Day 4 of Don Bluth: The Pebble and the Penguin
Penguin films became their own mini-boom in the late 2000s, starting off with the sonorously narrated March of the Penguins and blossoming with the likes of Surf’s Up and the two Happy Feet movies. These films probably owe none of their success to the far less remunerative Don Bluth picture The Pebble and the Penguin, which manages to adapt a fascinating animal behaviour into a banal affirmation of petrified (!) human engagement rituals.
Released in 1994, Pebble not only flopped and dragged Bluth’s Irish-based production company down with it, it was such an artistic failure that Bluth, the man who put his name on A Troll in Central Park, refused to take a directing credit for it. Not that he escaped through this tactic, since his production company was named after him.
1. Biology and Banalogy
We already saw that Bluth has a thing for penguins back in Rock-a-Doodle, which features an inexplicable moment where scalpers are selling penguin suits to species who are barred from a rock club. Here, though, we’re dealing with not just penguins in general but the specific species known as the Adélie penguin. It turns out that these penguins have a peculiar mating practice of males presenting stones to females and being evaluated on their geological fashion sense. What Bluth and writers Rachel Koretsky and Steven Whitestone do is take that basic setup and turn it into one of Bluth’s usual affirmation of the most caricatured version of traditional Western gender roles.
See, Hubie (Martin Short) is a stuttering, nervous type who attracts scorn and derision for his awkwardness. In fact, he’s derisively called a “Nerd” more than once. For reasons of easy character identification, he also wears a silly winter hat with droopy ears, confirming him as a schlubby comedy archetype. About ten minutes into the film, he runs into his one love, Marina, and she takes an instant liking to him for the sake of plot convenience. Hubie’s main appeal to his few friends is his ability to make them laugh, whether on purpose (unlikely considering his blunt-edged sense of humour) and unintentionally, which means the film vacillates wildly between treating Hubie like a hero and like a punch line. Being a punch line is probably not as reliable a way to get true friends in the real world as it is here. Marina, however, is another of Bluth’s vacant and passive rescue objects (cf. Thumbelina, Goldie, etc.) so for magical plot reasons she instantly falls in love with him and, like in Thumbelina, the plot is just delayed gratification.
Let’s put it this way: a documentary about actual Adélie penguins would be much more fascinating. Their natural behaviours are much closer to a John Waters movie than a Disney fantasy:
“‘The pamphlet, declined for publication with the official Scott expedition reports, commented on the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females, including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks and homosexual behaviour,’ states the analysis written by Douglas Russell and colleagues William Sladen and David Ainley.”
–From Adélie penguin wikipedia entry
We were robbed of a Ralph Bakshi penguin movie, I tell you.
Another peculiarity of this film that fits into Don Bluth modus operandi is the way the plot delivers Hubie’s perfect stone, but we’ll get there in section 3.
2. A Penguin Called Drake
A great camp villain is what separates the unbearable Don Bluth film from the delightfully awful one. Like Rock-a-Doodle, The Pebble and the Penguin benefits from a stunningly over-the-top and gay-coded performance by a famous character actor, in this case Tim Curry giving soul to the villain named Drake.
He has one weirdly under-orchestrated song, but his primary role is to be a mean bully and keep the two literal lovebirds apart from each other. Living in a gigantic, inexplicably fabricated fortress with a gaping maw almost as hilarious as his own (as seen above). Though the fairytale logic of the central romance makes it narratively disposable rather than simple and resonant, I think the snickering reductiveness of Drake combined with Curry’s performance makes him a net plus for the film. Certainly better than playing a literal manifestation of pollution in Ferngully.
Don Bluth protagonists have a tendency to keep totems or amulets with them, objects that have some mystical significance and are connected to their families in some way. In this film, it’s the titular pebble, which descends to Hubie from on high as an answer to prayer:
It’s the same potent mixture of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and Americanized Christian theology that animates all of Bluth’s films. What’s curious is that Marina and Hubie’s true love is known and established by the film very early, but his love appears to hinge entirely on giving her the stone. The stone is treated as an artifact that not only represents their love but is their love. Hubie goes to life-threatening lengths to keep hold of it, which is understandable, but the degree to which the pebble itself is treated as vital to their relationship––when Drake is the only real obstacle keeping them apart––is troubling since it muddles the messaging around what should be a clear and straightforward romance. It is very straightforward in most ways, but the fact that the characters spends almost no screen time together is probably the reason why the pebble gets title rights while Marina doesn’t. Emphasizing the pebble transaction also highlights how the film validates the mercenary way in which romances are decided in this penguin community: Hubie has to pay his fee to get his girl.
Finale: The End of Bluth Studios
After the debacle that is The Pebble and the Penguin, Bluth’s company collapsed and he took an offer from Fox to create films for their new animation studio. It was the end of Bluth’s era as a semi-independent filmmaker, and the beginning of a new role at a major studio. Soon enough it would be clear that Pebble and the Penguin would be Bluth’s (up to now) last production that really indulges in his idiosyncrasies, for better and (mostly) for worse. It’s a sour note to end this phase of his career on, but perhaps a huge injection of money from Fox would bring some kind of redemption.