Animated April, Retrospective Review: Thumbelina

By Bianca Garner

I must have been four years old when I first watched Don Bluth‘s and Gary Goldman‘s adaptation of “Thumbelina”, it was probably one of the first films I actually saw at the cinema (or at least one of the first ones that I can recall seeing). Although I can’t really recall whether I enjoyed the film as a child, there are certain aspects of it that I can still remember to this day.

Watching it all these years later at the age of thirty, I can safely say that “Thumbelina” is not a good movie. I’m not alone in this thought as the film has only 30% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. In his review, Roger Ebert gave it two stars and wrote “It is difficult to imagine anyone over the age of 12 finding much to enjoy in “Thumbelina.” To be honest, I think anyone over the age of four would struggle to find much enjoyment out of this film.

thumbelina mother

Produced by Don Bluth Ireland Ltd., “Thumbelina” was the first in a series of Box Office Bombs for Bluth, earning just $11.3 million against a budget of $28 million. Rather than being a straightforward copy and paste adaptation of the classic fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, Bluth and Goldman’s “Thumbelina” focuses too heavily on the aspect of true love, and has Thumbelina being reduced to a passive damsel in distress who is subjected to kidnapping, ridicule and forced marriage.

The backbone of the plot is similar to the tale written in 1835; an old woman (voiced by Barbara Cook) yearning for a child asks a witch for advice, only to receive a barleycorn which she plants. From the flower, a tiny girl, Thumbelina (voiced by Jodi Benson) emerges.

thumb flower

While Thumbelina loves her mother, she craves companionship from someone her own size. One night, the fairy prince Cornelius (Gary Imhoff) stumbles upon Thumbelina after hearing her beautiful singing. The two take a ride on Cornelius’ bumblebee and in typical ‘Disney’ movie fashion, they instantly fall in love.

However, unknown to Thumbelina, during the ride, Mrs. Toad (voiced by Charo) and her son Grundel ( voiced by Joe Lynch) become enchanted by Thumbelina’s singing. Grundel instantly becomes besotted with Thumbelina, and Mrs. Toad makes the promise to kidnap her.

thumb birdd

Cornelius promises to return the next day, but that night, Mrs. Toad kidnaps Thumbelina. After the toads leave Thumbelina alone on a lily pad to fetch a priest, she is rescued by Jacquimo (voiced by Gino Conforti), a swallow who is infatuated with complicated love stories and encourages Thumbelina to return home. However, this proves easier said than done and Thumbelina’s path crosses with the likes of the slimy Berkeley Beetle (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) who wants her to sing in his club and the seemingly kind Ms. Field Mouse (voiced by Carol Channing) who persuades Thumbelina to marry her friend Mr. Mole (voiced by John Hurt).

“Thumbelina” is deeply problematic, especially in terms of its gender representation. The character of Thumbelina in the fairytale is consdierably more proactive compared to the Thumbelina we see in the animated film. When she is left on the lily pad and nearly drowns, Thumbelina is completely helpless relying on Jacquimo and the other creatures to save her. The Thumbelina in Hans Christian Anderson’s story manages to take off her girdle and tie it around a passing butterfly so she can fly away from the danger.

thumb original

“Thumbelina” is deeply problematic, especially in terms of its gender representation. The character of Thumbelina in the fairytale is consdierably more proactive compared to the Thumbelina we see in the animated film.”

The Thumbelina from the story also spends a considerable amount of time living on her own in the forest where we are told: “She wove herself a bed with blades of grass, and hung it up under a broad leaf, to protect herself from the rain. She sucked the honey from the flowers for food, and drank the dew from their leaves every morning.” It’s a shame that we don’t see this resourceful aspect to Thumbelina in the film, and what we are presented with is an underdeveloped character whose only attributes is her beauty and her talent for singing.

Thumbelina is presented to us as this small, delicate creature with long auburn hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and she’s often dressed in flowering skirts aside from one scene where we see her in a red pantsuit. She’s often presented in a submissive, obedient manner, take this screenshot with her and Berkely Beetle for instance; here we see Thumbelina clutching her arm while Berkley uses his cane to force her to look at him.


The male characters often comment on her appearance or her singing, when Berkely Beetle first meets her he tells her “don’t talk, just sing” and even Cornelius is drawn to her by her singing and beauty. Thumbelina isn’t given anything other aspects to her personality to make her interesting, she’s presented to us as fragile and clumsy relying on others to assist her. It’s a shame that she isn’t given more to do. Even Diane E. Levitan for The Harvard Crimson comments that “Thumbelina herself seems unable to stay focused for more than a couple of seconds” while Jodi Benson’s ” voice brings life to Thumbelina’s giggling, almost Barbie-like appearance.

The presentation of the other female characters aside from Thumbelina is also problematic. Mrs. Toad is very curvaceous with a thin waist a largely exaggerated bosom. In fact, the toads are all deeply problematic in the way they are presented as Spanish-speaking sterotypes. The other female characters, Thumbelina’s mother and Ms. Field Mouse are all presented in a not so flattering light, with Ms. Field Mouse being shown as gold-digger who encourages Thumbelina to marry for money and the mother character being underdeveloped and forgotten by the plot.

mrs toad

Watching the film now, I find it a little disheartening that at the same time this as being made, Disney had released “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” all of which featured more active female characters who propelled the story forward through their actions. While those three films do have their own issues with gender representation, at least the filmmakers were attempting to modernise the fairytales.

There’s so much to desconstruct within the fairytale itself, and I would hope these aspects become translated to the big-screen, but sadly this isn’t the case wth the 1994 movie. According to folklorist Maria Tatar, the character of “Thumbelina” and her story is a runaway bride story and notes that it has been viewed as an allegory about arranged marriages. None of this comes across on the screen, in the original story Thumbelina doesn’t meet the fairies until the end of her adventure and decides to marry the fairy prince as she reconginses he’s just like her. This is an important moment as she finally makes her own decision.

thumbelia ending

There’s definintely room for improvement for the story of Thumbelina. “Thumbelina” is now a Disney property, and I think this would be a fantastic opportunity for Disney to make a live-action remake of the story. There’s so much you can do with this tale and the character of Thumbelina. Let’s see her in this world trying to adapt and overcome the obstacle of being small.

2 stars


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