“The pebble had the better agent.” – my dad
Despite the above quote, no one in my family had ever seen The Pebble and the Penguin before now. Back in 1995 when the film came out, I was completely uninterested in Don Bluth’s animated films in particular (justifiably so) and non-Disney animated films in general (less justifiably). Just from the confusingly worded title and run-of-the-mill poster art, I could tell that this was not a movie that I wanted to see. In this case, my instincts were right on. The Pebble and the Penguin is a dull, confused, aggravating mess of a movie. I was set to call it the worst Don Bluth film I had ever seen, but as I read up on the film’s production, I felt hesitant to give Bluth all of the blame for a movie he had all but disowned.
By the time The Pebble and the Penguin was released, Don Bluth Entertainment (formerly Sullivan Bluth Studios) was not doing well. The studio had been saved from closing by new investors, including a Hong-Kong basec company called Media Assets, which was later bought out by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. But the films the studio was producing were losing money. Whether it was the decision of Bluth and his compatriots, pressure from their new investors, or a combination of the two, Don Bluth Entertainment had gone from trying to recapture classic Disney while adding a darker edge to chasing after the current Disney successes with bland, “safe” films designed to appeal to the tiniest of viewers. Though they aren’t good films, All Dogs Go To Heaven and Rock-a-Doodle were at least distinctive, interesting failures. The same can’t be said of the Disney clone Thumbelina or the painfully cutesy A Troll in Central Park. Neither of these supposedly safe bets paid off; Thumbelina earned just over $11 million dollars domestically and Troll took home a paltry $71 thousand. (Yes, I meant “thousand.”) Distributor Warner Brothers was clearly losing confidence in the animation studio, as evidenced by their limited release and minimal promotion of Troll. MGM/UA became the new distributor for The Pebble and the Penguin. But with the new distribution studio came new demands for extensive changes, very late in the film’s production. Scenes were cut, characters removed, and voices re-recorded. Making these changes ate into the time left to complete the animation and a Hungarian studio was given the task of finishing up the ink and paint work. Upset by their loss of control over the film, Bluth and his directing partner Gary Goldman left the studio and accepted an offer to start a new animation studio with FOX in the U.S. Both Bluth and Goldman were so unhappy with how The Pebble and the Penguin turned out that they had their names removed from the credits.
Was MGM part of the problem? Sure. Whether their changes were needed or not, making them that late in the production schedule probably hurt the film visually. But so much is wrong with this movie that I can’t believe that these last-minute changes were the sole problem. There’s plenty of blame to go around here.
The movie can’t even get through the opening credits without running into trouble. It starts out setting the scene in Antarctica as the narrator explains how male Adelie penguins present the females they desire with pebbles as tokens of their love. If the female accept the pebble, the two become mates for life. Not the best beginning I’ve ever seen, but it’s fine. But no sooner do I get my bearings than the movie cuts to a book of sheet music entitled “The Pebble and the Penguin” sitting on a music stand. The pages open up as the credits start to run.
Starting out with the sheet music would have been okay. Skipping the sheet music entirely and just sticking to Antarctica would have been fine. But starting the story and then cutting to a movie gimmick that has nothing to do with the story is just confusing. And when I say “nothing to do with the story,” I mean “nothing to do with the story.” Eventually there are penguins cavorting around the sheet music which brings the audience back to the story after tearing them away from it for no good reason. The effect is kind of fun in places. But this isn’t Happy Feet. The actual plot has nothing to do with music. Yes, it’s a musical, but no one ever talks about singing, playing instruments, or anything that relates to making music. Music is not thematically relevant to this story. So why am I being dragged away from the narrative to look at some sheet music that has nothing to do with anything?
Once the story starts up again, we learn that our hero’s name is Hubie and – despite what you may think after reading the title – Hubie is a penguin, not a pebble. The narrator informs us that Hubie is the most romantic of penguins, which means he arranges rocks to form hearts and is in love with a girl penguin he is too shy to talk to. Through sheer clumsiness, Hubie crashes into his dream girl – the shapely Marina – and discovers that she actually likes him too. His dream within reach, Hubie searches for the perfect pebble to propose to Marina with. The search for a pebble worthy of his love seems hopeless, until and already cut gem falls from the sky and lands in front of him. Hubie rushes back to Marina with his prize, but is waylaid by a muscular penguin bully who wants Marina for himself. Hubie is sent to swim with the leopard seals and ends up far from home with no idea how to get back. He must brave thousands of miles of treacherous ocean to return to Marina before the full moon, when his chance to be with her will be gone forever.
