A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

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And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

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Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.

Film Review: Concerning Violence

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In the late 60s and early 70s, anti-imperialist films from directors like Gillo Pontecorvo and broader movements like Third Cinema had a significant if small presence in the film world. Filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, responsible for Concerning Violence and Black Power Mixtape, is animated by more antiquarian concerns than films like The Battle for Algiers. Concerning Violence, which combines documentary footage with dramatic readings from Frantz Fanon’s classic book The Wretched of the Earth, retains immediate relevance but concerns itself with the national liberation movements of the past rather than the present. One could, therefore, make the argument that the film is pairing Fanon and footage of FRELIMO guerrillas to outline a purely historical conjuncture of theory and action.

Though I appreciate its presentation of the both the text and footage from the last major burst of national liberation movements in Africa (the overthrow of the Portuguese colonial regimes in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola as well as the collapse of Rhodesia), its excavation of the past leaves room for its audience to take a more comfortable position. Leftists can use the film as a nostalgic trip back to halcyon days, and even liberals, while probably not being as pleased with the Fanon readings endorsing violence, could say “well, it was a different time.”

Of course, the film is a product of a 2014 release. It also begins with a prologue by Gayatri Spivak that, while cinematically inert, positions Fanon and the events of the film in a context of revolt and revolution that continues to this day. The effectiveness of this move is somewhat blunted, of course, considering that Spivak’s presence only reinforces the sense of the film as more an academic exercise than a call to arms. At the same time, the ending, which inches closer to the present, pricks the film’s audience to link the past and a possible future. At all times, the film avoids the affectations of a propaganda poster, which is welcome, and the film’s limited historical scope is not necessarily a negative. However, Concerning Violence does not fill the desperate need we have for films to capture the revolutionary energy of present-day movements. That is simply not what it is, despite the obvious relevance of its core ideas.

One commendable aspect of the film is that it features interviews with white settlers and missionaries. The latter are memorable largely for the air of politeness and naïvety that they exude. After talking confidently about the un-Christian character of African polygamy, the interviewer asks whether their perspective is a religious one or a European one. He asks them whether there is explicit support for monogamy in the Bible, which gets a sheepish and evasive response. The missionaries are tellingly far more interested in talking about a church construction projects happening in the background than the basis of their theological assertions. It’s an attitude of empty-headed enthusiasm I have seen many times in my own long history of church attendance.

One final aspect of the film I want to address in this quick analysis is its treatment of a group of FRELIMO guerrilla women. FRELIMO, the Mozambican national liberation movement that drove out the Portuguese colonial government, had, like many other guerrilla movements, a large number of women soldiers and other cadres. These segments, in which the women discuss their passion to build a new nation and their equal position as soldiers for FRELIMO, has a complex relationship to Fanon. As Spivak notes in her prologue, Fanon rarely mentioned gender and wrote in a male-centric style that emphasizes the masculine aspects of national liberation. And, despite the long history of women playing a key if not leading role in the rank-and-file of revolutionary movements, gender liberation has not been systematically applied in most liberated countries. This is not to negate the example or the ardour of the FRELIMO guerrillas or the women serving in liberation movements and people’s wars now, but rather to say that their sacrifices have been, overall, unrewarded. I am glad that the film does not just let Fanon’s more male-centric language stand without commentary from within the film.

I have been looking forward to seeing Concerning Violence since it came out. Though this article has focused on my criticisms, I still recommend the film to anyone who has an interest in Fanon’s work. Moreover, the positive depiction of even historical national liberation movements is all-too-rare in the cinema, which doesn’t give Olsson a pass for mistakes but does mean there are few alternatives to which we can compare his work. The film is still a powerful document about the inhumanity of imperialism, its bankruptcy and bloody thoughtlessness, and the necessity of tearing it down and creating a new society in its place.

The Peanuts Movie: Not a Review

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My maturation process was different from most people’s. From my teens on, I always thought of my past selves as ungainly skins to be molted off at the earliest convenience. Nostalgia was anathema to me, and I openly derided my past tastes. Thrown into university with a brittle psyche and depressive, even nihilistic, tendencies, I would complain at length to my friends about all the insecure students trying to reconnect with their childhoods when adulthood was beckoning. It’s not that I exorcised all my passions and tastes from earlier; I just had a hypercritical attitude about myself and, by extension, anything I liked.

Peanuts, though, was bone marrow, a phantom limb. My first love was the television specials, but I quickly devoured the 60s and 70s comics Schulz and Melendez mortared together to make those specials. Being raised in the Midwest as a depressive, hyper-articulate, wannabe adult, Schulz’s spare, efficient commercial line art and heavily psychologized characters were irresistible. So while Schulz’s capitalist acumen and  aptitude for self-promotion and unholy dedication were what made it famous, what fused Peanuts to my brain was its portrait of a hopeless world where people just took comfort in their own flaws.

