Competing against the Disney Renaissance would be a challenge for any production company, animation or otherwise. While Disney was creating consecutive masterpieces, the films coming from Bluth and his newly created studio Don Bluth Entertainment steadily declined in quality until Bluth actually disowned a film because he despised the finished product. For fans of Bluth, this is a hard period upon which to reminisce. There are isolated moments where the magic of Bluth’s skill is still apparent, but by and large this period is a straight downward spiral. We start with a story featuring a rooster Elvis Presley with amnesia. Seriously.
Based loosely on a Edmond Rostand play called Chantecler, the idea for adapting this story dates all the way back to the beginning of Disney animation. Walt Disney himself rejected the pitch, but decades later Don Bluth decided that he wanted to adapt the film using a blend of live action and animation, using the live action to bookend the story. The story involves the eponymous Rooster Chantecler, who crows every morning in order to make the sun rise. The other animals on the farm revere him for his rock-and-roll crowing, but the evil owl the Grand Duke despises his crowing because owls like the dark. One morning, the Duke hires another bird to fight Chantecler and the sun begins to rise without his crowing. Disgraced, Chantecler leaves the farm and the sun is blocked out by rain.
It is then revealed that this part of the story is being read from a children’s book in the real world. A little boy named Edmond also lives on a farm, and the rain is pouring down. Edmond thinks that all they need to stop the flooding is Chantecler, so he calls for him out the window and the Grand Duke appears in answer. The Duke uses his magic (which he has) to transform Edmond into an animated cat. The farm animals save Edmond before the Grand Duke eats him, and then they travel into the big city to find Chantecler, who has become an Elvis-like figure in the world of rock-and-roll. He is being manipulated by his agent (a shill for the Grand Duke) to stay away from the farm, but the crew eventually kind of convince him to return.
There’s a reasonable amount to enjoy from this film. The music is the largest positive, especially in the singing voices of Glen Campbell and Ellen Greene. The Grand Duke, voiced by Christopher Plummer, is a big draw too, as his creepiness is tempered with an entertaining campiness. Much of the plot is ridiculous and is structured around strange coincidence and ham-fisted clichés, though. For example, amnesia figures heavily in the plot, as Chantecler can’t remember how to sing. The characters also vary wildly in their consistency, shifting between capability and stupidity quite often. There are isolated moments of an emotional core, but those are ruined by multiple instances of deus ex machina and other plot contrivances. With a mere 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, this is remarkably the “best” film to come out of this era. It failed to recoup its $18 million budget, making only $11.7 million. This film is already a stark departure from the well-constructed pieces of the late 1980’s, and it would unfortunately get much worse.
This rote adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fable suffers from a by-the-numbers plot and feels like a cheap amalgam of the Disney masterpieces Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. Thumbelina (voiced by Judi Benson, of Mermaid fame) is a small woman brought into existence by the wish of a lonely old woman. Longing for friendship from folk her own size, she meets the fairy prince Cornelius, and the two fall in love over a quick ride on his magic carpet bumblebee. Thumbelina’s singing enchants Mrs. Toad and her son Grundel, who decide the best course of action is to kidnap Thumbelina and force her to marry Grundel. A series of contrived, sloppy plot points follow, as Thumbelina escapes, gets re-captured by different sleazy idiots, and there is exactly zero consequence for anyone involved in the story.
Throughout the course of the film, Thumbelina is tasked with marrying Prince Cornelius, Grundel, and then Mr. Mole. Four separate characters experience false demises. Thumbelina’s singing voice mesmerizes a half dozen characters and affects their actions. If this sounds repetitive to you, then try watching the movie. It is as if the writers had four or five single ideas and just decided to re-use them in every act and scene.
Unlike the films coming out of Disney at the same time, Thumbelina is decidedly only for babies. Nothing complicated happens, it is very bright, and there are inane songs to distract you from the useless, connect-the-dots level plot, included the Razzie award-winning “Worst Original Song” in “Marry the Mole”. The “villains”, if they can be called so, are interchangeable and go unpunished, and the love between our supposed heroes feels wholly unearned. Altogether, this is just a mess of a movie.
