The drastic tumble that animation director and producer Don Bluth took in the 1990s is shocking and even a little bit sad. His career in the 1980s was dedicated to the idea that there was a better way to do animation than the clunky kiddie junk that Walt Disney Feature Animation had been reduced to, and with it the entire American animation industry, and he was rewarded for his faith in the medium with enough financial success to make the first real challenge to Disney's dominance in in its history. And then it only took two flops in the form of 1989's All Dogs Go to Heaven and 1991's Rock-a-Doodle to send him scurrying to reheat Disney's trash.

In 1991, Sullivan Bluth Studios (the Sullivan was Morris Sullivan, the business-savvy counterpart to Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy's artistic ambitions) started production on a musical adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Thumbelina, with Jodi Benson voicing the title character in a romantic adventure. While I suppose it's at least theoretically plausible that the choice of project had nothing at all to do with Disney's own Benson-starring musical Andersen-derived romance, and the film that had initially sealed Sullivan Bluth's fate, The Little Mermaid of 1989; but I think it is extremely damn unlikely for that to be the case. This feels like a calculated commercial play from start to finish, though the calculations were badly done.

The film's production wasn't especially happy; Sullivan Bluth was developing three movies simultaneously, all of them co-directed by Bluth and Goldman, and by the time Thumbelina hit theaters in the spring of 1994, the company had gone through multiple upheavals, first losing the financial backing of Goldcrest Films, changing its name to Don Bluth Entertainment, and finally ending up in the hands of two different companies, Merlin Films and Media Assets, who would take over the day-to-day financial management of the studio. Those companies made the decision that Thumbelina looked like the most commercially promising film the studio had in production, demanding that Bluth and Goldman focusing on finishing it ahead of A Troll in Central Park, though the latter was further along. So not only was Thumbelina a blatantly mercenary calculation: it was a rushed blatantly mercenary calculation.

Given all of that, it's hardly surprising that Thumbelina ends up being fairly bad, though its badness isn't necessarily something that more time and fewer money woes could have solved. Its story problems, for one, are baked in at the ground level: it's a pretty faithful adaptation of the Andersen original, in the outlines at least. And if there's one thing that could have been profitably learned from The Little Mermaid, it's that sometimes you need to strip the source material for parts and build something new out of it. Thumbelina, as first written, basically consists of throwing tiny little human, the size of a thumb, into several unpleasant situations with various talking animals, all of whom try to pressure her into marriage. She's largely acted-upon and passive, and escapes as much through luck as wit. Bluth's script fleshes this out, largely by making the situations more actively garish and the animals more expressly comic caricature, but it leaves one thing crucially intact: Thumbelina herself remains a complete drip of a character, insipidly mewling her way through the film's thankfully concise running time (86 minutes), and evincing not the smallest trace of any personality that might be worth rooting for. She is, in fact, even less appealling than Andersen's character; I do not recall the Thumbelina of the story being such an obvious idiot.

The issues with Thumbelina have begun to manifest even before we meet Thumbelina herself, though. The film opens by panning across a field to catch a glimpse of Paris of the 17th Century, over which a swallow named Jacquimo (Gino Conforti) flies, singing the first of the film's dreadful songs, with music by Barry Manilow and lyrics by Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman. Why Paris, of any century? I could not start to tell you. Anyway, Jacquimo gives us an early glimpse of how contemptibly stupid and slow Thumbelina takes its audience to be. He starts by singing a couple words here and there, before finally landing on the full chorus:

"You're sure to do impossible things
If you follow your heart
You're sure to fly on magical wings
When you follow your heart"

He then lands on a gargoyle atop Notre Dame, and compliments his own song. Then - this is, I want to stress, about eight seconds after those lines I transcribed - he says, "I like what it is saying. It is saying follow your heart, and nothing is impossible!" You don't fucking say. There have so far been four lines of dialogue in the film, and one of them is literally just rephrasing one of the others.

Last and I don't think least, but it's no fun at all to rank this shit, Jacquimo is wearing a commedia dell'arte-style Harlequin costume. He will be the first of several character for whom this is true. What the actual hell Thumbelina has to do with commedia dell'arte is left as an exercise for the viewer.