And that’s why this is not a review of the Peanuts movie. The quality of any given ancillary Peanuts product is meaningless. In fact, all it has to do to have me enraptured is to preserve the tone. The tone that has me coming back to Wes Anderson’s movies long after I acknowledge they are rather inconsequential––so why do I cry for so many of them?––is the gentle bleakness of the polite, decaying Midwest. I don’t cry for the Peanuts movie because it’s not appropriately cruel. Too many softening touches, too much Hollywood glitz. It’s not that the creators don’t understand the characters, but that they recognize they have to limit the audiences exposure to them, like a heavy element somewhere in the low hundreds on the periodic table. Peanuts is all about being sad, privileged, conceited, and shattered all at the same time. It’s about having a comfortable enough life that you can take shelter even in your own worst flaws. Characters come together and form an unbroken chain of schadenfreude. Of course, that’s not all of it. It’s much gentler than that in practice, even if its character roster is populated by insecure whiners and overconfidence artists.

We could talk about how comic strips in general make their characters run on little hamster wheels, trapped in formula as surely as they’re bound in rectangular panels. Comparisons to Sisyphus and existentialism arise, but at the same time, in the logic of the strip (ignoring the deified hand of the author) Charlie Brown is not forced to run his kite into the kite-eating tree. He does it because he’s an all-American do-gooder who won’t give up though the plants themselves thwart him. He never seriously considers never kicking the football again. And contrary to Camus’s famous pronouncement about Sisyphus, no one can imagine Charlie Brown happy.

The Peanuts Movie is the most credible attempt I’ve yet seen to turn Peanuts into a conventional feature film. It succeeds well enough to make itself anonymous. Simultaneously, it’s hard to forget what happens in the film because most of it has happened before, in other movies or comics or specials.

Maybe someday I’ll get over Peanuts. I’ll probably have to want that to happen before I do, though.

 

Day 7 of Don Bluth: Titan A.E.

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As a historian, it’s helpful to remind yourself that decades and centuries don’t actually exist, that time measurements like that are relatively arbitrary and that material events don’t respect these tidy boundaries as much as VH1 would have you believe. And yet, as the historical materialist adage goes, the material is primary but, when an idea grips the people, it becomes a material force. For example, animation industry went through a traumatic transition at the end of the 1990s. Disney’s Renaissance formula of huge-scale Broadway-style musical blockbusters gave way to a few years of creative confusion where a raft of unusual projects came out. And while there were a few successes, the dominant theme for the 2D animation industry in the United States for the first decade of the 2000s was abject failure. So we come to Titan A.E.

Though I would describe early 2000s feature animation films from the States as an eclectic collection, there were smaller trends and currents that developed within the whirlpool of chaos. One of these was a spate of films capitalizing on the vogue for science fiction generated by The Matrix. Even the Scooby Doo movie in the year 2000 was about aliens instead of ghosts or swamp monsters. Nearly every one completely bombed. Disney, who leaned into the science fiction genre with gusto at the beginning of the 2000s, released Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Lilo and Stitch, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and the Pixar-produced Wall-E in that decade, with only Lilo and Wall-E generating much enthusiasm. Don Bluth’s contribution to this little fad for science fiction in animation was Titan A.E., which has an unusual and belaboured backstory.

Story credits on the film go to Hans Bauer, screenwriter for Anaconda, and Randall McCormick, fresh from his smashing success with Speed 2: Cruises Control. Schlock ahoy, yes? Well, the actual writing credits fall to a trio of trendy creatives who had considerable caché in the late 90s. Joss Whedon, who needs no introduction; Ben Edlund, creator of The Tick; and John August, who had just written the acclaimed Doug Liman film Go and later became a go-to scrivener for Tim Burton. Two points immediately spring to mind. First, the team has some pedigree and some complementary just-off-of-mainstream sensibilities. Not to mention a familiarity with science fiction and fantasy. However, they are also the least natural collaborators with Mormon Disneyphile Don Bluth.

Unsurprisingly, given that he changed Secret of NIMH from a more science-based to a more magic-based story, Bluth was not a fan of science fiction. Nor was his longtime partner Gary Goldman. Titan A.E. is, for of all these reasons, the most anonymous directing work Don Bluth ever did. I was frankly astonished that Bluth was attached to the film, since I had seen it as a youngster, moderately enjoyed it, and forgotten about it. I certainly never associated it with fever dreams like The Pebble and the Penguin, much less his more decorated work in the 1980s. But enough preliminaries! Let’s move into the specifics.