And still, it is not the worse film Don Bluth made during this period. Like Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina “enjoys” a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it lost much more money. With a budget of $28 million, it was only able to earn $11.3 million at the box office. One possible detrimental factor in its poor quality could be that Don Bluth Entertainment was forced to file for bankruptcy during its production. Hence, while it was originally scheduled to be distributed by MGM, that deal fell through and Warner Brothers bought the rights upon its completion. Though the behind-the-scenes difficulties and associated stresses could forgive the poor quality somewhat, it is a shame that the Bluth’s output has fallen this low – and mind-boggling that it had yet to reach rock-bottom.
A Troll in Central Park (1994)
The second release in 1994 from Don Bluth, A Troll in Central Park, is even more for babies than Thumbelina. In fact, a major character is a babbling toddler, and you can make an argument that she is less annoying than everyone else. The plot is full of nonsensical “magic” and everything is completely sugarcoated. And, you will not believe how much money this film lost at the box office. So, let’s unwrap this stinker.
The film begins in the troll kingdom, where trolls have magical thumbs. Our protagonist Stanley (Dom DeLuise) has a green thumb which lets him grow plants on whatever he touches. This is considered “too nice” for trolls, so Stanley is brought to the stone-thumbed queen Gnorga who banishes him “to a place where nothing grows”. She’s terrible at this on a Bond-villain kind of level, and instead sends him to Central Park in New York. Stanley bawls for a few minutes before realizing that he is surrounded by plants, has a series of mishaps which make him bawl more, and set up a patch of grass under a bridge for himself to sleep on.
Stanley is a sniveling idiot in these sequences. Other than, “nice”, it is hard to offer any additional descriptors of his character, and impossible to identify with him as a real protagonist. Unfortunately, he is not the only one that fits this description, as two young children, Gus and Rosie enter the story. Gus, who is in the 4-6 age range, wants to play with his RC boat in Central Park, is enraged when his father has to work instead of taking him. So he takes his 2-year-old sister to Central Park with him. The children meet Stanley and they become friends for some reason. Around this time, Gnorga discovers the gap in her understanding of New York geography and finds Stanley actually enjoying himself in exile, so she enacts a reasonable plan to punish him.
This is what actually happens: Gnorga makes Gus cry so much that his tears threaten to drown Stanley, Gus, and Rosie. Stanley counters by enlarging Gus’ toy boat so they can ride on it. Gnorga sends a tornado to Central Park, kidnaps Rosie, and transforms Gus into a troll. Stanley finally decides that he needs to stand up to Gnorga, and the two thumb wrestle, thereby planting roses all over Gnorga. Her final volley is to use Gus’ thumb to touch and petrify Stanley, just as his powers fully convert her into a rosebush. This effectively cancels all of the bad things she has done, and the children are placed nicely in their home and everything is returned to normal. The children visit the petrified Stanley and touch him with their thumbs, which of course revives him.
It is unabashedly stupid and useless. Stanley’s arc amounts to, “friends are good” and there are no consequences to any of the magic battles or poor choices from the protagonists. There are musical numbers throughout the film, and all are cloying and inane. With the possible exception of the voice acting of Dom DeLuise (Stanley), Cloris Leachman(Gnorga), and Charles Nelson Riley (Llort, Gnorga’s “King”), it is hard to find a single redeeming quality in this film.
Critics and audiences would agree. The film sits at a mere 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, but there are only six reviews, so you should take that with a grain of salt. But this disaster of a movie sports an even worse metric: it made just $71,368 on a $23 million budget. For the mathematically challenged out there, that is a return of 0.33%. As a reference point, Pluto Nash, widely considered one of the biggest flops ever, returned 7.1% of its $100 million budget. A Troll in Central Park is widely considered the worst Don Bluth film in existence, and it is hard to argue with that position.
