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“I’m always the bride, and never the bridesmaid.”
– Our heroine’s fourth wall-leaning lament
The idea of tiny people going on huge adventures is nothing new in fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen took most of his inspiration for today’s story from the seventeenth-century English tale of Tom Thumb, but his own flourishes make Thumbelina a slightly original creation. It was published in 1835 as part of the second fairy tale collection Andersen released that year, which included The Princess and the Pea. It received the same criticisms, namely the lack of clear morals, informal chatty nature and passive characters. Discouraged, Andersen returned to novel writing for a full year before trying his hands at fairy tales again.
Now, it’s no secret that Andersen used most of his stories to vent his own insecurities and frustrations. Thumbelina is no exception, though he’s a bit subtler about it this time around. It’s been theorized that Thumbelina’s platonic relationship with the swallow was a “distant tribute” to a confidante named Henriette Wuff, though there’s little evidence to support it. There’s also the beetle who admires Thumbelina’s beauty but changes its tune when he shows her off to his fellow bugs and they deem her “ugly”; an on-the-nose critique of his fickle audience if ever there was one. What’s certain, however, is that while studying in Slagelse, Zealand, Andersen was tutored by a short, stout, balding, contemptuous classics teacher named Simon Meisling who frequently abused his pupil. “You’re a stupid boy who will never make it,” he once berated him in front of the entire class. Meisling is all but confirmed to be the inspiration for the odious Mole, which proves the adage of never pissing off the writer.
Then there’s the story’s lesson, which is…complicated. On the one hand, Thumbelina bouncing around from one miserable suitor of differing species to another until she finds someone exactly like her can come across as “stick to your own kind”, which borders on yikes. On the other, when Thumbelina finally meets her fairy prince, she’s not pressed into marrying him. She chooses to marry him. Thumbelina is really a story about a woman running away from futures she has no say in to charter her own course in life, an empowering message for women in Andersen’s time – and even today, when put in the right hands.
It all starts when a kindly spinster gets visited by a beggar woman seeking handouts. The lady shares her meager supper with her. In return, the beggar (who is really a good witch in disguise) offers to grant her deepest wish: to have a child.
The witch gives her benefactor a barley seed, saying that all she has to do is plant it and she’ll have her child. The seed blossoms into a full-size tulip overnight. The woman kisses the petals, and out pops a miniature Carrie Fisher.
Recognizing the girl is no bigger than her thumb, the woman calls her new daughter Thumbelina. Not the best or most creative name to be sure, but can you imagine what she’d be called if she were the size of her index finger or pinky?
Thumbelina is a kind and intelligent young woman with a lovely voice to match. Her mother warns her that such gifts can also be curses, and Thumbelina takes it upon herself to become more than just a pretty face. She and her mother bond over reading together and expanding Thumbelina’s education. But one night a nasty Toad creeps outside her window and AAAHHHHH!!
Mother Toad is in the market for a daughter-in-law and thinks Thumbelina would make a good match for her son Herman. Rather than cart off the matchbox bed with her sleeping quarry inside it, she tosses Thumbelina over her shoulder and carries her away like a sack of potatoes. How the girl doesn’t wake up from being jostled around like that I have no idea. She’s either a hell of a heavy sleeper or on some heavy druuuuu–
Nope. Not gonna go there. It’s low-hanging fruit and fruit that’s in overall bad taste to begin with. First person who makes such a joke in the comments gets a boot to the head, understand?
Mother Toad drops Thumbelina off on a lily pad and introduces the frightened girl to her future husband. Thumbelina makes it clear that she’s not interested (plus Herman acts like a total creep), but the toads won’t take no for an answer. They leave her to familiarize herself with the family photo album while they prepare the wedding. Thumbelina takes one look at the pictures and cries “I can’t marry into this family, they’re all green!”
She throws away the album, which accidentally hits two…barrister fish?
The barrister fish (barrister-cudas?) aren’t happy with having the book thrown at them for a change, but they sympathize with Thumbelina once she tells her story. Recognizing that a marriage based on kidnapping isn’t morally or legally sound, they decide to do her a solid. They chew through the lily pad stem, setting her sail downstream. Being a resourceful young lady, Thumbelina rows to shore with a cattail and builds a shelter out of foliage. She survives well enough on her own until winter comes. Luckily, a kindly field mouse rescues her from the cold and invites her to stay in his underground home until they can locate her mother.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, the field mouse is in love with Thumbelina as well.
What, you don’t believe me? The mouse doesn’t explicitly state his feelings but everything about his scenes with her paints them in an awkward amorous light. The lingering looks between them, the subtle swell of violins, the thoughtful glances to the side, not to mention how he acts whenever Mole is involved, I can’t be the only one seeing this, right?
Shortly after settling in, the field mouse takes Thumbelina to visit his friend Mr. Mole. Mole’s a wealthy antiquarian who’s instantly charmed by the young woman. On this occasion he’s prepared an ancient Roman-style luncheon where they recline on throw pillows around his little tea party. Thumbelina’s made to constantly lean over to fetch this and that for the two animals which turns into a game of Twister and she winds up face-first in a plate of powdered donuts.
