Cartoon heroines from the 1990s have ascended to icon status thanks to their digestible feminist messages, the millennial nostalgia factor, and, let’s face it, their instantly recognizable looks. There’s Belle lamenting that “there must be more than this provincial life,” Ariel wanting to be “part of that world,” Esmeralda praying “God help the outcasts,” Pocahontas chiding John Smith that “you think you own whatever land you land on,” the pixie Chrysta single-handedly saving her Australian forest, and Princess Odette offering children a not too edulcorated version of Swan Lake.
Then there’s Thumbelina, the quintessential smol bean whose personality is best summed up in the scathing line “Poor Thumbelina, your brain [is] so itty-bitty,” uttered by Mrs. Fieldmouse.
Premiering in 1994 after a grueling, contentious production process that lasted three years, Don Bluth’s Thumbelina was his studio’s response to the Disney Renaissance.
Well, here goes the response. Thumbelina’s whole story arc, loosely adapted from the tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, can be summed up as follows: An older woman wants a child, so she asks a fairy for help; Thumbelina is born out of a flower sprouted from a barleycorn that said fairy gives to the woman; Thumbelina feels lonely because she’s the only “little person” around, buff fairy prince Cornelius romances her, she gets kidnapped by a bunch of critters who are trying to pimp her out — whether for her talent or her looks — and she spends most of her screen time moping around waiting for the prince to reappear. Oh, and apparently she’s an extremely good singer.
A Disney veteran and the director of An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven, Bluth seemed to have all the ammo to re-create Disney’s success. Singer-songwriter Barry Manilow wrote the soundtrack, and Jodi Benson, the same actress who voiced Ariel in The Little Mermaid, voiced Thumbelina (which is why the character needs to be a good singer?). Other eminent names rounding out the cast include singer Charo and comedians Gilbert Gottfried and Carol Channing.
Instead, Thumbelina was a critical and commercial failure. Produced on a $28 million budget, roughly the same as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, it garnered only $17 million at the box office while being almost universally panned by condescending critics. It was the first animated movie to be nominated for a Razzie Award. (The only other film to receive this honor has been 2018’s The Emoji Movie.)
And yet, unafraid and unashamed, I can confidently state that I have loved this cartoon since the first time I watched it in late 1994.
In the first place, it’s aesthetically stunning. The lighting, the constant golden shimmer produced by the fairies, and the delightful details, such as Thumbelina’s bed being first a walnut shell, then an ornate sugar spoon, really appealed to my artistic (well, r/delusionalartists) self. I had just learned about the world of Beatrix Potter and the Brambly Hedge series, and seeing small spaces converted into full-fledged inhabitable nooks delighted me. Given the movie’s focus on nature and the change of seasons that mirrors Thumbelina’s quest to be reunited with her prince, it isn’t surprising to see Bluth, er, “quote” the “Nutcracker Suite” from Disney’s Fantasia. Both see shimmering fairies and pixies do adorably whimsical things like kick-starting the golding of the leaves or using oversize flowers as seats. Another Disney “homage”: When Thumbelina sings “Soon,” her nonsensical “I Want” song, her reflection appears refracted in a stained-glass windowpane in a gorgeous animated sequence reminiscent of Cinderella’s soap-bubble-fueled reverie “Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale.”
Critics at the time took issue with both the plot and the protagonist. “Thumbelina’s woe-is-me act got old real fast, and I couldn’t care less about her matrimonial prospects,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review.
That’s fine, because it’s the villains who turn this movie into a high-camp spectacular.
Mrs. Toad (Charo), a bodacious amphibian who is a stage mom and an impresario, shepherds her own company of traveling performers. She is resolved to turn songbird Thumbelina into a star and earnestly tries to dissuade her from marrying the prince, predicting a lifetime of degrading domestic work: “The scrubbings and the washings / And the noses with the drippings / And the sopas always boiling / The panes and windows falling, With the diaper changing / With the roof, she’s leaking! / And the enchiladas spoiling.” The song, “On the Road,” is a Latin American–inspired number that uses the conga as a bass line.
Another aspiring star-maker is Mr. Beetle (Gottfried), a smarmy insect who headlines a Ziegfeldian cabaret that hosts the Beetle Ball. He keeps referring to Thumbelina as “my toots” and tries to recruit her for his cabaretlike act. Quite predictably, Thumbelina wants nothing to do with it because she wants to marry her prince.
Mrs. Fieldmouse (Channing), who rescues Thumbelina as the winter frost approaches, has all the makings of a yenta. She tries to marry Thumbelina off to Mr. Mole, a blind hoarder of riches who speaks in a bizarre transatlantic accent and has a penchant for torture and pinning beetles to the walls of his underground estate. Her song “Marry the Mole,” which won a Razzie for Worst Original Song in 1995, is an actual masterpiece of wit partially set to “Here Comes the Bride,” with lyrics such as “‘Here Comes the Bride’ is a lovely little ditty / But marrying for love is a foolish thing to do / ’Cause love won’t pay the mortgage or put porridge in your bowl” and “Just think of all the ways that you could decorate a hole” — to which the answer is “Dearie, marry the mole.”
Sure, these villains are no Ursula, Scar, or Claude Frollo. Instead, with their flair for performance, they are more reminiscent of beloved Broadway characters. I can see Gypsy’s Mama Rose in Mrs. Toad and the Emcee of Cabaret in Mr. Beetle. Channing originated the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, a character who made a living “meddling,” or playing matchmaker, just like Mrs. Fieldmouse. As for the minor critters that dwell among reeds or in underground tunnels, they look like frenzied, vaguely grotesque Ralph Bakshi creations.
What’s more, with its own flair for performance, Thumbelina has the dreamlike, feel-good energy of a 1980s musical comedy — especially the roller-disco romp Xanadu, a romance between a Muse and an insufferable creative. That’s not a coincidence: Bluth was an animator on Xanadu, and the scene in which the lovers, Sonny and Kira, finally come clean about their feelings, set to the ELO song “Don’t Walk Away,” is an exact precursor of Thumbelina’s “Let Me Be Your Wings” scene, another corny lovers’ duet. Both animated sequences heavily quote Fantasia in their fondness for nature and fairies. In that context, you can see that Thumbelina and Prince Cornelius engage in skatinglike footwork — just as Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck do throughout Xanadu.
Rewatching it recently, I realized who Thumbelina reminds me of: Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone in Showgirls. She’s not necessarily a bad character but rather one written with good intentions placed in the wrong context, who, at least dramatically speaking, ends up being swallowed whole by the more charismatic villains.
Thumbelina, then, can be read as the animated-movie equivalent of Showgirls: Both had high budgets and prestigious names attached but were critical and commercial failures upon release. Both were also recipients of Razzie Awards: Thumbelina for Worst Original Song, Showgirls with a grand total of seven.
Yet just as Showgirls (and Xanadu) has reached cult status despite (or perhaps because of) its critical reception — to the point that last year there was a documentary about it (You Don’t Nomi) — my hope is that Thumbelina will achieve similar acclaim, especially among adult film nerds. It’s finally back on Disney+, so there’s no excuse not to put it into your heavy nostalgia rotation.