Just because something is intended for kids doesn’t mean it can’t potentially scar them for life in an enjoyable way. It’s in this spirit of kindertrauma that we here at Fandom would like to highlight films, TV shows, and video games that seem kid-friendly but are full of nightmare fuel. Often, they are the ones that stick with us.
Previous entry: Little Nemo
An American Tail is the story of an immigrant family who loses their son and the adventures he has while trying to find them in late 19th century New York. It’s also a fun children’s cartoon filled with talking mice and catchy musical numbers.
Director Don Bluth is no stranger to animating scenes that scare the life out of little ones, and for this film he teamed up with Steven Spielberg under his Amblin Entertainment company. An American Tail has gained a bit of a bad rep over the years due to its lackluster sequels, but the original definitely holds up as one of the better Bluth pictures alongside The Land Before Time and The Secret of NIMH.
This is a film that while certainly aimed at younger audiences, contains adult themes and intense sequences of cartoon violence and danger. When the young immigrant mouse Fievel gets separated from his family, he is thrust into a world he knows nothing about. The biggest threat to the mice in this film is the knowledge that at any point in time, a cat could show up, wreak havoc and destroy everything in its path. When the film isn’t indulging in goofy comedic relief or tugging at your heartstrings by way of an amazing and emotional soundtrack by James Horner, An American Tail pulls no punches in showing the audience the darker side of children’s animation.
The Terrifying Cats
There are three violent sequences in this film where cats attack our main characters. The very first time we see cats enter the picture, Fievel and his family are in their Russian home when a group of Cossacks on horseback raid the village and burn everything in sight. The small mouse family escapes into the snow where a group of razor-toothed cats are chasing after all the mice. It’s a scary and adrenaline filled scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film regarding just how unsafe our characters really are.
The other two scenes of cat attacks are not nearly as impactful as the Russian raid on the village in the first act, but in the second encounter Fievel literally gets eaten and manages to escape the jaws of a dangerous feline. The terrifying way the animals are presented in this film is aided by the animation style of Don Bluth’s team and the pacing and editing of each scene. It doesn’t help either that each time a fire breaks out, the sky turns into a blend of blood red and orange colors that make the environment seem almost hellish and apocalyptic.
Evil God of the Storm
When Fievel and his family are aboard the ship bound for America, a violent storm erupts causing the boat to take on water. Fever lets his adventurous nature get the best of him and he runs out onto the upper deck to get a look at all the fish washing aboard. His father chases after him, but soon the little mouse is overpowered by all the water swirling around him. Then he gets caught by one of the hanging ropes and gets propelled up the mast where he looks out into the sea and witnesses what appears to be a nightmarish deity controlling the storm.
Wake for a Dead Mouse
There is a dead body on full display in this film. The scene towards the middle of the second act that takes place during an Irish wake of a mouse features the corpse of a character killed off screen. This is the part of the film where we are introduced to a couple of likable characters who will be pivotal in the final act before Fievel reunites with his family, but what we’re seeing here is taking place around a mouse murdered by a cat. No wonder the character of Honest John is sloshed in this scene. It’s his third wake of the day, and he’s not even done yet!
The Giant Mouse of Minsk
This thing is straight up kindertrauma. The big finale of An American Tail is a plan to run all the cats out of New York and ship them off to Hong Kong, far away from Fievel and the rest of the immigrant mice in America. When the local gang of feline heavies lead by a sinister criminal named Warren T. Rat chases Fievel out to the docks, the Giant Mouse of Minsk is deployed and scares the hell out of everybody. This is a Trojan Horse secret weapon that has a massive snapping jaw and shoots fireworks out of its mouth. Seeing this thing burst out of the rundown Museum of the Weird and Bizarre where the mice built it, is a frightening sight and the fact that it runs the cats into the water where they nearly drown is even more unsettling.
Everyone Is Traumatized
Every single character in this movie has endured pain and suffering. During one of the film’s more memorable musical numbers, Feivel’s father Papa Mousekewitz, a Sicilian immigrant and a young Irishman all recount stories of loss and death. The chorus of the song There Are No Cats In America is catchy and lighthearted despite its underlying message of naive hopefulness, but each of the stories told during this song deal with the death of loved ones. It’s even more disturbing to see the Sicilian’s mama exit the screen in a flashback only to get killed and then hear about how the Irish mouse’s fiancé was eaten until only her tail was left.
Even amongst these scenes that are at times horrifying and frightening, the film still addresses very serious topics that reflect heavily on life struggles. The massive influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland in the late 1800s didn’t have it easy, and screenwriter David Kirshner took this opportunity to highlight themes of oppression, abandonment and the people that were stripped of their cultural identity when they entered the states by having their names changed when they processed through Ellis Island. This is a kid’s cartoon that addresses the fear of being orphaned, getting kidnapped and thrown into child labor and dealing with the death of family members. Even though that sounds way too heavy for a children’s film, An American Tail is still very uplifting and filled with happy moments to offset the bad. It’s a great story for all ages, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.