Hubie is not a very interesting protagonist or even a very likable one. His personality is not merely dull; it’s inconsistent. Hubie starts out as your standard unlikely hero, a shy, wimpy dreamer with a stutter. His chief distinguishing features are a yellow scarf and a bright red hat that wiggles and bounces around to indicate when he is excited ot agitated. Add in a gratingly cutesy catchphrase – “Goodness glaciers!” – and you’ve got a generic animated kiddie flick hero. He has all the traditional trappings of a lovable loser, but nothing specific that makes him worth caring about or rooting for. Hubie’s blandness is irritating enough, but the movie actually goes out of its way to make Hubie genuinely unlikable. During his adventures, Hubie meets another penguin, a rockhopper creatively named Rocko. Hubie badgers Rocko into revealing his life’s goal, promising that no matter how silly it is, he won’t laugh. Rocko tells Hubie that what he wants most in the world is to fly and Hubie – an underdog character described as sweet, generous and mindful of others’ feelings who just seconds ago swore he wouldn’t laugh no matter what Rocko told him – procedes to laugh his tailfeathers off and tell Rocko to just accept that his dream is unachievable. Worse still, Hubie actually uses Rocko’s dream to exploit him. Without so much as the tiniest hesitation, Hubie makes up a story about a penguin he knows who has figured out the secret of flying. If Rocko helps the directionally challenged Hubie get back to Antarctica and Marina, Hubie claims he will introduce Rocko to the fictitious Waldo.
I was having enough trouble caring about Hubie when he was just a dull character who didn’t do much but pine for a character even more bland than him. But after he started mocking Rocko’s desire to fly and lying to him, I couldn’t see any reason why I should even like him any more, let alone care about his hopes and dreams. It’s not that I think heroes can never do anything wrong. But Hubie doesn’t do anything to indicate that this is an act of desperation, that he feels bad about lying, or that it’s remotely difficult for him to do it. Instead, he goes straight from laughing at Rocko to making up the Waldo story as he strolls down to the ocean, totally nonchalant. (How is Rocko convinced by Hubie’s story about a flying penguin when just a minute before, Hubie was telling Rocko that penguins can’t fly?) It’s not just puzzling how the shy, dreamy penguin from the beginning of the film turned into this mean-spirited con artist; it’s outright off-putting.
I think the problem is that Hubie is so nondescript that no one working on the movie had a clear idea of who Hubie is or how he might react to different situations. Beyond his deire to return to Marina, very little about Hubie is consistent. Even his stutter comes and goes randomly. The entire story is supposed to be about Hubie going home so that he can propose to his lady love and get married, which should indicate some level of maturity on Hubie’s part. Yet less than twenty minutes before the end of the movie, Hubie is pulling such infantile stunts as holding his breath until poor Rocko admits that they’re friends.
Rocko is the closest thing The Pebble and the Penguin has to an interesting and sympathetic character. He’s still more of a type than a fully developed character, but his tough guy attitude and general dislike of Hubie is refreshing in a film that is often in danger of drowning in its own syrupy sweetness. Maybe the idea was that viewers who found Hubie annoying would latch on to a character who felt the same way and learn to like Hubie as Rocko does. This might have worked if Rocko’s friendship with Hubie had evolved in a natural way. But it doesn’t. What happens is that Rocko gets justifiably angry at Hubie for being foolish or lying to him, they get into a fight, Hubie does something like make a funny noise, Rocko starts laughing, and they’re friends until the next time Hubie does something dumb. This pattern doesn’t gradually build up Rocko’s friendship with Hubie. It just repeats until it stops.
Watching Rocko, I get the feeling that I would be much more interested in a movie about him than one about Hubie. Even if he is mostly a stock character type, he has far more personality and passion than the ostensible hero. His dream of flying is more compelling than Hubie’s quest for love and could have been a lot of fun had in been moved from sideshow status to a center ring attraction. Even as a basic concept, a penguin who wants to fly sounds like a more interesting film than a penguin who wants to get married.
Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that Rocko does learn to fly! You see at the end of the movie, he… Well he figures out that…. He finally gets the hang of….
Rocko learns to fly because the movie has a happy ending and happy endings require all the good guys getting what they want, whether it makes sense or not.
Since Hubie’s beloved Marina is so underdeveloped that she might as well be named “Love Interest,” let’s move on to Drake, the villain of the piece. How do we know that Drake is the villain? His face is solid grey where the other penguins are black and white. His design is so different from the rest of the penguins that he looks like a different species. He wears a red cape. His base of operations is shaped like an open-mouthed skull and littered with the bones of…something or other. He makes fun of Hubie’s stutter. And if all that wasn’t enough, the helpful narrator tells us that Drake is “an evil penguin.” A lot of effort is put into giving Drake all the trappings of a villain, but it’s not enough to hide the fact that Drake is not an interesting villain. Hubie is such a pushover that Drake’s ability to remove him as an obstacle is not impressive. His desire to marry Marina because she is the prettiest penguin on the iceberg is nothing that hasn’t been done before. And since the story gives Drake neither leverage over Marina nor the smarts to use it, Drake is reduced to generically “kidnapping” Marina at the movie’s climax, even though there’s no explanation of how that this will result in them being married. “Boring” is not normally a word I associate with Tim Curry, who voices Drake, but the role gives him little to do beyond acting vaguely menacing. Drake has so little impact on the story that when the movie returns to him at about the halfway mark, he does nothing but deliver information that the audience already knows and ensure that they haven’t forgotten about him.
