Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1994) Part 1

6. Thumbelina
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

Following the failure of “Rock-A-Doodle,” Don Bluth’s studio imploded. However, at the last minute, the Hong Kong-based Media Assets pumped money into the floundering animation studio, providing the funds for three more movies. At the same time, the Disney Renaissance had begun, the age-old studio finding massive success with glossy, musical adaptations of classic fairy tales. During the eighties, Bluth’s quirky cartoons were released as counter-programming to Disney’s middling work at the time. Perhaps desperate for success, Bluth would directly emulate his biggest box office rival with his next film, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Thumbelina.”

Loosely based off Anderson’s story, “Thumbelina” begins with a childless old woman wishing for a baby. Her wish is granted when a kindly witch gives her a magic seed, which grows into a flower, producing a tiny young woman. Named Thumbelina, she finds the human-sized world awkward for a tiny person like her to navigate. She also dreams of love with a mate her own size. This unlikely dream is fulfilled when a fairy prince appears, the two falling in love at first sight. Thumbelina and Prince Cornelius’ romance is complicated when she gets lost in the world outside her window, encountering a series of creature that may not mean the best for the naïve girl.

In the eighties, Don Bluth made a habit of opening his films against the newest pictures from the reigning king of animation, Walt Disney Studios. “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time” would surprisingly beat Disney’s offerings at the box office. Bluth’s dominance over his rival was short-lived, as his films grew quirkier and Disney got its shit together. Don obviously wanted some of that sweet Disney Renaissance money. The result is a film that is blatantly derivative of Disney’s popular releases. “Thumbelina” is based on a well-known fairy tale, originally written by Hans Christian Anderson. Anderson had, not coincidentally, also wrote “The Little Mermaid.” “Thumbelina” similarly concerns a magical young woman looking for love. Both characters are even voiced by Jodi Benson! The film’s musical numbers, tone, and even animation are obviously patterned after the Disney house style. The movie even beings with a book opening, containing the film’s story, an often imitated Disney touch. It’s disappointing to see Bluth abandon his own eccentric style in favor of following what was popular at the time.

Blatantly copying the Disney approach may be the least of “Thumbelina’s” problems. The film doesn’t have much of a story. After encountering the Prince, she gets tossed into the big world. There, Thumbelina has a series of run-ins with different characters, until she is reunited with her love. That’s more-or-less it. There’s some brief mention of Thumbelina’s human mother missing her and worrying. However, the movie forgets about that subplot for long stretches. The story is a loose collection of musical numbers and encounters. While most of Bluth’s movies ran under eighties minutes, “Thumbelina” actually runs closer to ninety. The complete lack of pacing and thinnest wisp of a plot makes ‘Thumbelina” feel long and crushingly boring.

Something you could always count on from a Don Bluth production was gorgeous animation. “Thumbelina” looks nice. The backgrounds have the same painted style to them that is seen in all of Bluth’s films. The character animation is detailed and lively, the characters moving fluidly and with personality. However, something about “Thumbelina” is off. The backgrounds are not as detailed or lush. The character’s are obviously rotoscoped off live performances, giving their movements a sometimes choppy appearance. The movie’s animation is still of a high quality but is not up to the standards of the director’s previous works.

Not helping matters is the film’s title character. Thumbelina is not very proactive. She spends the film’s first act, wishing a prince will come for her. Completely by coincidence, a Prince at just the right size for her wanders by. Meanwhile, a completely different set of characters kidnap her, tossing her into an adventure. Thumbelina is thrown from encounter to encounter, not a single one of them motivated by her. The only thing Thumbelina does for herself is refuse to marry a Mole at the end of the movie. Disney Princesses are frequently pushed and pulled by the plot around them but they usually have some sort of defining characteristic. Thumbelina doesn’t even have that. The movie’s main character is a lame duck.

So the romance between Thumbelina and her prince charming is what motivates the story. So surely their love story is worth watching? Not really. Thumbelina and Prince Cornelius fall in love at first sight. I mean that literally. He happens by her window and they catch a glimpse at each other. A few minutes later, both are professing their love for one another. The two spend the rest of the movie searching for someone they’ve known for maybe an hour. The prince is as blandly boring as Thumbelina. Gary Imhoff voices him as a generic hero and he spends most of the movie frozen in an ice cube.