The Pebble and the Penguin (1995)
But if we would like to argue about Bluth’s rock bottom, The Pebble and the Penguin is the competition. Somehow, this movie lost more money than Troll in absolute terms (28 million budget, earned only 3.9M), and is similarly terrible in almost every facet. Loosely structured as a kind of buddy comedy with a damsel in distress, this film was such an embarrassment that Bluth and Gary Goldman insisted on being uncredited as directors, and it is easy to see why. The plot is regurgitated at best, and again the cookie-cutter protagonists are thoroughly unlikeable. Coupled with the decision to plainly color-code the characters (white = good, brown = bad) and giving the female penguin nothing to do but be saved, this one is another absolute trainwreck.
The Pebble and the Penguin was conceived of as an attempt to cater to the dating crowd a la The Beauty and the Beast. Thus, it is a love story at its heart – or it is supposed to be, at least. Hubie (Martin Short) is in love with the attractive Marina (Annie Golden), but cannot find a pebble beautiful enough to offer her for a proposal. Complicating matters is the cruel Drake (Tim Curry), who covets Marina more as a sexual object than as a partner. Hubie wishes for a pebble and an emerald falls from the sky, but en route to Marina he is accosted by Drake, who steals the emerald and pushes Hubie into the water, where he is washed away from the continent, captured by the human ship Misery, and taken to a zoo. There, he meets Rocko (Jim Belushi), a penguin who desires to learn how to fly, and the two decide to break out of the zoo and return to Antarctica. Along the way, they have to evade killer whales and leopard seals (also darkly colored, and pretty scary, to be honest). The film ends with Hubie besting Drake in a fight to save Marina, and Rocko flying the three good guys to safety.
There is a great deal of awkwardness in this story. Rocko and Hubie routinely lie to each other and physically attack each other along their journey. Drake emotionally abuses Marina in an attempt to coerce her into marrying him, threatening her with banishment from the community if she refuses. In fact, Drake is evil almost to the point of caricature, with his sole motivation being getting his rocks off. The result is a broad, unconvincing villain which leads to a boring and simplistic narrative.
The heroes are no better. Like in A Troll in Central Park, the male characters are whiny and annoying, and Hubie’s generic desire for “love” is as blunt as Drake’s lust. Unfortunately, Marina is almost a non-character, existing merely as a damsel in distress that the male characters get to fight over. Besides her vulnerability and helplessness, Marina lacks defining characteristics. We should not be surprised, though, as all the other characters are distilled to laughably simplistic traits. It is a shame and a wonder that the inspiration for this film was Disney’s masterpiece Beauty and the Beast; Penguin and its characters completely lack the nuance and charm of Disney’s creation.
If there is a saving grace, it is once again found in the voice acting, and to a lesser extent the singing prowess of the cast. Short and Curry are well-established musical talents, and Annie Golden is a bona fide Broadway star. Unfortunately, the songs are terrible, and fail to advance the plot in any meaningful way. Instead, they feel like time-outs from the narrative, which gets quite annoying. The actors’ talents are mostly wasted elevating these poor excuses for musical numbers, but it is quite evident that it could have gone much worse.
Much of the failure of The Pebble and the Penguin can be attributed to studio involvement. As previously mentioned, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman disliked the finished product so much that they demanded their names be removed from the project. They later revealed that much of the crew working on the film knew that there were huge issues with the script, but there simply wasn’t enough money and time to fix everything. Hence, while A Troll in Central Park holds the record for worst return on investment for a Bluth film, Pebble actually lost more money: it returned only $3.9 million on a $28 million budget, and is mired at 11% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Don Bluth Entertainment went through a horrible rough patch right as Disney was ascending to its greatest heights in five decades. Though these stories are disappointing and the characters largely forgettable, throughout this tumultuous period Bluth’s animation style was still present. Even the very bad films contain fascinating animation sequences, and stylistic choices that impart a small sense of charm in otherwise terrible outings. Fortunately, Bluth and Goldman had a chance to redeem themselves through the newly-formed Fox Animation Studios. Their first attempt would result in the best film since the mid-eighties, and their last true masterpiece: Anastasia.