Ooh, no, that wasn't last. Jacquimo then elects to tell us the story of someone doing an impossible thing after following her heart, and the book he pulls from his collection is the story of Thumbelina. Later, he'll pop up as a character within the story in the book, just to make sure that we've wrung every possible bit of badness out of this opening sequence.

So now the movie can start, and it's pretty straightforward cod-Disney stuff: illustrations in a book transition to animation showing how a lonely old farmer widow (Barbara Cook) plants a magical barley seed that turns into a tiny little teen girl; then comes the group singalong in which the farm's animals sing about how wonderful Thumbelina is; then she gets her "I Want" song. The thing she wants it to find another tiny person to fall in love with, and to get at her sense of longing and lonelieness, she shares one of the all-time worst lyrics in an animated movie:

"After the rain goes
There are rainbows"

And this very same night, the fairy king (Kenneth Mars, another Little Mermaid cast member) and queen (voice acting legend June Foray) have taken their court out to begin readying the transition from early autumn into late autumn and thence to the first frost; they have taken with them their son Cornelius (Gary Imhoff), who spots Thumbelina and falls instantly in love with her. She falls instantly in love with him, and then have a whole ballad about being in love. I am not someone who under-uses the word "insipid", but boy, if ever a screen romance was insipid, this is the one. We have learned nothing about Thumbelina to suggest that she is in any way interesting or has any actual personality, and Cornelius is even thinner as a character; basically the first thing he does in the movie is to profess his undying love. And these empty little nobodies are just on screen, demaning that I feel any sort of feelings about them whatsoever, and I absolutely cannot - their solitary point of identity is this mildewy little love story that will, I assume, result in many cosseted children as dull as their parents. It doesn't help that they're both designed and animated to be "realistic", so other than some alarmingly ugly nose scrunches for Thumbelina, they can't even really acquire a visual personality otherwise.

Fortunately, the first of the animals hoping to abduct Thumbelina is listening to their song, and decides against the available evidence that she is talented and interesting, so he kidnaps her. This animal is a toad, Grundel (Joe Lynch), who is dressed as Pierrot; he and his two brothers (Il Capitano and I think another Harelquin) are a singing group from Spain touring the region, under the leadership and management of their mother who is, thankfully, not dressed as a commedia dell'arte character. Unthankfully, this is because she's a toad caricature of Charo, who voices the character. Ah, Charo! Every '90s kid's favorite! But yes, Toad Charo is a major, major character in Thumbelina, and she is the most deeply Bluthian aspect of the film, in the most deeply unpleasant way. Every character is animated with Bluth's bad habit of having everybody do a great deal of unnecessary, distracting business, shimmying and shuddering all the time; she is by far the worst at this. And her design! I do not know what dark chasm of the human psyche her design comes from, but a toad lady in a short skirt with giant pink hair is upsetting enough without giving her giant cantaloupe-shaped tits, each of them larger in diameter than the rest of her abdomen.

Anyway, the toads kick off the part of the story - "the part", I say, like I don't really just mean all of it - where Thumbelina gets kidnapped by some new horrible animal would-be rapist, and glides through all of it with the most idiotically beatific sense that oh well, this is my life now. Cornelius hunts through the woods for her, ineffectually; it is sheer, mad luck that both of them end the move alive, let alone together. The various animal encounters are the only place that the movie wakes up at all, largely because of the fun had in playing with different animation styles; the beetles taken directly from the Fleischer brothers' 1941 second feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town are a particular highlight.

That's actually the hell of it: for all its lousy, boring script, terrible songs, and hideous design, Thumbelina has not been made without talent. You can still tell that Bluth deeply believes in the possibilities of animation, and he's eager to try out what incorporating computers can do for him, as in the wildly excessive flyover of Paris near the start. Money and time were spent making this look good, giving it fluidity and rich coloring and shading - it is handsomer than fellow overly-ambitious 1994 Disney knock-off The Swan Princess, if nothing else. Though it has a worse script, worse characters, and worse design. Really, polished animation craftsman ship is kind of all it has; Bluth's career had already been dominated by movies that look good and have bad dramatic control, so Thumbelina really just does look like more of the same; but it is very bad drama this time around, and without even the sticky sentiment that at least made his weaker films in the '80s, An American Tail and The Land Before Time have some kind of emotional resonance. This is just random and gross suffering befalling a soggy heroine that it's almost impossible to like.