Born from a magic flower gifted to a lonely widow tiny Thumbelina (voiced by Jodi Benson) can't help feeling overwhelmed by a world ten times her size. Until her mellifluous singing voice draws the attention of the fairy Prince Cornelius (Gary Imhoff). Instantly smitten with each other the pint-sized pair make plans to marry. Unfortunately Thumbelina also attracts an unwanted admirer in brutish toad Grundel (Joe Lynch) who has his family abduct the itty-bitty bombshell. With the aid of morale-boosting musical swallow Jacquimo (Gino Conforti) Thumbelina manages to escape and tries to find her way back home to her mother and the Vale of the Fairies in what proves an especially perilous journey for one so small.
Thumbelina proved a turning point for Don Bluth, the American animator behind classics like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and An American Tail (1986). Unfortunately critics and audiences at the time felt that direction was downward. The film, completed with funds donated by filmmaker John Boorman after Bluth’s company went bankrupt, was a box-office failure. While home video, the saviour of many a non-Disney animated feature throughout the Eighties and Nineties, eventually won it a handful of young fans, looking back it is easy to why the film struggled to draw a substantial audience. Released in the midst of the much-vaunted Disney renaissance (upon which Bluth was seemingly also trying to capitalize) and only two years away from the advent of Pixar whose computer animation would render Bluth's brand of hand-crafted artistry sadly all-but irrelevant, Thumbelina looked as archaic in 1994 as it does now almost three decades later.
On a technical level Thumbelina is impeccable. Bluth and frequent co-director Gary Goldman, marshalling a legion of international animators from Ireland, Hungary and Vietnam, brings their usual inventive visual flourishes. Lush floral pastel colours dazzle the senses while traditional cel animated characters are juxtaposed with 3D computer animated "sets", evoking Max Fleischer's groundbreaking achievements with his Popeye cartoons of the Thirties. Yet the story, characterization, comedy and songs are hopelessly sappy and one-dimensional compared to the psychological nuances screenwriter Linda Woolverton brought to Disney hits at the time. Frustratingly, it is not for lack of trying. With the titular heroine constantly on the run from creepy, lecherous males out to entrap, exploit or abuse her and manipulative older women trying to fill her head with cynical thoughts in order to marry her off, the film seems to be striving for some kind of feminist message. Indeed one of the few potent moments likely to strike a chord with young girls has Thumbelina lament: "Doesn’t anybody care what I think?" Yet whereas the likes of Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) and Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991) are motivated by deeper issues that sit beside the pursuit of true love, Thumbelina’s crisis of confidence is only skin deep and her arc ends in the arms of handsome prince rather than self-actualization.
To be fair Bluth pitches his film at a very young audience. Perhaps it is wrong to fault Thumbelina for forsaking the crossover appeal sought by Disney or Pixar for old-fashioned, steadfastly sincere magic and fairytale romance. Further upping the saccharine factor are the songs by Barry Manilow. Yes, that Barry Manilow of "Copacabana" and "Mandy" fame. Even in '94 nobody was crying out for an animated film scored by Barry Manilow. Then again no-one was asking for a Tarzan cartoon scored by Phil Collins and Phil went on to win an Oscar. Achingly sincere in their romantic intent, Manilow’s tunes encapsulate the film in a nutshell, lacking wit and nuance despite pleasant melodies.
Jodi Benson, beloved and iconic voice actress behind Ariel in The Little Mermaid, inhabits the title role with gusto and sings beautifully of course. However Bluth scripts his heroine as such a childlike innocent the more uncharitable viewer may well find Thumbelina borderline simpleminded. She is a sweet, pure-hearted heroine with scant desires beyond yearning for true love, sorely lacking the complexity required of a post-Nineties cartoon princess. Among an eccentric voice cast Kenneth Mars, reunited with Benson after voicing Ariel’s arguably equally iconic father King Triton in The Little Mermaid, briefly surfaces as (what else?) the Fairy King with legendary voice actress June Foray as his wife, John Hurt and Gilbert Gottfried play lecherous would be suitors the Mole and Mr. Beetle respectively, Seventies variety show staple Charo inhabits a spicy Latina incarnation of Mama Toad while Broadway diva Carol Channing plays the tactless Miss Field Mouse who performs the Razzie award-winning song "Marry the Mole." For all its faults, Thumbelina has a modicum of charms though likely best appreciated by younger viewers. Bluth bounced back a few years later but before then his output was far from his best.
Bluth is also famous for Dragon's Lair, one of the of the first Laser Disc games and a marvellous cartoon in its own right. He followed that up with Space Ace... both brilliantly animated, even if the gameplay was excruciatingly frustrating! Netflix have reportedly commissioned a Dirk the Daring film!
By the nineties, Bluth just wasn't competing with Disney anymore, despite his talents, and films like Thumbelina and The Pebble and the Penguin were being largely ignored. Anastasia was a minor success, but Titan A.E., touted as a summer blockbuster, was a major flop and Bluth has not directed anything since.