Saturday, March 7, 2020

Animation Celebration Saturday - The Pebble and the Penguin

MGM, 1995
Voices of Martin Short, Tim Curry, Jim Belushi, and Annie Golden
Music by Barry Manilow; Lyrics by Bruce Sussman
Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman

After releasing two of the biggest animated hits of the 80's, director Don Bluth had a really rough time in the 90's. All Dogs Go To Heaven came out on the same day as The Little Mermaid, and every movie he'd made since then debuted to diminishing returns and complaints from critics who thought he'd gotten too cutesy. There were problems with production on this one from the get-go, and MGM's continually butting in and making changes on the film didn't help anyone, either. Bluth and Goldman got so fed up, they demanded to have their names taken off the final product. Were they right to do this, or is this movie worth giving a pebble to? Let's head to Antarctica, where a flock of Adelie penguins are preparing for their mating ritual, to find out...

The Story: Hubie (Short) wants badly to mate with Marina (Golden), but he's too shy to really explain his feelings. He hopes finding the most beautiful pebble in the Antarctic will explain the depths of his passion better than any words could. When the shore is picked clean of stones by bigger penguins, he desperately wishes for one on a star. The perfect glittering pebble falls from the sky, but it does Hubie no good. Marina has another suitor, a larger, stronger male named Drake (Curry). Drake shoves Hubie off a cliff. Avoiding a leopard seal, he ends up on an iceberg going north. He eventually ends up in a cage on a ship bound for zoos.

Hubie's not the only one who doesn't want to spend his life in a cage. Rocco (Belushi), a rockhopper penguin, isn't overly eager to be stuck behind bars, either. Hubie and Rocco help each other escape the boat, then get to shore. Rocco's one dream is to fly, and even though Hubie thinks it's ridiculous, he lies and tells him about a flying penguin who can help him if he goes to Antarctica with him. Now the two have to get back and find a way to take down Drake, before he banishes, ravishes, or does something horrible to Marina.

The Animation: A real mixed bag. Sullivan Studios outsourced this to several European studios, and it shows. The continuity is all over the place, with Rocco's scarf constantly changing colors and more closely resembling a chin than neck gear. The designs on the penguins are often more creepy than cute, with their huge eyes and teeth that birds shouldn't have.

The Song and Dance: I will admit that this is mildly better than Thumbelina. Belushi can occasionally be funny as the stubborn rockhopper penguin with the unusual dream, Curry's not a bad Gaston-type jock villain, and a few of the musical numbers aren't horrible. Even just the fairly unique angle of the penguins and their festival deserves a mention.

Favorite Number: The animals on the boat Hubie ended up on put on their own Busby Berkeley spoof routine to tell him just how terrible it is, "The Good Ship Misery." Drake tries to woo Marina with soft lights, romantic dancing, and telling her she'll be banished if she doesn't do what he wants in "Don't Make Me Laugh."

What I Don't Like: The opening and closing number "Now and Forever" makes no sense. Why have the penguins frolicking around sheet music and instruments? That's not what the story's about. They should be dancing in the Antarctic and spotlighting the search for the pebbles. That the song is mushy and dull just makes things worse.

The leads are a problem, too. Hubie's an annoying twit who lies to the guy he calls his best friend and laughs in his face when he reveals his greatest dream to him. No wonder Rocco wanted to get far away from him. It's a wonder he wasn't cast out of the rookery ages ago. The object of Hubie's affections isn't much better. Marina has absolutely nothing to do besides pine for Hubie and push Drake away. Frankly, I have no idea what she sees in Hubie, other than Drake's an even worse option.

MGM's bungled editing job resulted in plot holes galore. You never find out how Hubie ended up on the ship, for instance, or why Marina absolutely has to mate Hubie before the full moon, or much of how Hubie and Rocco got back down south. The woman narrator is just as annoying and useless here as Patou's narration was in Rock-a-Doodle three years before. The film should really be showing things, not telling them.

The Big Finale: Poor Don Bluth just couldn't catch a break in the 90's. This is cute but bland, and the so-called hero is more obnoxious than fun. For young kids who'll enjoy watching the penguins and major Bluth fans only.

Home Media: Easily found in all major formats; Tubi currently has it streaming for free with ads.


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