As if trying to make up for the generally dull main cast, the movie is packed with extra tertiary characters who don’t do much. Hubie has three bird buddies who aren’t penguins. Beanie is a blue bird who thinks romance is mushy and gross. The little red bird who I think is named Timmy has no discernable personality and no lines I can remember. The yellow girl bird with a pink bow thinks it’s just wonerful that Hubie is in love. If her name is ever mentioned, I didn’t catch it. Why are these characters in the movie? So that Hube can talk to someone in the beginning and so that they can tell the audience (but not Hubie) that Marina has been kidnapped towards the end. Any further details about them – what they’re doing in Antarctica, why they’re friends with Hubie, their relationships to one another – are never revealed.
After Drake tosses him to the seals, Hubie is picked up by a ship carting penguins off to be attractions in zoos. Before he encounters fellow captive Rocko, Hubie meets all manner of odd penguins: two kerchief-clad ladies, a bearded Scott with a pipe, a penguin dressed like an admiral permanently situated behind a picture frame, a penguin in a Hawaiian shirt, and a bizarre looking bird with his wing in a cast. It’s fine to suggest that background characters have their own lives beyond the story being told. But these creatively garbed penguins are a distraction. Their odd appearances raise questions that are never answered. Additionally, Drake has a trio of goofy looking penguin flunkies who never do anything, but is later seen in the company of a pair of sinister seagulls who also don’t do anything. Again, the audience is confused as characters appear, disappear, and call attention to themselves even though they have little to no place in the story.
Now the brief appearances of these various birds could be due to the changes that MGM demanded. But more time spent on these characters wouldn’t help either. This movie needs stronger leads characters, not more well-rounded extras.
Where would a 90s Disney clone be without songs? Barry Manilow, who also worked on Bluth’s Thumbelina, provides musical numbers that range from the forgettable to the grating. I admit I was amused by parts of “The Good Ship Misery,” but it’s a pointless song. The penguins sing about their horrible experiences as passengers travelling the ocean by boat. But when Rocko proposes a jailbreak, everyone buy Hubie turns him down and one penguin actually suggests that the zoo they are likely heading to sounds like a pretty good deal. Hubie’s problem is that the ship is taking him away from Marina, not that the voyage will be a miserable trip. Drake’s villain song is by-the-numbers boring and everything else is treacly pap with lyrics like “I will know when, Gwynne/’Cause it’s not the pebble, it’s the pen-guin.”
Animation may have been the area most affected by MGM’s late-in-production demands. But again, the film’s visual problem go much deeper than a time crunch could explain. The character designs are as bland as the characters themselves and mostly forcibly cute. Hubie even sports long, wavy eyelashes. The characters are more easily distinguished by their clothing than they are by their movements or mannerisms. The fact that these characters are penguins has almost no baring on how they move. There is some nice animation of them leaping through the water. But when Hubie occasionally walks like a real penguin – waddling with his arms stretched out and back – it makes as much sense as a person doing it. There’s no attempt to make the gesture feel natural or connect it to Hubie’s personality. At one point, the animators even neglect to put a smile on Drake face when he laughs.
There is one scene where The Pebble and the Penguin hearkens bark to the days of better, more ambitious Don Bluth animation. Towards the end of the film, Hubie and Rocko are pursued by a pod of killer whales. Though anyone rooting for the whales to actually eat Hubie is probably old enough to know it won’t happen, the whales are genuinely frightening and well drawn. The dark, stormy sky and nicely animated wine-dark sea add to the intensity of the scene. The animators were clearly inspired by Monstro from Pinocchio, though it’s an inspiration that unfortunately leads to one of the scene’s weaker points. One of the whales makes a 180 degree turn in a very direct nod to Monstro doing the same thing. The original is old enough that the reference is an homage rather than a ripoff. But the orca’s motion looks weak in comparison to Monstro’s. The sense of weight – of a tractor trailer pulling a u-turn at high speed in deep water – is lost. Still, the menace of the whales is a reminder of the studio that wanted to make animation that could be dark, scary, and not just for kids, even if it’s an all too brief reminder.
The Pebble and the Penguin is transparently formulaic. The characters never grow past the simplest of archetypes. With so little specificity or individuality, they move through a dull, familiar story without giving the audience a reason to care about what they’re doing. Almost from the get-go, it’s clear that this is a movie trying to please a target audience by relying on concepts that were successful in previous animated movies. Neither copying another studio’s formula nor making an original movie that appeals to the filmmakers themselves is a proven path to financial success, but the latter kind of movie is usually far more interesting to watch. The Pebble and the Penguin is a weak, forgettable film where the penguins are so uninteresting that they really do deserve second billing to a pebble.
All images in this article are copyright MGM.