Saturday, July 25, 2015
Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1995)
The Pebble and the Penguin
Co-directed with Gary Goldman
Despite his last three films being catastrophic bombs, Don Bluth was still being allowed to make movies. The funding was coming from somewhere, I guess. “The Pebble and the Penguin” was produced around the same time as “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park,” the final film in the three part deal with Media Assets. Perhaps the money people were beginning to notice that none of Bluth’s films were making returns on their investments. MGM, the US distributors of the movie, reportedly demanded changes, delaying the movie’s release. Don Bluth and his co-director Gary Goldman were so disgusted by this executive meddling that they left the project before it was finalized, going uncredited on the release print. Bluth’s name was still used to advertize the movie. Despite its troubled production, “The Pebble and the Penguin” may be Bluth’s best movie in a while.
Set in the icy Antarctic coast, the film follows Hubie. A lovelorn penguin with a stutter, Hubie is too shy to approach Marina, the she-penguin he loves. Attempts to find the perfect pebble to present to her, part of the mating rituals of the penguins, go astray. However, Hubie finds a brilliant pebble after nearly being hit by a falling meteorite. Drake, the alpha penguin on the glacier who has his eyes set on Marina, feels threatened by this. Tossing Hubie into the sea, he assumes the other penguin is dead. Hubie survives, teams up with an eccentric rockhopper penguin named Rocko, and sets out to be reunited with his love before the mating cycle is over.
The sex lives of penguins are fascinating. The Adelie Penguin, the species that inspired “The Pebble and the Penguin,” can get down to some kinky shit. Males will sometimes copulate with dead females, coerce unwilling females, and molest baby penguins. When none of these options are available, sometimes the male Adelies just hump each other. The penguins have even been seen partaking in what some describe as prostitution. The female will sometimes trade a stone, which they use to create their nests, for sex. This decidedly un-G-rated behavior is what inspired “The Pebble and the Penguin.” The movie cutes up the whole thing, taking out all the rape and necrophilia that is a part of life for wild birds. But this is still an interesting world to set a kid’s cartoon in. If the film had come out in the post-“March of the Penguins” mania for all things penguin related, where the sort-of similar “Happy Feet” became an Academy Award-winning success, maybe it would have been a far bigger hit.
Like Gaston, Drake is a macho male who doesn’t take no for an answer. The romance may not be complex but it is interesting to see Bluth tackle a love story in his usual style.
At the beginning of watching “The Pebble and the Penguin,” I was concerned the characters would be annoying. Hubie has a stutter, a trait which does not endear characters to the audience. Drake is a macho poser. The other female penguins swoon over him. Rocko, meanwhile, is a penguin with a ‘tude. Amazingly, the characters slowly win the audience over. Hubie’s stutter fades as he discovers his bravery. Rocko is less tubular then he is genuinely grouchy. Drake develops into a truly dangerous enemy. These aren’t high bars to clear. However, considering Bluth’s last two movies and how dire the movie appears to be, “The Pebble and the Penguin” becomes surprisingly charming.
Bluth and Goldman were also working with a better voice cast then their last few flicks. Unlike “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park,” which seemed to start with loose stereotypes and cast familiar, B-list talent in those part. At least the characters here seem to have real personality. Martin Short does not in indulge in high-pitched comedy, like you might expect. He makes Hubie genuinely likable at times. Annie Golden as Marina has a sweet, likable voice, making her a good choice for the love interest. Even James Belushi, the dreaded Belush, brings a nice husky quality to Rocko.
Another reason to be in favor of “The Pebble and the Penguin” is the mysterious Tim Curry factor. Curry, a veteran of voice acting and on-camera acting, affects a non-convincing American accent as Drake, the villain. He even seems to be going for a surfer dude thing at times. The part allows Curry to do two things he’s really good at: Inappropriate sexual tension and a genuinely menacing sense of villainy. Curry’s slithering baritone drips with cheesy greasiness when he’s trying to seduce Marina. When threatening Hubie, Drake drops all pretense. He’s a killer, determined to smite his romantic rival. It’s surprising how the film makes the character, whose buff physique looks goofy and out-of-place, seem like a real threat. I think this is solely the work of Tim Curry, an expert at wringing the best out of sub-par material.
A problem I had with both “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park” is that both films felt far too safe. There was no sense of danger. The villains were cartoonish. The heroes’ lives never truly seemed threatened. “A Pebble and the Penguin” fixes this. One scene has Hubie and Rocko diving under an ice flow, looking for fish. Both wind up pursued by a harp seal, which is portrayed as a giant monster. Later, a pod of killer whales go after the penguins, leaping up rock formations to get at them. The animals want to kill and eat the heroes. They aren’t silly, fangless comic relief threats. The actual danger seems to have given Bluth and his team a renewed energy.
And what about those songs? Barry Manilow returned to write the songs and score the music. This did not enthuse me, as Manilow’s sleep-inducing songs were one of the worst things about “Thumbelina.” He does better this time. “Now and Forever,” the opening number and reoccurring love theme, is somewhat catchy and has some decent lyrics. “Don’t Make Me Laugh,” Drake’s number, makes great use of Tim Curry’s deep, vibrating vocals. The aforementioned “Looks Like I Got Me a Friend” is cute. “Sometimes I Wonder,” the love song between Hubie and Marina,” isn’t very memorable. “The Good Ship Misery” is a mostly superfluous number that doesn’t add much to the plot, features silly lyrics, and broad vocals. The dance sequence is well-animated and creative though. I’m not going to rush out and buy the soundtrack but the songs are way better then they had any right to be.
There are some elements of the film I don’t especially like. Drake’s gaggle of sidekicks are useless. The film doesn’t even seem to know what to do with them. Two cute birdies, a boy and a girl, are another unnecessary pair of sidekicks. These seem like left-overs from Bluth’s lesser films. Also unneeded is the occasional voice-over segments from Shani Willis. These bits seem to frame the film as a pseudo-documentary. The movie abandons this aspect almost immediately and whenever it reoccurs, it truly feels out of place.