Little 'Thumbelina' serves up a big-screen surprise

March 30, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

I remember sitting in Don Bluth's last animated feature, "Rock-a-Doodle," during a morning screening at a Senator jammed with 900 screaming children who belonged on soccer fields or baseball diamonds. But, no, there they were, driven yet madder by the film's shrieking banalities and aggressively insipid animation and colors that came off the screen like monsters from the darkest sewer of the imagination. Aside from seven combat-stressed mothers, I was the only grown-up. It was like eating popcorn in the ninth circle of hell; I waited for the demons to grow tired of yowling at the screen and turn on me to eat my flesh.

Sometimes it's tough being a movie critic!

So that's why the prospect of a new Don Bluth film turned me into a parody of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." "AIYEEEEEEEE," I wailed, clapping my hands to my ears in utter despair as I headed in to see his newest, "Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina."

Thumbelina! Tiny princesses! Garish technicolor! Funny insects! Voices by Charo, Gilbert Gottfied and Carol Channing! Music by Barry Manilow! Andersen spelled with an e! AIYEEEEEEE!

Well, wasn't I the fool? In fact, aspiring to the classier storybook style of the Disney studio that he left in a huff many years back, Bluth has produced his best film in years. It all but banishes "Rock-a-Doodle" from memory, recalling kindlier images from "The Secret of NIMH" or "The Land Before Time." Best of all, it means no more nightmares!

"Thumbelina" isn't on a level with the most recent Disney product --

"Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast" -- but close enough to convince. It has a few great musical numbers and that rarest of all attributes in the animated feature, actual charm.

Even Charo and Carol Channing can't spoil it.

Thumbelina, vocally performed by the same Jodi Benson who played "The Little Mermaid" for Disney, is a tiny slip of a girl born in a flower to a childless but virtuous wannabe mother.

One one-hundredth the size of other humans, she yearns for companionship of the boy-girl kind.

Fortunately, a race of fairies populates the world of medieval France where the story is set. Soon enough she's taken up with Prince Cornelius (Gary Imhoff) and looks to be set for

life as a Princess.

But -- no such luck, hon, not even in fairy tales.

Here's the wrinkle: she keeps getting abducted by people who want to put her in show business! It's like "A Star is Born" in Toontown.

First it's Mrs. Delores Toad (Charo) with her floating opera -- actually, it's more of a floating tango contest.

Then it's Berkely Beetle (Gilbert Gottfried), an impresario of syncopated dance numbers for all of beetledom, who aches to turn her into a member of the species Coleoptera (and I thought that was somebody who liked Cole Porter!). Finally, Miss Fieldmouse (Carol Channing), a kind of rodent Dolly Levi, offers her up in marriage to Mr. Mole (John Hurt).

Clearly, this slender whisper of a story is mere pretext for Bluth and his animators to stage the big-scale musical numbers so successful in the Disney pictures.

And by and large his efforts are worthwhile. Barry Manilow, possibly the most reviled man in hip culture, but a crackerjack professional composer, provides the music to several good, witty songs -- the best is huskily belted by La Channing as an anthem to feminine practicality over romance: "Marry the Mole," it's called, and it means: Marry the Dough.

The animation is an artful melding of computer-generated backgrounds -- not as mechanistic here as in some other places -- and human figure modeling (that is, animating from filmed sequences of dancers performing the moves required). I'll let the purists argue whether this is "fair"; regardless, given the complexity of motion that's become standard in the new animation, it's here to stay, Bluth or Disney or whatever. What it lacks in "purity" it achieves in authenticity: the movement of the human (or human-like) figures feels natural and your eye accepts it as animal rather than mechanical, the key to the animation illusion.

MOVIE REVIEW

Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina."

With the voices of Jodi Benson and Charo.

Directed by Don Bluth.

Released by Warner Bros.

G-rated.

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