Thumbelina (1994)

“Let’s get out of this stinking weather before we’re statistics. I can’t even feel anything in my feelers anymore.”

That’s a brilliant pun. It’s the best line of dialog in the whole movie, and like all the best lines in Thumbelina, it belongs to the beetle, who sounds like Iago in Disney’s Aladdin. (Both characters were voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.)

Unfortunately, “can’t feel anything” describes the effect the movie had on me. In spite of all the supposedly empowering messages in it that could have been meaningful, it left me numb.

If you saw and enjoyed Thumbelina when you were little, maybe you can see and enjoy it now. Otherwise, I’d say the odds are slim to none.

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Keep reading for more (MUCH more) on why I didn’t like the movie, along with a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Spectacularly Mishandled Themes in Thumbelina

Follow your heart. Do impossible things. Don’t wish to be anything but what you are. Marry who you love.

These are all admirable individualistic messages, but judging by how they’re presented in the movie, they’re all terrible advice.

Follow your heart—never mind that you’ll freeze in winter and have to get rescued by a scheming mouse.

Do impossible things—like grow wings just because you feel really happy, or because a fairy prince kissed you or something.

Don’t wish to be anything but what you are—unless your wish is to be a fairy so you can marry a fairy prince.

Marry who you love—even though he’s an impetuous sixteen-year-old you’ve spent a total of one evening with who somehow got himself frozen in a pond and utterly failed to rescue you from the frogs, the beetles, the winter, and the mole.

So much for the explicit themes. What about the implicit ones? They’re worse!

Go ahead, be vain—people won’t love you unless they think you’re beautiful.

Go ahead, be a doormat—when in doubt, sing, even if you don’t want to; if it doesn’t make flowers bloom, at least it might make people like you (unless you’re ugly).

Go ahead, be racist—Spanish-speakers are either dishonest and greedy or ugly and stupid.

Go ahead, be a male chauvinist—only dishonest, greedy people believe women can have a husband and a career, and even they don’t believe women should get to keep their own income.

Go ahead, suffer Cinderella Syndrome—women are powerless to help themselves, but that’s okay since someday a prince will turn up on your windowsill and sweep you off your feet.

Go ahead, glorify young death—Romeo and Juliet may have died senselessly, but at least their deaths make a beautiful story.

I liked the mother toad’s straight-faced, rather convincing speech about how Thumbelina should start a singing career and see the world rather than marry and get stuck doing housework. For about a minute, the mother toad was a convincing and subtle villain, because the real reason she gives this advice is that she wants to appropriate Thumbelina’s earnings. However, right after she performs the whole song and dance about how Thumbelina shouldn’t get married, the mother toad abruptly reveals her plan to marry her off to one of her sons. So much for subtlety.

Presumably since the mouse villain mocks Romeo and Juliet for being so in love that they died, we’re meant to admire Romeo and Juliet for being so in love that they died. Now, Shakespeare is the most revered English-language author ever (practically by definition, since he invented modern English) and I admire him and his play Romeo and Juliet for all the typical reasons. That being said, dying for the sake of thwarted love is not a healthy goal.

Other Problems with Thumbelina

I love the singing French chef in The Little Mermaid. I abhor the singing French swallow in Thumbelina. The proud preening rubbed me the wrong way from the very start.

The reason the sparrow flies over Paris in the prologue seemed to be so that the movie makers could show off their early-90s 3D-animation techniques. Paris has nothing to do with anything. The story isn’t set in the city of Paris; it’s set on a farm. The original Thumbelina story was written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen; Paris isn’t in Denmark.

The storybook prologue cliche was old and tired long before 1994. Also, normally the narrator in such cases is not also a character in the story! Two cartoon prologues I like better immediately spring to mind: the stained glass window sequence in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (which, incidentally, would have had far more justification for showing us a prologue with a story book in a French library) and the rooster singer in Disney’s Robin Hood. The rooster is a character in the story, but he doesn’t also exist outside the book that tells the story.

The sparrow’s role in the plot makes no sense. He shows up to help Thumbelina when she’s stranded on the river (strangely unable to swim), but then he cuts her lily pad loose, which puts her in a worse position than she was in before, because—guess what?—there’s a big waterfall around the bend. At no point as she’s being swept towards the waterfall does it occur to either the bird or Thumbelina that he could just carry her away, as he does later in the movie.