Prince Cornelius is the son of a fairy king and queen. You’d think this would give the movie an oppretunity to focus on the intrigue of the fairy court. We get a little bit of this. We briefly see the fairy king and queen discussing their son’s reluctance to fulfill his princely duties. However, very little time is spent in the magical world of the fae. Instead, “Thumbelina” focuses on the very little girl going on a quest of self-realization. After loosing her love interest for a few hours, Thumbelina looses all hope and decides to marry for money. So she’s low on personality and ethics too.

So what about the group of people she runs into throughout the movie? “Alice in Wonderland,” which the film bares a superficial resemblance too, was almost saved by the colorful supporting cast. “Thumbelina,” however, offers a dull and uninteresting collection of bit players. The story is narrated by Jacquimo, a bird that dresses as a clown and sings with a French accent. His relentlessly up-beat attitude is irritating. A trio of sickening sweet bugs, looking lots like extras in an old Mickey Mouse cartoon, also show up. Carol Channing, just one of the B-list celebs providing voices in the film, plays Ms. Fieldmouse, a shallow, selfishly motivated mouse who has a pathological hatred of the sun. She’s not quite a villain and neither is Mr. Mole, voiced by a slumming John Hurt, the subterranean rodent who almost marries Thumbelina. Considering he’s not painted as an especially bad guy, the movie gives him a bit of a short stick.

Another weakness of “Thumbelina” is that it can't throw together a decent bad guy, something even the crappy Disney cartoons usually manage. Once outside her home, Thumbelina runs into a clan of toads. Portrayed as rather embarrassing Hispanic stereotypes, the frogs are traveling dancers, money-grubbing, and willing to steal to get what they want. They’re led by a matriarch, voiced by Charro of all people. Weirdly, the character is patterned after Charro too. Meaning the frog is busty, with big lips, big hair, sashaying hips, and even “cuchi-cuchis” at one points. It’s the weirdest thing in a Don Bluth movie since he tried to sexualize a chicken. Her grotesque son is the film’s physical threat but far too cartoonish to be intimidating. Meanwhile, Gilbert Gotfried shows up to voice a tap-dancing bug, because Gilbert Gotfried loves money.

The worst part of “Thumbelina,” a film I don’t especially like, is its totally tuneless soundtrack. Since the Disney hits were all musicals, this movie had to be one too. Short of a Tim Rice or a Elton John, Barry Manilow composed the soundtrack. The collection of songs are entirely forgettable. “Let Me Be Your Wings,” the movie’s love theme, is reprised a few times. It might as well be the generic example of a cartoon love song. “On the Road,” the theme of the frog entertainers, features painful rhymes. There’s nothing memorable about “Yer Beautiful, Baby,” the song sung by the dancing bugs, but at least it spares us Gilbert Gotfried singing. The film would receive a Golden Raspberry for the song, “Marry the Mole,” performed by Carol Channing. Though Channing’s nasally vocals are slightly grating, it’s still probably the catchiest number in the film. There are other songs in “Thumbelina” but I’ve already forgotten about them. Manilow’s music varies between entirely unremarkable and utterly lame.

So is there anything I like about “Thumbelina?” Something mildly clever that the movie does is connect its story to the season. As Thumbelina is separated from her prince, the leaves turn brown and autumn starts. As her would-be husband is frozen and she looses hope, winter rolls in. It’s an interesting idea, if nothing else. However, “Thumbelina” even fumbles this element. It progresses through the seasons far too quickly. Minutes after fall begins, we’re already in winter. Spring plops along immediately at the end. If the story is meant to take place over a year, there’s no indication of that in the film. The movie seems to take place over a few days, shoving four seasons into the span of a week.

”Thumbelina” is not a fiasco on the level of “Rock-A-Doodle.” It’s less ill-conceived, mismatched, uneven, and not as weird. But it’s not as interesting as that movie either. The film is incredibly boring. It even managed to bore me as a little kid. Unlike many of Bluth’s other films, which I watched repeatedly as a child, I rented this one once and never felt the need to search it out again. The public was similarly unimpressed. “Thumbelina” grossed 11 million against a 22 million dollar budget, continuing Don Bluth’s string of box office failures. The film doesn’t even have much of a cult following now. It’s more-or-less completely forgotten. The movie feels exactly like what it is: An undistinguished Disney rip-off. Don Bluth is better then this. [Grade: D]

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