It would comfort me, somehow, if A Troll in Central Park felt like the people who made it didn't care. The unacceptable trashiness of the end results might be more tolerable if it felt like they knew they were throwing it away. Alas, this film, the second animation released by Don Bluth Entertainment in 1994, absolutely feels like a Don Bluth film (he co-directed with Gary Goldman, but as Goldman's career labors entirely in Bluth's shadow...). It feels, to be sure, like a horribly misguided Don Bluth film, one that's assembled only out of the weaknesses of all his six earlier features, and contains none of their strengths. But we're definitely not in director-for-hire mode yet - sadly, we're not in director-for-hire mode, since that mode would result in the very fine Disney knock-off Anastasia. But that is three long years in the future still.

The film bears the scars of a rough, malformed production. It was started in 1990, after the box-office underperformance of All Dogs Go to Heaven heralded the imminent collapse of what was then called Sullivan Bluth Studios, and before Rock-a-Doodle sealed the company's fate. Bluth and Goldman kept juggling several productions simultaneously, eying a 1993 release for Troll, but the companies that had come along to keep them alive wanted a more surefire commercial property, and the filmmakers obliged by dropping this movie, and rushing their Disney princess musical knock-off Thumbelina to completion. That film didn't do especially well, but A Troll in Central Park did far worse: by the time it finally crawled into theaters, on the back of a virtually non-existent ad campaign, it made a dismal $71,368 at the U.S. box office; I am not certain if it was even released outside of the U.S.

That shuffling and the rush to finish it up shows: this is the ugliest, worst-animated film of Bluth's career to that point. For all its inestimable sins, even Rock-a-Doodle looks like it was made by professionals taking the time to get things right. A Troll in Central Park suffers from a variably limited framerate, presumably the victim of budget and time, which means that it often lacks the fluidity and smooth movement of all of the studio's previous work. It also possesses the most unfortunate of all Bluthisms, a whole lot of unnecessary busy action for all the characters to perform in the background and on the sides, a twitch restlessness that makes it so that everyone is gesturing, grimacing, turning, whatever it is that makes them distracting and restless. Put these two things together, and everybody keeps minutely jerking from place to place, like the universe is buffering or something.

And it has the other worst Bluthism: a story that never entirely comes together from all the individual scenes. This may, in fact, be the single worst narrative in the filmmaker's career, a fact he owned to many years later, comparing the story (credited to five writers) to a premature baby. This is a bad metaphor: premature babies routinely survive. Such cannot be said for A Troll in Central Park, which at most has the illusion of a story, and I really don't even know if I could be that generous. The film opens in the Kingdom of Trolls, the kind of exaggerated horrible place from children's media where characters talk about how much they love trash and death, and relish their ugliness. One thing they especially hate is plant life, and flowers have been formally banned. But as they say, if flowers are outlawed, only outlaws will have flowers, and our rebellious soul for the evening is an especially gentle, soft troll named Stanley (Bluth regular Dom DeLuise; this was their last collaboration). We know he's nice and sweet and loving because his skin is rosy pink rather than some gangrenous green, and also his name is "Stanley" and not, like, "Pustopher", or "Slimely". It's that kind of movie. Anyway, Stanley has a magical green thumb that allows him to grow plants quickly and magically, and as such, he has a house full of ambulatory, talking flowers who are refugees from the vile Queen Gnorga (Cloris Leachman) - that first G is pronounced, a fact that made me desperately unhappy.

One particular flower grows so well that it breaks out of Stanley's roof, revealing his secret; at a trial, he is found guilty, and almost sentenced to being turned to stone, but for the intervention of the queen's bleeding-heart consort, King Llort* (Charles Nelson Riley), who suggests that she instead send Stanley to a hideous island of glass and concrete, where he will live out his days in plant-less misery. Dubious, the queen acquiesces, and seconds later, Stanley finds himself square in the middle of Manhattan's Central Park, happier than he's been in his whole life.

Hopefully that's enough story to keep you invested, because it's all we get for a good long time. The great majority of the film's inappropriately slow-moving 76 minutes are taken up with basically nothing at all: two human children from Park Avenue, Gus (Phillip Glasser, who in happier days was Fievel in An American Tail) and toddler Rosie (Tawny Sunshine Glover), whose parents (the bafflingly overqualified duo of Jonathan Price and Hayley Mills, with about six lines between them) both happen to be busy at the same time, and just when Dad promised Gus a boys' day out. Rosie manages to stumble into Stanley's magic cave under a bridge, and Gus stumbles in after her, and he manages to help both of them get back home. When it becomes clear that there's not going to be a third act, Gnorga attempts to destroy Stanley, the children, and Central Park itself, to deal with a legitimacy crisis arising when the troll newspapers start to question her commitment to evil, after being so lenient with Stanley's first sentence.

I have never written a children's movie. But I bet that "the  press is trying to instill doubt in the competency of the reigning monarch, leading to regime instability" is not something I would put into it, if I did write one.

The enormous, yawning gulf when it's just Stanley and the kids - probably it's only a third of the running time, but it is catastrophically paced - is the heart of the movie's failures. The big one is that it's simply one big endless narrative dead end, spun out minute after endless minute so Bluth & Goldman & company can indulge in poking their nose around looking at animated things. This is sort of acceptable in his other films, where at least the animation is good. Given the limits of the animation here, we just end up confronted with brightly-colored ugliness. And this is even worse because the film's inconsistent design is at its worst here. The trolls in the film are actually pretty fun-looking, especially Gnorga. Even Stanley, who explicitly resembles a stuffed to, is a fine piece of cute-gross design. But the happy flowers are a misfire, with gruff, under-detailed faces. And the humans are abominable: Gus is an instantly-dated collection of signifiers that can absolutely be dated right to the 1991-'92 corridor, especially his hair (with spiked-up bangs and a little two-inch ponytail). And Rosie is a vomitous collection of every bad choice in every Bluth film rolled into one repulsively cute, glowing-eyed monster of repulsively over-expressive, rubbery facial animation.

The other thing that happens in this segment of the film is that we are forced to endure the most saccharine, nauseating ickle dumplekins sentimentality that can be imagined. "Cloying" is insufficient, in the same way that "hot" is insufficient to describe the surface of the sun. DeLuise leans into it, with his exhaustingly sincere, wide-eyed line deliveries that make him sound freakishly over-attached to Rosie; the bright colors and merry flower designs lean into it; Rosie's disgustingly malleable cherub face leans into it.

The film has plenty of other flaws, of course: there are the three awful songs, for example, including a villain banger for Gnorga, where she declares with all due redundancy, "I'm the queen of mean / I'm the meanest queen you've ever seen / There should be no doubt about my clout / I'm the queen of mean". And there's Stanley's yearning "Absolutely Green", which is so close to "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors that I assume Alan Menken and the Howard Ashman estate were simply too embarrassed for the Troll songwriters to pursue legal action.

Really, the only strength is Gnorga herself, a typical Bluth grotesque, the only character for whom constant twitch motion feels like a reasonable choice. It helps a lot that Leachman is plainly having fun with the campy opportunities that the role provides, providing vocal energy to match the messy visual energy. This isn't one of the great villains of animation history; this isn't even one of the great villains in 1994 Disney knock-offs. But when a film is as top-to-bottom inert as A Troll in Central Park, you take what you can get. And Gnorga is what we've got.




*Llort! It's "troll" spelled backwards! This is their king!