December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

This enigmatic animated film, mixing the ingenuous and the trite, is at once a heartwarming adventure and a ponderous morality tale. Taking place in 1885, the story follows wide-eyed Fievel Mousekewitz (whose affectingly emotive voice is that of 7-year-old Phillip Glasser). He is a little rodent separated from his family after fleeing Russia for America—where “the streets are paved with cheese.” Washing ashore in a bottle in New York Harbor, he desperately searches the Lower East Side for the sound of his father’s violin and comes upon a sometimes interesting, if derivative, array of characters. There’s a rodent Artful Dodger named Tony Toponi (the voice of Pat Musick), a Fagin-like rat (John Finnegan) and even a French pigeon (Christopher Plummer) who’s supervising work on the Statue of Liberty and sounds like a flighty Maurice Chevalier. Best are the voices of Madeline Kahn, who as a society matron anti-cat activist reprises the Dietrich accent she used in Blazing Saddles, and Dom DeLuise, delightful as a lovable, bushy-tailed pussycat named Tiger. Director Don Bluth, who left the Disney Studios and released The Secrets of NIMH in 1982, creates such a heightened sense of reality you almost forget you’re watching animation. The cobblestoned streets of 19th-century New York are dank, shadowy and scary. Most scenes are short, suiting small attention spans. The plentiful musical numbers have some drawn-out lyrics, but as a simple tale, Tail is effective. It’s when Bluth (perhaps influenced by executive producer Steven Spielberg) goes for Greater Meaning that things get muddy. There are overworked devices—a corrupt Tammany Hall politician, a pretty Irish suffragette—and a confusing scene about the changing of mice names at Ellis Island. There are references to religious prejudice that are likely to confuse as much as they enlighten. While the kids may have a good time, Mom and Dad will have to pay attention so they can explain later what it all meant. (G)

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