Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1994) Part 2

7. A Troll in Central Park
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

Despite the box office failure of “Thumbelina,” Media Assets continued to provide Don Bluth and his production team with funds. His next film, “A Troll in Central Park,” had been in development since 1990. Production on the movie started as early as '91, when Bluth would loose some of his animation team to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Seeing his attempt to emulate Disney with “Thumbelina” fail, perhaps Bluth was eager to return to his own ideas. The resulting film was shelved until 1994, where it was barely released. “A Troll in Central Park” is an uneven mixture of saccharine kids’ stuff and some of that darker Don Bluth weirdness.

The subterranean world of the trolls is a dark, gloomy place where happiness, flowers, and light have been outlawed by Queen Gnorga. This is a problem for Stanley, an upbeat troll with a magical green thumb that allows him to create singing flowers. His love of greenery gets Stanly exiled from the troll world to New York City, where he ends up in Central Park. There, he encounters Gus and Rosie, two young kids with problems of their own. Realizing his punishment is not severe enough, Gnorga pursues Stanley to the human world.

In the eighties, Don Bluth made cartoons that certainly featured cute, funny, light-hearted elements. However, these elements were usually tempered by an interior maturity or at least some dramatic danger. Even his lesser films had some weird shit happening in them. With “Thumbelina,” the director’s quest for financial success had him making kinder, gentler flicks. “A Troll in Central Park” may be Bluth’s most sickeningly cute movie yet. The main characters are toddlers. The film exists in a magical world of singing flowers, happy trolls, and fulfilled dreams. The first half of the movie is overwhelmed by a sense of softness. The stakes are low, at least at first. Most of the film lacks any danger or dramatic tension. It feels like the experienced director was aiming directly for the pre-school crowd.

“Thumbelina” barely had a plot, more or less being a loose series of character encounters. “A Troll in Central Park” has only slightly more story. Stanley is expelled. Gus and Rosie stumble upon his lair while exploring the park. The three spent what feels like the next hour frolicking inside the troll’s magical hiding place. Occasionally, Gnorga will peer in at the characters, attempting to impend them somehow. It’s not until its last half-hour that “A Troll in Central Park” gains any sort of story momentum at all. At the very least, the film is not as boring as “Thumbelina,” as there’s usually something mildly interesting happening at any point.

“A Troll in Central Park” has a surprisingly small cast of characters. There are only ten voice actors listed in the end credits. This isn’t an issue. However, when every single named character is annoying, that is an issue. Stanley is so sickeningly upbeat that he grates. Before the end, we discovers that he’s a coward, unwilling to face danger. Gnorga and her sidekick Llort are loud and shrill. Rosie is a toddler, who speaks in gibberish and crying. Worst yet is Gus. Gus is a bratty little boy. He’s annoyed because his hard working parents are too busy to play with him. He yells at his sister and grouses at his mom and dad. He runs away from home, kidnapping his little sister. Even after meeting Stanley, he mostly bitches and groans. Gus is so obnoxious that the villains agree he’s rather troll-like, transforming him into one of the mythical critters. Even Gus’ character design is unappealing, with his freckled face, buckteeth, and spiky hair.

The animation in “Thumbelina” had many of the Don Bluth elements but somehow seemed flat and unimpressive. For all its flaws, “A Troll in Central Park” is at least pretty. The backgrounds are detailed and verdant. The troll underworld is especially neat looking, with its winding stone staircases and gothic statues. Two sequences stand out. The first comes when Gus transforms his toy boat into a speed boat, racing through a psychedelic swirl of colors, before ending up on the ocean. There, he’s pursued by a battle ship, which is vividly animated. The last act features an exciting race through the paths of Central Park, the images spinning around. The character animation is also a step up over the bland work in “Thumbelina.” The characters are life-like and energetic, moving believably and interestingly. So the movie has that going for it.

What is it with kids’ entertainment preaching cheesy, empty platitudes? “A Troll in Central Park” has four obvious, easy morals. Something that was commonly seen in 90s kids’ media was the technically neglectful parent. Gus and Rosie’s dad is a lawyer and provides them with a spacious Manhattan home. However, the hard work that provides them with that home also keeps him from fulfilling every little plea his kid has. Maybe kids’ cartoons should emphasize that food on the plate is a little more important then a Sunday at the park. Meanwhile, there’s a message of loving your siblings, as Gus comes to appreciate his somewhat annoying baby sister. Stanley instructs the kids to follow their dreams. Later, the troll learns to believe in himself, overcoming his fear to face his adversary. Is that enough happy lessons, movie?

