One would be hard-pressed to come up with two films better suited to direct comparison than Disney's The Great Mouse Detective and Don Bluth's An American Tail. Both are animated features created by Disney-trained animators. Both are about mice. Both are period pieces set in the late years of the 19th Century. Both were released in 1986. So it makes quite a lot of sense to identify the face-off between these two films as the first direct competition between the two studios, and this was a contest won, financially at least, by An American Tail in a cakewalk. This is, I think, largely because of the major X-factor that Bluth's film could boast over Disney's: The Great Mouse Detective did not have the backing of executive producer Steven Spielberg, arguably the most successful film executive in history.

Artistically, I think that it might be too close to call; but we'll get to that. The film's story, for the benefit of those readers who didn't grow up in the 1980s (if you were a kid in '86, you know it by heart; otherwise it seems to have faded from the cultural consciousness with undue speed for an Amblin Entertainment production), centers on a little Russian Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz (Phillip Glasser). We first meet him at the end of 1885, on the first night of Hanukkah, along with his family: his Papa (Nehemiah Persoff), Mama (Erica Yohn), and sister Tanya (Amy Green). Their festivities are interrupted, not for the first time we imagine, by a pack of cats who attack the mouse community just as Cossacks do the same to the Jewish humans' homes. Apparently this time was the last time, though, for in short order the Mousekewitzes are on the way to America, where Papa promises that no cats are to be found.

Playing around on the ship to America, Fievel gets separated from his family, and ends up landing on New York's shores alone. For the rest of the movie, he spend all of his energy looking for them, while stumbling across a catalogue of immigrant experiences familiar from so many other stories of the same period: crooked sweatshop owners, glad-handing Tammany politicians, street toughs, political agitators, and of course, the omnipresent threat of senseless gang violence: there are cats in America, and they seem to be organised.

It's easy to find fault with the movie for presenting serious topics in a fairly trivial way; but I have to argue on the contrary that, if one is going to attempt to present something as broad in scope as the sociology of immigrant communities in the 1880s to children, one could not likely improve upon An American Tail, leaving only the question of whether such a goal is worthwhile in the first place. I have no problem suggesting that it is; this is of course a matter of taste.

That being said, An American Tail does have some definite shortcomings in the story department. Perhaps inevitably, it's oppressively episodic, which works as long as Fievel and by extension the audience is finding a new person or situation around every corner. As soon as the characters and settings start to repeat themselves, though, and the secondary plot kicks in (involving the mice's - that word looks wrong - attempts to oust the cat gang), the film gets significantly more dull than it had been when it was about nothing but a little boy's attempt to stay alive long enough to find his missing family. Because that stuff all works quite well, even though it is marred somewhat by a sticky-sweet Spielbergian element - and unlike The Secret of NIMH, Bluth's previous feature, it's hard to say what man is the driving force here, director or producer or the story creator, David Kirschner. There's even a quintessential Spielberg shooting star (which is used in a really swell graphic match) during the film's signature song, the Oscar-nominated "Somewhere Out There".

Bluth, let us never forget, was constantly driven to work in the mode of Disney features in their classic period, when the goal was always simple emotion presented in such a way that anyone could engage with the film's message. The Secret of NIMH obfuscated that a bit, with its fantasy-driven conflict, but at heart it was just a story of a single mother doing everything to keep her children safe. An American Tail doesn't need to be described as "at heart" a family story, because that element is so plain on the surface that it couldn't possibly be missed. It is sappy, without question. But its sappiness is unmissably sincere, and such aching, embarrassing sincerity is never an evil thing in a movie. Take that self-same "Somewhere Out There", a hokey moment anchored to a fairly banal song - like all the songs, composed by James Horner and Barry Mann with lyrics by Cynthia Weil. They are all very short, have a needless rigid structure, and reek with Hornerisms, much like his score for the film. That moment should be so sugary as to make a sensible cynic like your 'umble critic puke; yet it moved me enough that I had to stop paying attention to how cutesy-pie it all is.

Whatever problems there might be with the film's sentimentality, it certainly can't be accused of lacking handsome visuals. Here, at least, we have a clear winner between the two mouse pictures: Bluth's animators in 1986 could wipe the floor with Disney's, though Bluth had the luxury of not having just produced a costly, morale-sapping bomb like The Black Cauldron. It's not up to the standards of The Secret of NIMH by any means, nor The Black Cauldron for that matter; but the character design is much more specific and evocative than Disney's latest effort (and, to a certain extent, it feels like it might have been cribbed here and there from The Rescuers, a mouse-based Disney film that Bluth worked on as directing animator). The key thing they taught animators at Disney when Bluth was being trained and well into the 1980s - for all I know, they still teach it - is that character is the most important force in an animated movie: have good characters, the rest will follow. And the secret to character lies not in the vocal performance but in the choices made by the animators, how the character moves and uses facial expressions. Well, the character animation in An American Tail still suffers from the broadness seen in The Secret of NIMH, though to a smaller degree; but the design is simply wonderful. Fievel is a character with fairly primal emotions, which helps, but it is quite a thing how you can feel every thought in his head just because of the contrast between two drawings of his face. I do not want to say that the Bluth team had outdone themselves - some of the animation is a bit stiff and limited - but they certainly outdid a whole decade of Disney features.

And as far as sheer tech gimmickry goes, An American Tail enjoys some really expressive lighting effects, a few very nice shots involving distortion, and a pretty bold use of color. At the end, Bluth starts to rely too much on using gauzy mist and gold lighting - a touch that the executive producer certainly wouldn't have counseled against - pushing the film on the wrong side of the Sappy line, but that's an exception, and it's not nearly bad enough to deprive the strength of something like the cat attacks, which are put together with a chaotic, expressionist bent.

To me, the whole issue comes down to this: An American Tail has a wandering story that errs on the side of sweetness too much, but it looks rich and warm and living. The Great Mouse Detective has a much clearer story, better humor, and a villain to die for, but the other characters, like the film's look, is a bit too simple. I genuinely can't say that I think one is the better achievement than the other, but Bluth's film certainly wins the financial war, so I'm going to let that be the tiebreaker: and now the student was 2-for-2 against his old employer. This is the point where I imagine that Disney institutionally broke out into a little sweat.