Cursed into the form of a talking cartoon fish by a half-mad deity known only as the Writer, the Infallible Fish has no idea who he is, or where he comes from, all he does know is that he has a burning urge to watch some animated stuff.
Once upon a time there was a mouse, given life by a half-mad wizard…
This sounds kind of familiar.
Hush. The mouse was to rule over all of animation. The mouse did this for a long time, but many mortals grew jealous, and plotted to steal the Mouse’s crown. But the Mouse was too strong, none could match him, until the age of CG, where the Mouse faltered and was forced to share his crown with two giants known as Pixar and DreamWorks. That is a story for another time though, today we shall discuss the one mortal who came closest to toppling Disney, Don Bluth.
Ah, Don Bluth. He created some of the greatest animated films of the 80s, Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven. It’s a shame things fell apart in the 90s for him. The weird thing about a lot of Don Bluth films is they are often mistaken for Disney films. When I was a kid I genuinely believed that Anastasia was a Disney film (they only wish it was their film). I mean they have a fair few things in common, they’re hand-drawn, they have a great quality of animation, and they follow along a similar formula for a kid’s film. Mr. Bluth actually came pretty close to beating Disney at its own game.
Heresy! No one may stand against the Mouse!
That brings us to today’s film, where Mr. Bluth may have gone too Disney for his own good, Thumbelina. Now this is a fairy tale princess movie, something that Disney is famous for (which is wierd considering that the actual princess movies only make up about a quarter of the official cannon).
Let’s start with the animation. This is Bluth animation, so we know it’s going to be good, and it is, for the most part. The animation of the human characters is especially mesmerising. You can tell they had a life model for Thumbelina, she moves with such realism and fluidity, it’s beautiful. The most stunning piece is our introduction to Thumbelina. I adore the way the petals peel open and the graceful movements as Thumbelina wakes up.
Unfortunately on the other end of the scale there is the handful of CG backgrounds, and they look terrible. Now I’m aware Mr. Bluth had filed for bankruptcy around the time of this film, so it’s clear he didn’t have the money necessary to finish those scenes properly. It’s a real shame, and really jarring when we switch from a nice painted background, to a horrible fly-through of CG boxes.
The animation is the best part of this film (despite the CG), but the absolute worst part, is the songs. Because, according to Kid’s Film Formula rule 2307, we must have songs. The problem with these songs is that they just don’t stop, they’re played and reprised near constantly and it drives you crazy. To make matters worse, these are not good songs. (“La la la, ho ho ho.” Great lyrics there guys.) The lyrics are often repetitive. They’re not exactly subtle. Our first song basically repeats that we are to ‘follow our hearts’ about fifty times. (Gee, I wonder what the central message of this film is going to be?) Also, they have Gilbert Gottfried singing! (Come on guys, not even Aladdin inflicted that upon us). “Marry the Mole” was actually nominated for a Razzie it’s that bad. The only bright spot with the songs is the singing voice for Thumbelina is really good, I could listen to that voice happily, I just wish the songs themselves were better.
Let’s actually talk about our main character, Thumbelina. Honestly, I like her. She doesn’t have a whole lot to work with character wise, but she has personality and I genuinely feel sorry for her in some of her darker moments. There’s the point in the film where she believes her prince, Cornelius, is dead and you can see how devastated she is (Though she could take a bit more convincing). Another part I like is when she’s upset because a beetle called her ugly. Her bird friend, Jacquimo, tells her not to listen to such things. She doesn’t love the beetle, so who cares what he thinks. It’s just a small little moment, but I think it’s nice (I just wish there was less of an emphasis on beauty and more on personality. But this is playing by the old Disney formula, so that’s not going to happen. Love is always instant and it’s always between the pretty people. Sorry, I’m getting off topic).
My only major gripes with Thumbelina are that she’s a too quick to give up, and I really wish she wasn’t so obsessed with marrying her Prince. I mean if she just wanted to get back to him so she could spend a bit more time with him, then marrying him at some point in the future, that would be fine. I mean this was made in the 90s, not the 50s. I can only surmise that the script is trying to be faithful to the original story, but the thing is that story is really old, and won’t match up with our current sensibilities. Why do you think most Disney films are connected to their source material in name only? I think this is one time where Bluth should have been more like Disney (heh). Thumbelina does have a moment of attitude towards the end of the film, where she basically turns down all of her suitors one after the other. Its one tiny moment that shows what could have been to make this film so much better.