The fairy prince has wings… but he also rides a bumblebee. All the fairies are riding other winged things, I guess, and people drive cars as well as walk, but what makes it weird is that in this world, some animals use English and some don’t. (Some use Spanish, but that’s another issue altogether.) Most of the bugs use English, but not the butterflies or the bee the prince rides, and not Thumbelina’s mom’s dog. The fairy prince can apparently understand dog-speak, though. That seems to be his only talent.

Why would anybody like that guy, apart from the haircut? He cuts a hole in a page of Thumbelina’s favorite book of fairy tales, just for fun. He doesn’t seem like a particularly dutiful son or responsible ruler-in-training. He’s pretty inept at rescue; he himself has to be rescued by a trio of little kid bugs. In the finale sequence, he gets dragged down into an abyss by a rather stupid toad. He can sing, but that doesn’t seem to impress Thumbelina as much as the fact that he can fly, which is silly, since all the other fairy boys can fly too, and their haircuts might be just as cute, for all she knows.

Thumbelina is pretty pathetic. With the exception of when she refuses at the last minute to marry the mole, she doesn’t plan, decide, act, or do anything remotely intelligent or purposeful. She just sits around waiting for her soulmate to appear, complaining, and wishing she were home again. Despite being small enough to drown in the smallest puddle, she hasn’t even tried to learn to swim. Quite possibly she can’t read. She can’t really help much with chores, she just pretends to, and gets in the way. She has no particular ambition, other than to find someone like herself (without bothering to go and actually look), or, failing that, fantasize endlessly about fairies. She gets twitterpated by the first fairy to enter her life. She’s constantly being told to do something she doesn’t want to do, and winds up agreeing, failing to realize it’s not necessarily in her interest to do what other people tell her to. She’s not just dopey, she’s spineless! I can’t stand spineless characters.

Let’s compare Thumbelina with Ariel, shall we? Jodi Benson was the voice actress for both, and both are singing sixteen-year-old Andersen characters who fall in love with a prince from another world. Ariel has a much more interesting relationship with her parent; she interacts more intelligently with her friends; she has hobbies apart from singing; she’s ignorant of land people’s customs, but she’s intensely curious; she doesn’t fall in love with the first guy she meets; she’s not afraid of leaving home; and she doesn’t just daydream, she goes after what she wants until she gets it, even if it means marching—er, swimming—into the lair of the villain and giving up her prized singing voice of her own free will. Her one song is better than any of Thumbelina’s. Ariel beats Thumbelina hands down.

I guess other movies have at least some of the same problems, but Thumbelina doesn’t have much going for it, especially compared to the record-breaking Disney hit that was released the same year: The Lion King.

The reason the love story doesn’t work (apart from the fact that Thumbelina and the fairy prince are both idiots) is that the “falling in love” part of the movie is so close to the beginning. There’s no time for the two main characters to get to know each other, even though ostensibly the plot is a romance. Ariel falls in love pretty near the beginning of her movie, but Prince Eric doesn’t; he comes to love the voiceless little mermaid when he spends a couple of days with her, days that take up more than just one song in the movie. Jasmine falls for Prince Ali during the course of a single flying-through-the-air song, but again, more of the movie has elapsed, and actually Jasmine already knows and trusts Aladdin from back when he was a street rat. The storybook romance that Thumbelina’s most resembles is the one in Frozen, in which (spoiler alert!) the prince that Anna falls in love with at the beginning turns out to be a villain later on. The whole point of showing Anna falling in love so easily is to set off alarm bells.

I’m half tempted to watch the Barbie version of Thumbelina to find out whether I’m correct in my suspicion that it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the Don Bluth version. On the other hand, Gilbert Gottfried is probably not in the Barbie version.

What I Liked about Thumbelina

I liked the beetle for his character design (he reminded me of the Humbug in The Phantom Tollbooth), his familiar unique voice, and his dialog, which was refreshingly more self-aware than that of the other characters.