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1. Bluth’s Hidden Hand

Given his lack of interest in science fiction and the unusual dialogue (on which more later), one might expect that Bluth’s key tropes wouldn’t be as noticeable here. On the contrary, the science fiction setting seems to highlight their presence, and one can see why Bluth would pick this project to do after Anastasia. As in all Bluth films, protagonist Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) has inherited a Trinket of Destiny from an older relative or loved one, becoming a totem as well as a plot-crucial object in some way. In this case, it’s a ring and hand imprint capable of reactivating the Titan, a Deus Ex Machina parked in space that can help humanity recover from the destruction of Earth by energy aliens. Within the space of the narrative, however, the reconciliation of the absent father with the son who vindicates the previous generation is played as almost as important as the restoration of the human race, which is a goal too abstract to fuel a conventional heroic narrative like this.

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This trope is common enough in standard heroic chosen one narratives, but the fact that the story includes the destruction and restoration of Earth via miraculous (albeit technological) means certainly appealed to the man who put the Great Valley at the end of the road in Land Before Time and had a rooster rescue the world from deluge in Rock-a-Doodle. That apocalyptic, cosmic sense of stakes sits comfortably with Bluth’s other work, which almost always sharpens the typical “believe in yourself and follow your dreams” beats into moments with a more religious and moral significance. The presence of a rainbow baptizing the new Planet Bob (Earth 2) does nothing to dispel the Christian overtones.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Bluth has set sequences in space before, notably the opening credits of Rock-a-Doodle, which shift from the depth of a star field to a sunrise over the Earth.

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From the opening of Rock-a-Doodle. Note the different aspect ratio as well.

Titan A.E. thus tells the parallel stories of one man reclaiming his place in his family legacy just as human beings restore their rightful place within the universe. Beyond the obvious Noah references already mentioned, the story bears a strong resemblance to that of Moses and the wandering Hebrews in the desert, with humans drifting on space colonies emerging to reclaim their promised land in a new Earth, saving them from lives of drudgery.

2. Meet the Crew

Even knowing next to nothing about Firefly, I can tell that the relationships among the crew members of the Valkyrie, the ship used to find the Titan, could support many comparisons with Whedon’s space western. Each crew member has a distinct personality quirk, most of them are always ready to spout salty comebacks, and their dialogue is spiked and clever. Among Bluth’s talents, clever and biting humour has never been one of them, which means Titan A.E. feels the least sentimental and naïve of his work, mostly due to these dialogue exchanges. Whereas the peak of sharp laughter in Rock-a-Doodle is an undersized owl mistaking words for other words, characters like the first mate Preed and Drew Barrymore’s Akima (a role I didn’t realize was whitewashed until just now) exchange witty banter that meets the bar more than not. Not to mention the downright acerbic Stith (Janeane Garofalo), a kangaroo alien who wears a red shirt from Star Trek and has an itchy trigger finger.

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Preen (left) sassing Stith (right), who would like to remind you that she’s walkin’ here!

At the head of the crew, however, stands none other than Captain Joseph Korso, played by a well-cast Bill Pullman. He’s notable for being one of the few morally ambiguous characters in Bluth’s body of work. Despite his mercenary motives and traitorous actions, he’s finally won over to the side of good because of his humanity. Though the ultimate antagonists of the film are the Drej, pure energy beings who fear human potential for poorly explained reasons (one of the major narrative weaknesses of the film), Korso provides an excuse for a climactic fistfight––proving ground for the protagonist’s matured masculinity, I suppose––and gives a human face to villainy that can’t be replicated.

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And Korso is also emphatically not terrible late 90s CGI.

3. Hit Them With the Ugly Stick!

Though all the characters are animated with traditional cels, an overwhelming amount of the rest of the film is done in computer generated imagery. Design work is overall strong if generic. For one, the Drej certainly lend themselves to computer animation, and their angular and reflective designs work well with the medium’s limitations at the time of production. Ships look slightly worse, and wouldn’t look too out of place in the FMV backgrounds of Wing Commander III, but competent design keeps them from being entirely ridiculous. In fact, one of the more creative bits of art in the film is the ramshackle drifter colony, assembled from rusty parts welded together.

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Granted, it’s a drawing and not a computer model.

Late in the film, however, we see the paradisiacal New Earth and its glory is more than a little diminished by how, shall we say, limited its textures appear to be.

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A potential reason for this is that some of the sequences of the film were produced by a different animation studio since Bluth’s studio in Arizona had already been downsized by about 300 people. Notably, Blue Sky Studios handled the Earth reformation sequence in their first work for Fox, just two years before Sid the Sloth and Scrat began their long reign of terror over the silver screen.