No, no! Stop it! I will NOT resort to the obvious joke, you hear me Faerie Tale Theatre?! You should be ashamed of yourself for even putting in this gag when you know damn well that Carrie was balls-deep into narcotics by the time this episode was filmed! How dare you?? How FUCKING dare you?!
Thumbelina laments that a meal served at a table and chairs shows much more progress in dining, without realizing that the word ‘progress’ is Mole’s berserk button. He furiously launches into a…song? He doesn’t so much sing as speak in rhyme to the rhythm of some spontaneous music and it’s one of the stranger highlights of this series. Behold (starts at the time code):
By the by, this is the only real song in the episode. Thumbelina does sing a bit for her mother and with the swallow later, but they’re more like background tunes she’s singing to herself as she works instead of actual musical numbers. It makes Mole’s staged song appear the fuck out of nowhere by comparison. Also, “Progress”, or so the tune is called, is all about how wonderful the unenlightened past was until modern notions ruined everything, and now I’m worried Mole is going to start spouting Tucker Carlson’s bullshit at any moment.
In private, Mole tells the field mouse that he’s already got the hots for Thumbelina and wants to marry her. The field mouse tells him to give her some time to come around (though nothing will convince me that he’s not subtly telling Mole to back off his girl). Mole escorts Thumbelina and the field mouse home by way of his new tunnel where they encounter a frozen swallow who fell through the ceiling. Troubled by the poor bird being left to suffer, Thumbelina sneaks out that night and tends to him.
So Thumbelina falls into the routine of tidying the field mouse’s house by day, taking care of the swallow by night, and studying classics with Mole on the weekends. All in all, she’s got it pretty good. When spring arrives and the swallow is fully healed, he asks Thumbelina to leave with him and look for her mother together. She feels guilty about suddenly abandoning the field mouse after all he’s done for her, though, and politely declines. The swallow says he’ll be back again in autumn if she changes her mind.
Unfortunately for Thumbelina, once she returns to the mouse’s abode he springs some bad news: he’s finally given Mole his permission to marry her. Thumbelina isn’t enthusiastic about marrying a mole, let alone one three times her age. In fact, the only person less thrilled about the engagement than Thumbelina is the field mouse. He doesn’t act at all happy when he’s pouring a toast and downs his drink like he’s trying to drown his sorrows. His insistence on her marrying Mole seems like a last desperate attempt at keeping her from leaving him, and his passive-aggressive comments about how good a husband Mole would be and how he’s trying to provide for her future are part of the mask he throws on.
Mole and the field mouse set the wedding for the fall and make preparations for the ceremony, oblivious to Thumbelina’s mounting unhappiness. Day after day she steals away to the only hole where sunlight comes through to catch a glimpse of the outside world. The dreaded day arrives far too quickly, and Mole is ecstatic that soon he and Thumbelina will spend the rest of their lives “spoonin’ in the gloomin'”.
Thumbelina asks for a moment alone to meditate on the impending nuptials. Mole, in his euphoric state, doesn’t think twice about her request and lets her go into the tunnels. While the field mouse also agrees, something about the sad slow way he waves to her as she eagerly departs says that he knows what she’s up to, and won’t be seeing her again. As Thumbelina takes in the sun for what she believes is the last time, the swallow hears her singing and returns to her. She leaves behind the underground for good and happily flies away on the swallow’s back.
The swallow takes her south to warmer climates as it’s too cold to go search for her mother. They land in a field of colorful flowers in the shadow of an abandoned palace where the swallow nests. Thumbelina makes herself at home in a bright red posy, but it’s already occupied by William, Prince of the Flower Angels (Andersen had a thing for sticking angels in his stories, but here they’re basically fairies in all but name). Despite a rocky introduction, William and Thumbelina are almost immediately taken with each other. Time passes and the two are sharing their first romantic dance together amongst the other Flower Angels.
William proposes to her as they dance. Thumbelina says she’s only known him a few hours – wait a minute, it’s only been a few hours?? She’s seriously considering marrying him after having met him that day?! She may not have wanted to marry Mole or even the field mouse, but at least she had time to develop a proper relationship with them before they approached the topic of marriage. Thumbelina is disturbingly on board with the idea, but deep down she must be wondering why she can’t keep guys away from her for five gddamn minutes.
Thumbelina informs William that she can’t marry anyone without her mother’s consent. He takes it as a challenge and she agrees to marry him at the next full moon if he can find and obtain her mother’s blessing by then. Time passes and no luck such luck for William. He recruits the swallow to help in his search, bequeathing him a scarf made of fireflies’ warmth to survive the winter chill. The swallow finds Thumbelina’s mom, but she can’t understand him and would rather stare doe-eyed at her oversized tulip all day long. Undeterred, William, Thumbelina and the swallow pull a little magical Inception and give her directions to the Flower Angels’ kingdom in her dreams.