I liked the fairy prince’s 90’s haircut, which is also worn by Dimitri in Anastasia (1997) and Cale in Titan A.E. (2000). Funny how the haircut is dependent entirely on when and where the movies were made (1990s America) and not at all on when or where they’re set (once upon a time in France, early 20th century Russia, and 3028 A.D. in space).

I liked some of the background paintings. I especially liked the bits where the fairies were changing summer into autumn, though I was mystified why autumn seemed to last only about two days. The Nutcracker sequence of Fantasia was better, even if you don’t take the music into consideration.

That’s it. It’s a short list. Sorry.

My Beat Sheet for Thumbelina

A swallow flies over and through Paris, introduces himself, lists a few of his favorite tragic love stories, and finally starts explaining how Thumbelina was born from a flower.

Opening Image
Thumbelina sings about finding her soul mate.

The fairy prince visits Thumbelina when he passes by and hears her sing. They fall in love with each other. Unfortunately, an ugly toad also falls in love with her.

The mother toad kidnaps Thumbelina and tries to convince her that marrying the fairy prince will mean a life of drudgery, whereas embarking on a singing career will make her “big” and loved by everyone.

Will Thumbelina go on tour singing with the toads, or be loyal to her fairy prince?

Break into Two
She wants the prince, but the toads have stranded her on a lily pad, and when they come back, she will be forced to marry one of them. Since she can’t swim, she calls for help.

B Story
The stupid swallow from the prologue shows up to help Thumbelina but almost gets her drowned. Thus begins an awkward, intermittent friendship that doesn’t do either of them much good.

The Promise of the Premise
It’s not just that one smitten toad who wants to interfere with Thumbelina’s life. A sketchy beetle dresses her up and makes her dance on stage for his buddies. She doesn’t seem to mind too much until they tell her they think she’s ugly.

Meanwhile, some friendly little bugs try to rescue Thumbelina, but they get waylaid by the toad. The fairy prince is trying to find her and failing; his parents scold him for meeting a girl and then losing her right away. Thumbelina’s mother is hoping she’ll return.

The swallow finds Thumbelina and promises he will find the vale of the fairies for her and send her prince back to her (rather than take her with him to look for it, which seems like it might have been a more logical plan). However, he takes too long, he injures himself, and suddenly it’s winter.

Bad Guys Close In
The fairy prince (except for one finger) gets stuck in a frozen pond just as winter arrives. The beetle, deprived of his wings and complaining memorably about the cold weather, extracts the frozen prince from the pond and hands him over to the toad, who complains that the prince is no use as bait for a trap for Thumbelina if he’s dead.

All Is Lost
Thumbelina nearly dies of hypothermia after falling in icy water, but is rescued by a nasty mouse who tells her the fairy prince is dead and guilt trips her into coming along on a visit to the mole, who then bribes her to convince Thumbelina to marry him. (The song “Marry the Mole” won a Golden Raspberry award for its sheer awfulness.)

Dark Night of the Soul
Thumbelina finds the swallow mostly dead in the mole’s tunnel. She revives him, but then because he doesn’t know the fairy prince has died, he abandons Thumbelina to search for the vale of fairies. Thumbelina decides she might as well marry the mole, even though she doesn’t love him.

Break into Three
At the wedding, Thumbelina changes her mind and refuses to marry the mole. She runs away and follows a cheerful ray of sunlight back to the surface. The prince (having been thawed by the friendly little bugs) arrives just in time to see Thumbelina flee, though she doesn’t see him. He fights the toad and seemingly dies by falling in a chasm.

The swallow encounters Thumbelina and claims he knows where the realm of the fairies is. She says she just wants to go home, but he takes her to the vale of the fairies anyway. It looks like a bit of frozen wasteland, but the swallow (like everybody else) insists that Thumbelina sing. She does. The fairy prince shows up, even though he was last seen plummeting deep into the burrow Thumbelina escaped from, which is now several mountains away. He immediately proposes marriage, and Thumbelina accepts. Wings burst forth from her back and she’s delighted. Flowers bloom and all the other fairies emerge.

Final Image
Thumbelina marries the fairy prince and lives happily ever after.

The toad marries a toad. The mouse marries the mole. The beetle gets his wings back.

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