Finale: Closure at Last

Titan A.E., despite having a trendy, awful soundtrack and a hip story subject, was an astronomical failure. Fox Animation was no more, as was traditional animation in Hollywood outside of Disney and, after a few more years, at Disney as well. It also represents the end of Don Bluth’s career in features to date. Whatever happens in the future, he can be assured of some kind of historical legacy for outdoing Disney in the 80s and producing a string of fascinating failures from thereon out. While I would argue that his films are uncritical and naïve both politically and aesthetically, I find some of his more bizarre work endearing in spite of this fact.

It’s tempting to focus on Bluth’s nostalgia and say he was a classicist who, by the 1990s, was simply a step out of time. I would argue a slightly different tack: he was a classicist who would ride trends and compromise when necessary. Most of his 1990s output hews closely to what Disney was doing at the time, and when it didn’t––Troll in Central Park––it was an aimless catastrophe. Having sat through all of his 1990s work now, I can say that he was a unique voice, but it often sounded more like an echo than a vital force in the present. An echo of himself or the good old days? Depends on the movie.

 

Day 5 and 6 of Don Bluth: Anastasia and (one sentence on)Bartok the Magnificent

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After sorting through some personal business, I’m finally ready to roll. Let’s do it!

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Barely settled into his tax break-funded Phoenix studio, Don Bluth commenced work on Anastasia. Though jettisoning the idea of using Russian revolutionaries as villains, his film latched onto the conspiracy theories surrounding Tsar Nicholas II’s daughter Anastasia, who supposedly escaped execution. Infusing the Disney Renaissance formula into dark and thorny source material was not unheard of––by the time of Anastasia’s release, Disney itself had done the same with Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. And Don Bluth was comfortable with dark stories with strong supernatural overtones. For one reason or another, Anastasia was a financial success, perhaps the most confident and least pathetic Disney Renaissance imitator of the decade. Not to mention the only profitable product Don Bluth created between the years of 1990 and 2000.

1. The Red Elephant in the Room

I’ll make this brief. Bluth’s film, based on a script written by a troop of five writers, translates the overthrow of Czarist Russia and ascendence of the Russian Revolution into a fairy tale about the death of the true, beloved king and the self-actualization of the true heir. An early song notes that the people of post-revolutionary “St. Petersburg” (then renamed Leningrad) were sorry the tsar was dead and excited to hear that his daughter might have survived. And this is the least of the film’s desecrations, though perhaps the one that bothered me the most since it can’t be explained away by fairy tale logic.

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Rasputin’s demons could only get a small crowd to show up for the storming of the Winter Palace.

I have no qualms with turning Rasputin into a devil-worshipping corpse warlock, especially one enlivened by the talents of Hollywood eccentric-in-residence Christopher Lloyd. Few historical figures are so generally reviled. But the sickening aura of American-style royalist nostalgia is too much to handle at times. And though this phenomenon is the stock-in-trade of other animated fairy tales, the fact that the monarchs here have some relation to real history makes it that much more pathetic and wince-inducing. Add the fact that Nicholas II and his family presided over a horrifying war of attrition and a virtual prison state for workers and oppressed nations makes me slightly less sympathetic to the plight of our bright-eyed protagonist. I’m sure an animated film about Marie Antoinette would take the same position. Silly people on the barricades! Royalism is all about beautiful music boxes, strong family values, and the gold filigree of feudal privilege.

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And hugs with Angela Lansbury.

2. Don Bluth Bingo

I don’t want to spend much time on reciting all the Don Bluth tropes recycled here. Instead, I’ll act like a clever internet person and just give you my Don Bluth bingo sheet for the movie. Refer back to earlier posts for this analysis, because my feelings on mystical keepsakes, nuclear family idol worship, and  campy bad guys (meh, bad, good, respectively) have not changed.

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Darn! Lost to the guy with the Rock-a-Doodle sheet. Though “Restoration of Paradise” and “Insta-Romance” are borderline in Anastasia.

3. Supernatural Limbo

While our main plot centres around two con men trying to make a princess out of an orphan lookalike, the core of what makes Anastasia worthy of any interest is far underground. Rasputin occupies a strange in-between dimension he calls Limbo, prevented from moving into the afterlife by his pact with Satanic forces. Sworn to eliminate every member of the Romanov family, he commands a legion of demonic bats (and one cute mascot bat) but is a shambling corpse himself. Most of the delight I get from the film is derived from the grisly body distortions the animators inflict on him. His mouth slides down his beard, his ligaments and tendons can stretch infinitely, and his head has its own ideas about where it’s supposed to rest.

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Rasputin’s an effective villain without much integrity.

