Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Thumbelina.

I’ve mentioned before that fairy tales aren’t necessarily the easiest stories to adapt into other media.  And it’s true of both folk tales and literary fairy tales.  But I thought we should take a look at an example.

Let’s look at Don Bluth’s 1994 animated film Thumbelina.
Some quick background on Don Bluth and his production company.  Don Bluth was an animator at Disney.  He started in 1955 and worked on a number of films including Sleeping Beauty and Pete’s Dragon.  Bluth left the company for a while but returned later.  He didn’t quite like what he saw when he came back, though.  After Walt Disney had died, Disney Feature Animation had settled into a slump in which they made a number of movies but many of them were without the artistry or risk-taking that previous projects did.  So, Bluth set out to start his own studio and took about nine of Disney’s animators with him.  Or, so I’m told.  In all honesty, that may have been more showbiz legend than anything else.

Anyway, regardless of how much truth is in that, Don Bluth became a big competitor against Disney for a while.  Now, Disney always has competitors.  Their big one now is Dreamworks.  In the earliest days it was Fleischer Studios followed by Warner Brothers.  But in the mid-to-late ‘80s, it was Don Bluth’s company.  The thing about Disney is that once they settle into the right groove, they become hard to compete with.  Disney was on a real streak after 1989’s The Little Mermaid.  Thumbelina came out in 1994, the same year as The Lion King.  By this point, all the folks trying to compete with Disney just said “Okay, you win” and started to copy their formula.  Don Bluth had made some great animated films like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time, all of which emphasized being different from their competitor.  But Thumbelina is pretty much just a Disney animated musical as made by Don Bluth.  They even hired Jodi Benson, the actress who played Ariel in The Little Mermaid to play Thumbelina.
Bluth and company.
The much more notable thing is that, other than moving around a few bits and making a few parts more splashy for the big screen, the movie is reasonably faithful to the story by Hans Christian Andersen.  It hits all the same story beats.

For those who don’t know, “Thumbelina” (called “Inchelina” in my HCA collection) is the story of a tiny girl born from a flower who gets kidnapped by a toad one day and ends up out in the world.  Thumbelina basically ends up moving from one situation to the next, usually in a situation in which some random animal wants to marry her.  Finally she ends up meeting the fairy prince and decides to actually marry him and that’s where happily ever after happens.  That’s about it.  I’ll leave a link HERE to the actual story so you can get the full effect but I think I summed it up rather well.

The movie basically follows this basic plot.  Some stuff is expanded upon to give more space for musical numbers and such.  The Toad and his mother are now performers.  The Beetle works at a nightclub.  Possibly the biggest changes are that Thumbelina’s meetings with both the Fairy Prince (named Cornelius here) and the bird (now named Jacquimo) are moved up so they happen earlier in the story.  Having Thumbelina meet the bird earlier doesn’t do much for the story.  Jacquimo’s main purpose in the story seems to be giving Thumbelina pep talks and going on and on about how love can make people do the impossible (something that I suppose is meant to be the movie’s theme but never really strikes home).  Having Thumbelina meet the prince in the first act gives the story a little bit more to work with as it turns what were a string of random encounters into events that are keeping her and the prince apart.  It also allows them to add in a big action set piece at the end when she almost marries the Mole.  While that does add more of a through-line to the movie as well as a more dramatic climax, it doesn’t do much to change the fact that it’s a movie that has about three largely independent antagonists and a rushed love story (the big love duet now happens in the first act).  The end result is a movie that is mostly true to the fairy tale but kind of flows in a weird way compared to most Hollywood family films.

And that is probably most indicative of the problem with relying on Hollywood to popularize fairy tales.  Hollywood films are very reliant on a codified structure while most fairy tale traditions date from a time before that structure existed.  Some of them seem like strings of random encounters.  Some seem like two stories stuck together.  Others have antagonists that only appear at one part of the story.  And yet, for the US, Hollywood’s movies and TV shows are pretty much the only folks to have the kind of reach to popularize anything.

The movie has other issues, too.  Some of the character designs seem really weird.  The toads are depicted as having hair and, in the case of Mrs. Toad, breasts (probably because she’s being voiced by Charo, of all people).  It’s really taking anthropomorphizing a bit too far.  There are songs in this movie, but none of them are particularly great.  They’re composed and written by Barry Manilow, and even though I’m not a fan of his I can still say that they’re not quite up to “Copacabana” level.  Probably the worst one is “Marry the Mole”.  But possibly the worst bit is that we really don’t get much out of the heroine herself.  She mainly seems concerned with marrying Cornelius (who she just met) and being the only person her size.  While she didn’t have much personality in the original Andersen story, this was the filmmakers’ chance to flesh her out and they didn’t.  It’s especially troubling considering how their competition had been adding more personality to their female leads.  Thumbelina isn’t curious like Ariel or feisty like Jasmine or bookish like Belle.  She’s just pleasant like another Snow White, which I should remind you is from 1937.
The movie is watchable.  It’s not great or even good, but it’s watchable.  I’ve certainly seen far worse animated movies (like The Swan Princess for example).  I admire that it exists and that work went into it, especially since the “tiny people” archetype in fairy tales doesn’t seem to be all that popular anymore.  But I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.

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