‘An American Tail’ is Not a Children’s Story; It’s the Immigrant’s Story

I was surprised by the enduring brilliance of the message behind one of my cherished childhood films.

“An American Tail” holds up remarkably well, even in 2023. My brother, sister and I decided to re-watch it again as adults and we braced ourselves, understanding that it’s hard for any piece of art to age well. We worried it wouldn’t have the same impact as it did when we were children, but it actually surpassed our expectations.

This story of Jewish mice finding their way in America closely mirrors that of my family. My grandmother’s family immigrated from the Pale of Settlement around the same time the film is set, seeking safety from the pogroms depicted in the first few minutes of the film. As they built their new lives here, they became active in Jewish socialist movements and labor struggles.

The movie does not sugar-coat the Jewish immigration story. It’s very honest about what it looks like to be a new Jewish immigrant in the 1800s, and I appreciate that it doesn’t shy away from issues of class, or how marginalized communities were often pitted against one another.

“An American Tail” also manages to avoid a common immigrant narrative trap: that the story ends once they’ve reached America. By exploring themes of our country’s false promises, we get a more nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by our immigrant neighbors today.

“No Cats in America” is a song that’s become very emblematic of this broken American dream, that whatever it is you’re fleeing doesn’t exist here. Here, you will be welcomed, valued, and protected. Of course, as you’re watching that scene and listening to the music, there’s this sense of irony because you know that there are cats in America—there are cats everywhere.

This is a hard pill to swallow, but we haven’t lost all hope. We know that hate and division is manufactured and that in our history, many immigrants were able to benefit from robust support systems, especially when they were racialized as white. Many Jewish migrants who entered the U.S. illegally were aided by families and friends here, who would put up the money, for example, or even host them once they arrived.

I hope you’ll join us on June 14 for the world premiere of “An American Tail The Musical” at Children’s Theatre Company. I look forward to continuing this discussion of Jewish immigration and immigrant justice today in a talk-back following the performance. It means a lot to me that this special story is being told on stage, and don’t be fooled — it’s not just a children’s story. It’s an immigration story.

Sarah Buchlaw, is the Decriminalizing Communities Organizer at Jewish Community Action.