His curse on Anastasia is not too dissimilar to that placed on Sleeping Beauty, sleeping in the dark until her adolescence before turning on her with a vengeance. Rasputin’s plans are, as expected, often too elaborate. Simply sending his demons to drop Anastasia off a cliff instead of sending them on a runaway train adventure would doubtless be more efficient. But Rasputin’s effectiveness as a villain is not just the sum of body horror and Christopher Lloyd. It hinges on one literally nightmarish scene where Rasputin uses his black magic to trick Anastasia into sleepwalking onto the deck of a ship during a storm and nearly succeeds in coaxing her into jumping. Further, the scene is effective because Anastasia––known as the amnesiac Anya the Orphan to all except the audience at this point––is shown to subsist on dreams. On visiting the boarded-up palace, she is swept away by visions of old ballroom dances, and one of the old standbys in family animated films is the beneficial aspect of dreaming and aspiration. The scene on the boat, however, uses her repressed memories and dreams of family life against her, luring her into a trap. It generates genuine tension in a film that often lacks it, and accomplishes this with effective animation sequences.

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Maybe Alexei shouldn’t be so carefree about jumping into the water.

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On the one hand, points for evil presentation. On the other hand, she probably would have jumped if he hadn’t turned the nice pool into a hellscape.

By contrast, the climactic battle on the bridge in Paris, despite evoking the same fear of drowning in the icy deep, falls flat because it’s just a physical confrontation that has little to do with the themes or dramatic stakes. Giant winged horses and topiary mazes can surely be frightening, and we’re supposed to link Anastasia’s triumph with her decision to save Dimitri, but his own appearance comes mostly out of nowhere and his faked Disney Death undermines that realization. It’s a far cry from the flat and lifeless romantic plots that underpin, say, Thumbelina and Pebble and the Penguin, but it’s one reason why the final part of the film spent in Paris is weak compared to the first half or so.

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The one strong aspect being this sequence where Paris is painted in an Impressionist style. Reminds me of American Pop.

Finale: Into the New Millennium

Anastasia was such a strong success that Fox commissioned a direct-to-video sequel called Bartok the Magnificent, released two years later. It was directed by Don Bluth and is relatively enjoyable, but I won’t dedicate an entire post to it because it’s fairly trifling. I will say, however, that it’s superbly cast and surprised me with how entertaining it was, so I would give it a watch if you don’t find Hank Azaria’s performance as Bartok unbearable. Truth be told, I enjoy aspects of it more than Anastasia proper, which is not what I expected.

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We’ll just pretend that this transformation sequence featuring gigantic dragon breasts didn’t happen.

Now, though, we’re going to move into the stars. Bluth has shown an affinity for space imagery before, but he had no real interest in science fiction. That didn’t stop him from picking up his (at time of publication) final animated feature:  Titan A.E., the flop that would put a premature end to Fox Animation and usher us directly into the age of Blue Sky Entertainment. We’ll see how that went tomorrow.

 

Day 4 of Don Bluth: The Pebble and the Penguin

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Penguin films became their own mini-boom in the late 2000s, starting off with the sonorously narrated March of the Penguins and blossoming with the likes of Surf’s Up and the two Happy Feet movies. These films probably owe none of their success to the far less remunerative Don Bluth picture The Pebble and the Penguin, which manages to adapt a fascinating animal behaviour into a banal affirmation of petrified (!) human engagement rituals.

Released in 1994, Pebble not only flopped and dragged Bluth’s Irish-based production company down with it, it was such an artistic failure that Bluth, the man who put his name on A Troll in Central Park, refused to take a directing credit for it. Not that he escaped through this tactic, since his production company was named after him.

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1. Biology and Banalogy

We already saw that Bluth has a thing for penguins back in Rock-a-Doodle, which features an inexplicable moment where scalpers are selling penguin suits to species who are barred from a rock club. Here, though, we’re dealing with not just penguins in general but the specific species known as the Adélie penguin. It turns out that these penguins have a peculiar mating practice of males presenting stones to females and being evaluated on their geological fashion sense. What Bluth and writers Rachel Koretsky and Steven Whitestone do is take that basic setup and turn it into one of Bluth’s usual affirmation of the most caricatured version of traditional Western gender roles.

