Sunday, May 20, 2018

Thumbelina (1994) and Passive vs. Active Protagonists

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were a few big names in animation.  As always, Disney was in the picture.  They were putting out movies that have become classics that people my age grew up on.  Pixar started their run in the mid-1990s when they made Toy Story.  They had a few shorts before that, but didn’t get the mainstream attention that others got until Toy Story was released.  Then there was Don Bluth.  He started in Disney before going out on his own to build a studio and release movies like The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Anastasia.

One of the other Don Bluth movies was Thumbelina, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl the size of a thumb.  Thumbelina (Jodi Benson) was peacefully living her life when Mrs. Toad (Charo) came along and kidnapped her.  She excaped the toads and was taken in with Mr. Beetle (Gilbert Gottfried), who tossed her aside when she tarnished his image.  Ms. Fieldmouse (Carol Channing) gave her shelter in the winter and tried to marry her off to Mr. Mole (John Hurt).  During her adventure, the fairy Prince Cornelius (Gary Imhoff) journeyed to rescue her, take her home, and marry her.  There was also a bird named Jacquimo (Gino Conforti) guiding the audience through the story.
Unlike so many of Don Bluth’s other movies, Thumbelina isn’t considered a classic in animation.  It’s easy to see why.  There are a myriad of reasons that the movie ended up being a mess.  The story itself wasn’t all that interesting to watch.  That’s not Don Bluth’s fault.  That came from the source material where it was a tiny girl getting kidnapped before falling in love.  Hans Christian Andersen could be blamed for that.  The weird way that creatures of various species are romantically interested in Thumbelina was also weird.  A frog, a beetle, and a mole were all trying to be with her.  But the one reason that should be focused on more than most was the fact that Thumbelina was not an active protagonist, outside of one moment in the movie.

An active protagonist is a hero in a story that makes choices.  Their journey is of their own doing.  They move along from plot point to plot point because they take an active participation in what they are doing.  They must decide between two difficult choices in order to try and achieve their goal.  A passive protagonist is a hero who doesn’t make choices.  Everything that happens in their journey is because of other people doing things.  They react to what is going on without changing things by their own will.  They hope they’ll get to their goal without ever doing anything to take a step closer.
Thumbelina was a passive protagonist.  She spent the majority of the movie reacting to everything that happened to her.  When she got kidnapped, she didn’t try to free herself.  Jacquimo freed her.  When she was about to go over a waterfall, she didn’t do anything to get to safety.  The creatures of the forest got her out of the water.  The fish knocked her backwards in the river and the insects dragged her out.  She didn’t escape from the beetles.  Her costume came off, they mocked her, and she was sent away.  None of these things were of her own doing.  The other characters were doing things for her, and she went along with it to get through the story.

The problem with this kind of character is that the audience can’t connect with them.  They don’t have to make the tough choices that people make in life.  They go through a journey that nobody has been on and they don’t make any of the relatable decisions that get the audience invested in the most ludicrous of stories.  Say, for example, in the scene with the frogs, Thumbelina had to try to escape while they weren’t looking.  The escape would get her away from them, but then she would have to contend with the dangerous waterfall.  If she got caught, security would be tightened so that she wouldn’t be able to get away so easily.  The choice is left to her about whether or not she should attempt it at that moment.  The audience is more invested.
Dramatic tension.  That is the key element to an active protagonist.  Whenever they make a tough choice, like the admittedly flimsy example I made of the escape that never happened in Thumbelina, the audience becomes a little more anxious.  They don’t know if the choice will be good or not.  Most likely, they’re both bad choices.  At that point, the audience becomes anxious for the safety of the character.  This is the thrill ride that movies should be.  Thumbelina lacked dramatic tension.  For the most part.

There was one scene near the end of Thumbelina where the main character was given a choice to make.  For once in the movie, they were telling the story in a semi-compelling way.  During her time with Ms. Fieldmouse, Thumbelina was set up with Mr. Mole.  They were set to wed.  A wedding happened.  During that wedding, Thumbelina came to a tough decision.  She could marry Mr. Mole and be unhappy that he was not the person she loved, or she could leave Mr. Mole and be alone because the person she loved was dead.  That’s an actual choice.  That’s a decision that the main character had to make to move her story forward.  That was good storytelling.
The worst part of the whole active versus passive protagonist concept that plagued Thumbelina’s main character was that there was another character who had a more compelling story.  Prince Cornelius spent most of the movie trying to find Thumbelina.  He was being active, making choices for himself on his journey.  He overcame obstacles and had a clear goal.  Thumbelina was his damsel in distress, yet we spent the movie following her.  That was a bad decision.

Thumbelina was a problematic movie.  From the basic story to the interspecies love, there were issues all over it.  The most notable, however, was the lack of an active protagonist.  The passivity of her actions made for a story that felt like it was moving along with the character following, instead of the character pushing it forward.  Audiences aren’t as attached to these movies because it doesn’t feel like they, or the characters, are involved in anything that’s happening.  There’s a disconnection.  That all begins with the main character.  Thumbelina needed to make choices.  She didn’t, and the movie fell flat.
Maybe these notes will have more bounce to them:

  • Thumbelina was suggested by @ImPABLO_i_WRITE, who also suggested Cabin Boy (week 173).
  • The voice of Neil Ross was featured in Thumbelina.  He also worked on Son of the Mask (week 207).
  • Other animated movies included in the Sunday “Bad” Movies include, but are not limited to, Foodfight! (week 143), A Car’s Life (week 2), Delgo (week 148), and How the Toys Saved Christmas (week 158).
  • Have you seen Thumbelina?  What did you think?  Are passive protagonists as much of a problem as I think they are?  Let me know in the comments.
  • The comments and my Twitter page can be used to let me know about the bad movies I haven’t seen and should check out.  There are many out there that just haven’t come to my attention, and if you let me know about them, I might look out for them and add them to the schedule.
  • When I’m watching movies, I sometimes share clips from them on my snapchat (jurassicgriffin).  Add me if that sounds interesting.
  • Next week is a big week.  A new Star Wars movie is coming out.  As such, I’ll be watching some old Star Wars.  Specifically, I’ll be checking out The Ewok Adventure.  I’ve not seen any Star Wars outside of the theatrical movies, so this should be a fun one.  We'll see this time next week.  Come on back now, y’hear?

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