each others' lives. Cautions There are only a couple of concerns, including a little bit of language. The worst of it includes one character saying "What the devil?" and another exclaiming "I'll be darned." There is also just one bit of "naughty" comedy as the drill sergeant lectures his men on they should imitate the never-complaining, always-ready-to-roll Stubby but he makes this speech just as Stubby decides to lick his nether regions. That gets a laugh out of the sergeant and his men as they are presented with proof-positive that Stubby has some traits that aren't worthy of imitation. The big caution would concern the near constant peril. This is not a film for four-year-olds. But most ten-year-olds will be sure to enjoy it. Conclusion This was such a pleasure to discover. Before this, I couldn't have imagined a war film that would be appropriate for the very young and yet still be a treat for their parents. This would be a great one to watch with the family for Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, or Anzac Day. You can find out more about the film at its website: StubbyMovie.com. ...


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