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See, Hubie (Martin Short) is a stuttering, nervous type who attracts scorn and derision for his awkwardness. In fact, he’s derisively called a “Nerd” more than once. For reasons of easy character identification, he also wears a silly winter hat with droopy ears, confirming him as a schlubby comedy archetype. About ten minutes into the film, he runs into his one love, Marina, and she takes an instant liking to him for the sake of plot convenience. Hubie’s main appeal to his few friends is his ability to make them laugh, whether on purpose (unlikely considering his blunt-edged sense of humour) and unintentionally, which means the film vacillates wildly between treating Hubie like a hero and like a punch line. Being a punch line is probably not as reliable a way to get true friends in the real world as it is here. Marina, however, is another of Bluth’s vacant and passive rescue objects (cf. Thumbelina, Goldie, etc.) so for magical plot reasons she instantly falls in love with him and, like in Thumbelina, the plot is just delayed gratification.

Let’s put it this way: a documentary about actual Adélie penguins would be much more fascinating. Their natural behaviours are much closer to a John Waters movie than a Disney fantasy:

 “‘The pamphlet, declined for publication with the official Scott expedition reports, commented on the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females, including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks and homosexual behaviour,’ states the analysis written by Douglas Russell and colleagues William Sladen and David Ainley.”

–From Adélie penguin wikipedia entry

 

We were robbed of a Ralph Bakshi penguin movie, I tell you.

Another peculiarity of this film that fits into Don Bluth modus operandi is the way the plot delivers Hubie’s perfect stone, but we’ll get there in section 3.

2. A Penguin Called Drake

A great camp villain is what separates the unbearable Don Bluth film from the delightfully awful one. Like Rock-a-Doodle, The Pebble and the Penguin benefits from a stunningly over-the-top and gay-coded performance by a famous character actor, in this case Tim Curry giving soul to the villain named Drake.

 

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He has one weirdly under-orchestrated song, but his primary role is to be a mean bully and keep the two literal lovebirds apart from each other. Living in a gigantic, inexplicably fabricated fortress with a gaping maw almost as hilarious as his own (as seen above). Though the fairytale logic of the central romance makes it narratively disposable rather than simple and resonant, I think the snickering reductiveness of Drake combined with Curry’s performance makes him a net plus for the film. Certainly better than playing a literal manifestation of pollution in Ferngully.

3. Keepsakes

Don Bluth protagonists have a tendency to keep totems or amulets with them, objects that have some mystical significance and are connected to their families in some way. In this film, it’s the titular pebble, which descends to Hubie from on high as an answer to prayer:

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Pictured: God taking pity on a poor nerd.

It’s the same potent mixture of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and Americanized Christian theology that animates all of Bluth’s films. What’s curious is that Marina and Hubie’s true love is known and established by the film very early, but his love appears to hinge entirely on giving her the stone. The stone is treated as an artifact that not only represents their love but is their love. Hubie goes to life-threatening lengths to keep hold of it, which is understandable, but the degree to which the pebble itself is treated as vital to their relationship––when Drake is the only real obstacle keeping them apart––is troubling since it muddles the messaging around what should be a clear and straightforward romance. It is very straightforward in most ways, but the fact that the characters spends almost no screen time together is probably the reason why the pebble gets title rights while Marina doesn’t. Emphasizing the pebble transaction also highlights how the film validates the mercenary way in which romances are decided in this penguin community: Hubie has to pay his fee to get his girl.

Finale: The End of Bluth Studios

After the debacle that is The Pebble and the Penguin, Bluth’s company collapsed and he took an offer from Fox to create films for their new animation studio. It was the end of Bluth’s era as a semi-independent filmmaker, and the beginning of a new role at a major studio. Soon enough it would be clear that Pebble and the Penguin would be Bluth’s (up to now) last production that really indulges in his idiosyncrasies, for better and (mostly) for worse. It’s a sour note to end this phase of his career on, but perhaps a huge injection of money from Fox would bring some kind of redemption.Screenshot 2016-07-05 23.34.32.png

 

 

Day 3 of Don Bluth: A Troll in Central Park

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Contempt is never a pretty attitude to take. At times, it can erode critical judgment and lead to overly cynical conclusions. Used sparingly and judiciously, however, an acidic tone can be a powerful weapon in the critical arsenal. And I’m afraid that blithe dismissal is not an appropriate reaction to A Troll in Central Park. It requires radioactive intervention.

I yawned my way through Thumbelina, but found it difficult even stay focused for this movie. Its closest relatives are sugar-frosted curiosities like Teletubbies or Oogieloves. All of these properties are driven by a basic core logic: put shiny colourful things in front of children and you will win the hearts of parents and their spawn alike. Virtually nothing happens in A Troll in Central Park for its entire middle four sixths, the filmmakers being distracted by other worthy pursuits like dithering, time wasting, and pandering. Therefore, I am especially glad that I don’t do blow-by-blow commentary on these movies, since trying to do so with Troll makes it ooze an enervating sap that does to critics what the opioid poppies did to Dorothy.