Thumbelina remarks to William the following morning that she had the strangest dream the other night where she and her mother dreamed of each other…so did William pull the same Inception whammy on her too? And he refuses to say how he did it, so is he gaslighting her? You sure you don’t want to rethink your marriage to this guy, Thumbelina? Regardless, her mom shows up and a grand wedding is held. Thumbelina even gets her own pair of wings so she and William can fly together. And everyone lives happily ever after.
This is a decent retelling of Thumbelina, though I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Most of its charm comes from its leading lady, who gives the character an independent spirit and perceptive mind that is sorely lacking in most other adaptations (rest in peace Carrie Fisher). The rest of the cast is fine, I appreciate the effort put into the animal puppetry and makeup (even if some of it is horrifying) and there’s technically nothing wrong with the plot or pacing, but I’d be lying if I said the story of a woman being pressured to marry a bunch of creepy creatures feels remarkably different as an adult than it did when I was a child and leave it at that.
- William isn’t my favorite iteration of the fairy prince (frankly the only version of the character who’s ever come close to being interesting and likable is Mario from the Happily Ever After episode) but I’ll give him this, he doesn’t make Thumbelina change her name when they meet and get married unlike the others.
- The photo album Thumbelina looks through has pictures of actual frogs in it (with the exception of “Little Herman’s Graduation”).
- Herman is only capable of croaking (which sounds more like deep belches) and barely saying a few words, which does nothing to endear him.
- Green screen is utilized whenever Carrie is pretending to be on the same set as her giant mother or when she’s traveling through the forest. The former is pretty noticeable, but the greenery in the latter disguises the edges a bit better. What I can’t forgive is the intro with Shelley Duvall chroma-keyed into the set of the Mole’s house when she could have easily just been filmed standing in it.
- One question Thumbelina asks her mother during one of their lessons gets a chuckle out of me: “If we all grew out of a primal soup like Mr. Darwin says, how did there come to be yaks?” It’s the randomness of the line that sells it.
- When wishing her mother good night, Thumbelina adds “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!” The thought of bed bugs in this world must be terrifying since Thumbelina’s just small enough that they could probably kill her with one bite. Plus, I have to wonder if that’s a shout-out to the superficial insect squad that was cut from this adaptation.
- One of the songs Thumbelina sings with the Swallow is “Home in the Meadow”, which her mother Debbie Reynolds sang in How The West Was Won.
Hey, Was That…: Prince William is Tommy Ross and The Greatest American Hero himself, William Katt (must have a thing for girls named Carrie). Mr. Mole is played by Burgess Meredith. The field mouse is John Pielmeier, whose writing credits on IMDB are far longer than his acting credits. Thumbelina’s Mother is Conchata Ferrell, who’s best known as Peach the Starfish from Finding Nemo and the housekeeper from Two And A Half Men. Donovan Scott, who we last saw in Goldilocks and the Three Bears plays Herman Toad. Character actress and comedienne Lu Leonard plays Mother Toad. Mitchel Young Evans and Gary Schwartz, character actor/puppeteer and voice actor respectively, play the barrister fish. Maryedith Burrell, in addition to playing the beggar woman, also wrote this episode. Stan Wilson and David McCharen, who voice and puppeteer the Swallow respectively, both appeared in the Popeye movie (Popeye connections strike again, baby!) David Hemmings, respected English actor, narrates the episode. Composer Robert Folk returns to do the music. To his credit the score for this episode is pretty nice; “Progress”, not so much. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is the visionary behind many music videos for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, and captured iconic concerts of Simon & Garfunkel and The Who on film.
Who’s The Artist?: George Cruikshank, famed British illustrator who created artwork for many of Charles Dickens’ novels.
Better Or Worse Than…?: Like many 90s kids, I grew up with Don Bluth’s Thumbelina, but it unfortunately hasn’t aged well (though that’s a full review in and of itself). The short from Soyuzmultfilm is quite nicely animated, and Happily Ever After’s take, which moves the story and characters to the Amazon Rainforest, is a lot of fun. My favorite Thumbelina, however, will always be the 1978 anime version by Toei Animation and Tezuka Productions (not to be confused with the anime “Thumbelina: A Magical Story”). It’s not the best animated or dubbed, but I loved it when I was a kid. It has a couple of cute songs, a Thumbelina who goes out and forges her own destiny in the name of love, and her animal suitors aren’t horny weirdos but rather lonely individuals who realize she wouldn’t be happy stuck with them and set her free. They even get their own happy endings too, which is nice. It’s worth a watch just to laugh at how silly the anime tropes and bad dubbing are, but it’s still a very sweet little movie with its own set of charms. It’s certainly better than the one unceremoniously dumped in the middle of certain versions of “Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny” by master auteur Barry Mahon. The only way I can ever recommend it to anyone is if you watch the Rifftrax version.
Ranking: Like the episode before it, Thumbelina gets a lot of mileage from its lead actress but little else, yet manages to be one of the better iterations of the story thanks to the majority of the adaptations not being very well done. It gets the Number Six spot between The Nightingale and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre: Magic Mirror on the wall, need I ask who’s the Fairest One of All? It’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
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