The dream of Sullivan Bluth Studios, later Don Bluth Entertainment, came to a miserable end late in 1994. Over the previous nine years, the company (the second one co-founded by Bluth) had ascended as high as An American Tail in 1986 and The Land Before Time in 1988, the first two animated features ever to seriously challenge Disney's hegemonic control over the animation marketplace in the western world; it had sunk as low as 1994's own A Troll in Central Park, with its stunningly anemic $71,368 box office take. It had been born in the hope that the rich, character-driven animated stories made with the level of polish and care of Disney in its own golden age still had a place in the world; its death throes came in the form of a series of listless Disney knock-offs. And here we are with the last twitch of the corpse, as well as the film where the dagger was plunged into the studio's heart, The Pebble and the Penguin, a film taken away from co-directors Don Bluth & Gary Goldman late in production by the MGM moneymen, finished on the cheap away from Bluth's animators, and released in April 1995 in a literally incomplete version that Bluth & Goldman had their name taken off of, while they fled to the bosom of 20th Century Fox to start yet another new studio. It is the film about which Bluth clearly has the most painful memories, though he and Goldman were granted the opportunity to do some rudimentary patch-up and restoration work for the film's 2007 DVD release.

Not to diminish his pain, but it's not the worst of Bluth's features, a race that had become pretty competitive by 1995. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it was his best film since 1989's All Dogs Go to Heaven, his last project made more or less entirely without incident. This is certainly not for lack of trying. Even before the film has properly started, it's made the first decision that makes it seem like the film was proceeding entirely without a rudder: as a narrator (Shani Wallis) introduces us to the mating customs of Adélie penguins (entire colonies travel as a pack to breeding grounds where males build stone nests to entice females; the film reduces this to giving individual pebbles as engagement presents), we see Antarctica in the distance, slowly being replaced by... sheet music. The sheet music for the film's opening song, "Now and Forever", one of five originals by Barry Manilow and Brian Sussman - two-thirds of the same team that wrote the songs for Bluth's Thumbelina. And if that film never quite figured out how to navigate from Manilow-style pop music to actual show tunes, The Pebble and the Penguin is somehow much worse. It appears that the songwriters have realised that showtunes are basically sung conversations, and so they have embraced talky, dialogue-like lines, but welded them inside pop music structure.

But let's stick with "Now and Forever". We see the sheet music, and the male and female vocal parts, and then we hear the vocals, and then we see the animated penguins come out dancing and singing on the sheet music, and, like, this is a movie about penguins. Not even musical penguins, like the later Happy Feet. Sheet music has absolutely nothing to do with anything. But goddamn if the film isn't very insistent on putting it front and center.

Once the sheet music gives way, and Antarctica returns, we get the meat of the plot. One particular penguin, Hubie (Martin Short), wants to go out with a penguin named Marina (Annie Golden). She is very receptive. But Hubie is so obsessed with finding the perfect pebble that he completely misses this, leaving Marina open to being harassed by a penguin named Drake (Tim Curry), who has massively overdeveloped pectoral muscles (ignoring that any amount of pectoral muscle would be overdeveloped, for a penguin), and generally looks more like a wolf. The teeth are a big part of this - all the penguins have teeth, by the way. Horrible little nubby teeth. Plus, the lady penguins all have robust, ample, child-bearing hips. Given that Bluth has previously given us sexy bird ladies with curvaceous, full breasts, I guess this counts as an "improvement", but it's not one that makes me at all happy.

Anyway, Hubie accidentally gets picked up by a boat kidnapping penguins to send them to zoos, and ends up hundred or thousands of miles north before he escapes with a rockhopper penguin named Rock (Jim Belushi). They travel back south. That's the plot.

There are a great many "the big problem with..." problems in The Pebble and the Penguin, and a big one is certainly that, even in its "restored" state, the animation is obviously not fully baked (characters stand still a lot; the camera zooms in on characters and backgrounds in a most vulgar-looking way), and the coloring isn't even a little bit consistent. But I'll tell you what I hated even more than that, and Manilow and Sussman's grim, sludgy, unsingable songs: Hubie. He is the most miserably petulant, infantile protagonist imaginable, and Short voices him as a mush-mouthed doormat. His insistence on trapping Rocko into admitting that they're friends - the centerpiece of the last and, I think, worst song (though selecting a worst song here is a real challenge) - goes beyond kiddie flick playfulness into the realm of a severe emotional disorder, bullying in his desperation to be liked. He wears a little red hat that is the focus for all the most annoying animation tics that a Bluth character can suffer from, leaping and wiggling with constant little secondary action that makes it feel like its possessed by an unquiet spirit. His design gives him a wrinkly little nose-like beak and giant puppy eyes that make him a good mate for the equally gross-looking Marina, but only makes his mewling pathetic qualities the more agonising.

Where the film partially redeems itself is that, alongside this exceptionally insipid, cloying romantic adventure for kids, it also contains the darkest and most horrifying material in any Bluth film since he visited actual Hell in All Dogs. I accept this as a strength because I am offered nothing else. Drake is a solid villain, albeit deeply incongruous - he wears a cape and lives in a skull-shaped cave and feels in general like a dark wizard rather than even a very bizarrely-shaped penguin - but the real highlight is the monstrous leopard seal that appears a few times throughout the film, with a vicious look of malice peering from above its sharp teeth: it's like the tyrannosaur from The Land Before Time in its elemental danger, but with more of a distinctly evil personality. In a film where it is extremely obvious which sequences got the most resources and thus have the most impressive animation, the first appearance of the seal is maybe the most impressive of all, as its mass slides with horribly fluidity as it slams around underwater.

It's a flimsy peg to hang a movie on, but it's more than any Bluth film of the '90s had to claim for itself. That it is buried inside a film that also contains, no two ways about it, the worst sequences of the director's career is a minor tragedy within the major tragedy that Bluth and Goldman's careers had become. The good news, at least, is that they'd bottomed out: the 20th Century Fox deal still obliged them to start with a knock-off Disney film, but when Anastasia came out two and a half years after The Pebble and the Penguin, it was at least a very good Disney knock-off, rather than the humiliating quarter-measures of Bluth's '90s output up till that point.