Sadly, it’s also basically beneath critique in the conventional movie review sense. You could head deeper and analyze its connection to Bluth’s pet theme of pastoral vs. city life, its dull valorization of the nuclear family, and its catastrophic characterizations. And I will briefly go into all of those problems. But let it be known that I find Troll in Central Park not just Don Bluth’s worst film but probably the worst major animated feature of the 1990s, or at least the most narratively impoverished and unwatchable.

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1. A Glitch in the Timeline

It’s important to note that Troll in Central Park was put into production before Thumbelina because it helps explain why this film is far less imitative of the Disney Renaissance formula. It stars a small boy in oversized clothing who grows and matures through harrowing encounters with the supernatural and discovers his innate courage. It’s  also an original script taking place in the modern world despite some fairy tale trappings.

That modern setting is fairly important to the plot of the film because our lead child character, Gus, is a character archetype more suited to the 1990s than some mythical past. That archetype being the frequently-used “child with high-powered yuppie parents who doesn’t get enough love and whose family issues are healed through supernatural derring-do.” character. Cf. the Santa Clause Tim Allen comedies for another prominent and more successful example, though that story focuses more on the father than the child. Jonathan Pryce, who plays Gus’ father Alan with a reverse Dick van Dyke American accent, is basically absent from the movie. So Gus is a spoiled 90s kid with a terrible attitude who has to be taught a moral lesson by Stanley the troll and Uncle Don about…something something family and courage.

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2. The Power of Dreams

Though I (accurately) describes the middle of this film as a wasteland of lollygagging and cutesy songs that accomplish nothing, they do tie into the central theme of this film, and so are not categorically useless.

Stanley’s contribution to Gus’ character development is in teaching him that as long as you believe hard enough your dreams can come true. Yes, how novel. It’s another instance of Don Bluth taking “when you wish upon a star” more seriously than he perhaps should, though in films like All Dogs and Rock-a-Doodle the spiritual elements are a bit more explicit and substantive than the banality Bluth settles for here. Perhaps the only scene in the film that works fairly well is when Gus confronts Stanley for being a passive coward and not being willing to fight for as well as believe in his dreams. Gus is more of the aggressive American type, taking more of the “God helps those who help themselveS” line on the matter, while Stanley is content to hide and carve out his own little haven.

Stanley’s not willing to take the necessary risks to save Gus’ sister Rosey (tad bit on the nose), so the fall of the villains and the renewal of Central Park and all of New York into a new Eden can only happen once Gus takes charge of the situation. The scene works because it takes the genuine character conflict between Stanley and Gus and brings those contradictions to a head, which brings out at least a little drama.Our climax is a thumb wrestling contest, though, so it still manages to conclude in an underwhelming way.

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Gus knows how to handle troll queens: thumb to thumb.

Moreover, the “power of dreams” pablum might be subject to some debate later in the film but for the preponderance of the running time Stanley is just presumed to be right that “all you gotta do is believe.” And though Dom Deluise does an OK job with his vocals, the character is actively annoying––toddlers might disagree here––and so the audience is primed to reject whatever he says so that we naturally agree with Gus when he calls out Stanley’s cowardice. Every fascinating thread this movie could have set up is squandered in favour of pandering. Bluth was legendary in the 80s for proving that children will go through almost anything during a film as long as the ending is happy enough. With all the shadows and intrigue leached out, Bluth’s saccharine appropriation of Disney’s moralizing dogma is undigestible.

Finale: Paradise Found

At the end of the film the entire city of New York is covered in a blanket of greenery radiating from Central Park. It’s the same ending to Sam and Max Hit the Road but treated as a reclamation of paradise rather than a global human catastrophe. It’s like Area X from The Southern Reach Trilogy finally encroached on Manhattan.

Edenic paradises are as Bluthian as busty chickens and evil frogs. Many of his films share an eschatological vision of this restoration of the world to a garden. Contrast the blasted landscapes of The Land Before Time with the heavenly Great Valley. Or the literal heaven of All Dogs, the Vale of the Fairies in Thumbelina, etc. etc. Personal redemption is never enough for Bluth; the world has to go with it, no matter how inconvenient it might be for people’s commutes.Screenshot 2016-07-02 21.16.36.png

I consider this final scene at the very least worth considering seriously because of how uncompromising (or maybe just unthinking) its view of the world is. Nevertheless, A Troll in Central Park is the nadir of Don Bluth’s career, financially and critically since Warner Bros. buried the film with a limited, barely-promoted release. It’s been totally and rightly forgotten, a wispy flight of sentiment that inspires righteous contempt in many, many animation fans.