Ok, let’s talk about our male lead, Cornelius. He’s pretty much the same as Thumbelina character-wise, there’s not much depth to him, but he has a ‘charming’ personality (see what I did there?), though he does have a step up on Thumbelina as he has boundless optimism and determination. I wasn’t sure I’d like him at first. We first meet him when he’s shirking his princely duties to fly around on his bumblebee. He spots Thumbelina, spies on her and sneaks up on her (I see, he follows the Sleeping Beauty method of picking up women). Of course the two fall instantly in love, well at least they learn each other’s names first. Still, I like Thumbelina and Cornelius as a couple, they have good chemistry, and I want to see them get together at the end of the film (it would just be nice if they held off on the marriage). They have a nice little sequence dancing across the lake (which in no way looks like that segment in Fantasia). And before you can say plot convenience, or “Don’t be an idiot”, he has to run off, promising Thumbelina he’ll be back in the morning. And of course Thumbelina is kidnapped (This happens a lot in the film, she’s almost as bad a Princess Peach. Come on girl, be a bit more proactive!).
So let’s talk about the villains of our movie. One of the things I like about this movie is the fact that there’s no completely evil person in this film. The villains are just greedy, selfish people. There’s a mole who hates sunshine, but loves money, a greedy mouse housewife (should that be mousewife?), a beetle who likes to make a song and dance (as well as complain about toads), a grumpy toad who’s a bit of a brute and his showbiz family. There are no unnecessary plots for world domination, or villains just for the sake of it. The only real problem I have with the villains is that most of them just want to marry Thumbelina. It’s like that’s the only thing they can think to do with her, and they only care about her looks or her voice, and this really annoys the feminist in me. These are the bad guys, so they’re not meant to be role models, but I just wish there was some other kind of threat for Thumbelina to face. (I’m doing an awful lot of wishing in this review. Where’s a star when you need one.)
This movie does have one true villain though, the worst of the worst, and that is a devilish bird known as Jacquimo. He dresses like a harlequin clown that shows up in horror films, and masquerades as Thumbelina’s friend, but we (the audience) know his true purpose, to drive us so crazy that we give a good attempt at reaching into the screen to strangle the feathered freak. Let’s have a look at the Character 101 handbook, yes here’s the chapter I want. ‘How to Write an Annoying Sidekick’. Yes, you give them a catchphrase, and make them repeat it, over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again! Jacquimo likes to keep reminding Thumbelina to follow her heart, and nothing will be impossible. Just shut up already! We get the message, stop telling us! You could be more subtle with a jackhammer than this damned bird!
All of the other characters fall under one category, the one called ‘Cute Fuzzy Animals’. According to Kid’s Film Formula rule 1567, kids like cute things don’t they? And if they talk, then they can be funny (or at least attempt it). And this movie takes that rule to the extreme. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many talking animals in a film (you could fill Noah’s Ark twice over with all these guys). It doesn’t help that every one of them looks like a Disney rip off. I don’t care what you say, that dog in the beginning is Pluto’s long lost grandpa. The worst part of these characters though, is that these critters are here for one purpose only, padding! Outside of the villains 90% of these characters are completely pointless.
My only other gripe with the film, is the ending. It feels really rushed to me. I mean we last see the prince falling to his death when he fights the frog. Then, after Thumbelina’s escaped the mole, he just turns up. No explanation as to how he survived. No mention of the fate of the frog. And why does Thumbelina suddenly grow wings? Was she a fairy and just didn’t know it? Where’s the set up for this plot point? All of it just comes out of nowhere, and it makes me question why we needed all that padding earlier, when we could have had set up or explanations for this stuff. But the scene with Jacquimo asking a rabbit where to find the fairies, while said rabbit is being chased by a fox, was just soooo important to the story.
Honestly I like parts of this film. The animation is great, and I do like Thumbelina and Cornelius, even though I’m not always keen on how the film treats Thumbelina. Saying all that, this film has a lot of flaws. This feels and looks like a Disney film, it’s just missing the magic that Disney brings. Add on the fact that this feels like an old Disney film, something from the 50s or 60s, not the 90s, and you get a film that I probably won’t watch again. It’s a real shame, and I can’t help but come out of this film disappointed. Bluth is normally really good at showing the beating heart of a story, and creating some truly memorable characters, unfortunately that isn’t here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Anastasia to see Bluth get the princess genre right.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.