With “A Troll in Central Park,” Bluth and his team had the oppretunity to explore something rarely seen on-screen. An animated film set in the world of Scandinavian mythology, with its hideous trolls and other freaky monsters. The trolls of “A Troll in Central Park” are not the giant creatures that turn to stone when exposed to sunlight. Instead, they’re closer to the trolls with the funny hair, big eyes, and weirdly unisex bodies. At the very least, the magic spells of the film are sort of interesting. Watching Stanley sprout flowers, or riding the boat through a village in his imagination, provide some memorable images.

In his earliest movies, Bluth created genuinely threatening bad guys. Jenner in “The Secret of NIMH” was a cold-blooded killer and a sociopath. The Sharptooth in “The Land Before Time” was an incredibly dangerous, violent predator. Even Carface in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and the Duke in “Rock-A-Doodle” meant the heroes serious harm. In “A Troll in Central Park,” Queen Gnorga and King Llort are goofballs. Gnorga rides around on her servants backs, mincing in a fashion that I think is meant to be comedic. Llort, meanwhile, is totally incompetent. He’s frequently gnawed on by his mate’s pet dog and never contributes much anything useful. By skewing so hard towards the kindergarten set, Bluth lost villains that were frightening or even interesting.

That’s how “A Troll in Central Park” is for most of its run time. In its last third, the film makes a hard turn into Bluth-ian weirdness, suddenly doubling down on the darkness that didn’t exist before hand. Gnorga casts a spell over Central Park, turning it into a wasteland, full of red ground and twisting stone paths. The evil trolls pursue the kids on tricycles, swinging swords. The camera focuses on Gnorga’s ugly, twitching face, an off-putting sight. For the first time, the characters seem in real danger. The film even flirts with killing off two characters. Rosie, the little girl who can’t even talk yet, stumbles off a cliff. She’s rescued but, for all of a minute, the film acts as if the two year old is dead. A few minutes later, the villains’ machinations turns Stanley to stone. The film sticks to this longer, acting as if its cutesy title character may be really dead. Naturally, Stanley comes back to life, in a lame death cheat. Still, it tried. If “A Troll in Central Park” has stuck to this darker tone throughout the entirety of its run time, it would have been a far more watchable experience.

Two of Bluth’s best films, “The Secret of NIMH” and “The Land Before Time,” are decidedly not musicals. By this point in his career, song and dance numbers were required elements of Bluth’s movies. None of the music in “A Troll in Central Park” is especially memorable. “Queen of Mean,” Gnorga’s introductory number, has a more rock n’ roll-syle back beat, providing it with a little energy. The lyrics are entirely inane though. Similarly, “Absolutely Green,” Stanley’s main theme, has a slightly pretty melody. Once again, the lyrics are sickeningly sweet. “Welcome to My World” doesn’t rate very high either. None of the songs actively annoy like in “Thumbelina,” which I guess is a step up.

There are a few Bluth regulars in the voice cast. Dom DeLuise voices Stanley, this being his last collaboration with the director. DeLuise’s doofy charm is well suited to the part but he’s not giving much chance to express himself. In what would also be his last appearance in a Bluth film, Charles Nelson Reilly plays another buffoonish sidekick to the bad guy. King Llort makes me pine for the comparatively nuanced work Reilly did in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and “Rock-A-Doodle.” Cloris Leachman voices Gnorga and at least seems to be having a good time. In a pair of utterly bizarre cameos, respected thespian Jonathan Pierce and Disney veteran Haily Mills voice Gus and Rosie’s parents. Why the movie got recognizable talent for such tiny roles, I don’t know.

“A Troll in Central Park” would be extraordinarily unsuccessful at the box office. It’s limited release would gross only 71,268 dollars against a 23 million dollar budget. The pathetic gross would make the film the biggest failure of Bluth’s career. Critically, the film fared no better. Even the nostalgia market, the internet crowd that builds up movies like this, trashes the film. As a child, I rented it once and never felt the need to return to it. Even Bluth himself admitted the film was a failure. Truthfully, the film is not quite that bad. It’s uneven, odd, and produces many eye-rolls with its silly, sweet tone. Yet it’s never boring and the animation remains of a high quality. Those things count for something, right? [Grade: C]

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