Day 2 of Don Bluth: Thumbelina

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Hark, a turn in the road! Bluth might be a convinced Disney imitator, but in the 80s and with Rock-a-Doodle, his films intentionally mimicked classic pre-60s Disney animation tropes rather than trying to duplicate what the Mouse were doing in the 80s. That is, they were often musicals but were not trying to do Broadway the way that the Renaissance movies were. Thumbelina represents Bluth’s first attempt to adapt his own style to the 90s format. Adolescent girl protagonist, pop star Barry Manilow writing the songs, fairy tale or literary adaptation rather, use of CG for sweeping camera shots, etc. It’s a 90s Disney movie without the scale and spectacle that the more lucrative Katzenberg Disney projects were able to muster. It’s pale (literally), exceedingly modest, and despite its high-quality animation is simply too much of a non-presence to work.

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1. Our Nega-tagonist

Thimble-sized Thumbelina is a vacant cipher of a character, more of a character design that can be stuffed into oddball outfits and moved about than a suitable anchor for a film. Separated from her safe domestic sphere––via river, identical to Rock-a-Doodle––she is supposed to endure tribulations to build up the confidence to reject her unwelcome (arguably paedophilic) suitors. As with the contemporary Disney movies, of course, her independent spirit is invested in a handsome True Love, so that her freedom is granted on the condition that she choose the most conventionally attractive male to mate with. Well, Granted, he’s the only one who’s presented as her own age, which is probably a plus as well.

I think I can summarize the problem succinctly by describing what Thumbelina actively does to shape the plot without it being someone else’s idea. Well, she meets the prince and immediately loves and trusts him (fairy tale logic), runs away from the Mexican (!) frog so she can get home to marry the prince, gets fired from her job as a club dancer for a a sleazy beetle played by Gilbert Gottfried, goes along with marrying the mole, then doesn’t marry the mole, sings to open up the Vale of the Fairies because a bird tells her to, and then marries the prince. Note that not all of those things listed even count as expressions of her own agency. Her only desire is to find a companion who is the same size as her, and the scene after we learn this, she finds one. The plot is essentially an hour of episodic delayed gratification, its inevitability so transparent it would let Don Bluth’s favourite golden lighting effects through.

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In short, Thumbelina is bland as paste, her prince who goes looking for her is stuck in an ice cube for a plurality of the movie, and she makes Ariel from The Little Mermaid cringe at her passivity.

One could argue that this is the point of the story, that Thumbelina is an unsure, shy, curious adolescent who is easily influenced and needs the guidance and support of strong friends to reach maturity. But what we have in Thumbelina is a film that is ostensibly about following your own path regardless of what other people say but is de facto about just going along with what the best people say you should do. The movie always knows what she should do before she does, which produced incredible frustration precisely because our narrator-jester character Jacquimo outright orders Thumbelina to do the right thing at the end of the film, and she does not believe it will work until she sees her true love re-emerging. 

2. Goldie and Thumbelina Should Chat Over Coffee

On Day 1, we saw Goldie, one of the only notable female characters in Rock-a-Doodle, exhibit the same passivity and emptiness as Thumbelina. Both of them are exploited by showbiz hucksters, existing as pure romance-objects rather than people. Easily manipulated, wilting and weak, they’re effectively allegories not for women’s self-reliance but for women’s need to be sheltered and led by the nose, lest they stray like lambs to the slaughter.

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Another parallel with Rock-a-Doodle is that Thumbelina’s primary virtue is her sacred voice. Like Chanticleer, she summons paradise into view at the end of the film by using her voice. Perhaps this is why Bluth and co-director Goldman gave Gilbert Gottfried a prominent singing role––for stark contrast. This theme is largely botched since it’s hitched to her character dynamics or lack thereof. Her voice is there to make her desirable and plays little to no role in fulfilling her own desires, except for when it summons her prince to the window, of course.

Finale: Disney-er Than Thou

Thumbelina looks and feels ancient compared to its contemporaries in 1994. Bouncy farmyard animals, tiny wide-eyed bugs, 1940s-style choir music on the soundtrack, and its hamfisted sentimentality all make this a film out of its own time despite its adherence to the 90s animated musical formula. Its creator’s eccentricities, blunted in Rock-a-Doodle because of test screenings, are repressed further despite manifesting in out-of-place swipes at the entertainment business and his everlasting love of putting evil frogs in his movies. Because I’m literally falling asleep writing about this film (without exaggeration), I feel it’s best to close this chapter of our Don Bluth retrospective and hope that not all of Bluth’s 90s output after Rock-a-Doodle was Disney Lite. His films are always at their best when they tear off on their own mystical tangents, not in sticking to readymade formula.

A truly, transcendently bad Bluth is at least discussing. So we’ll have plenty to talk about tomorrow, believe you me.

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