A Troll In Central Park

Director: Don Bluth & Gary Goldman   
Dom DeLuise, Cloris Leachman, Jonathan Pryce

Over the years running The Unknown Movies web site, I have strived to cover as many different genres of movies as I possibly can. Not only that, within each genre I try to divide into many different examples of the genre. One of those genres when I have done just that has been the animation genre. I have an interest in animated movies, so I've tried to cover as many different examples of unknown animated movies as I possibly can. I've covered Japanese animation with Amon Saga and Barefoot Gen. I've covered the Rankin/Bass studio with The Flight Of Dragons and The Last Unicorn. I've looked at animation created behind the Iron Curtain with Hugo The Hippo and Cat City. Then there's kiddie animation, with Pinocchio In Outer Space and Tweety's High Flying Adventure. Also, I've covered a couple of examples of extremely bizarre animated movies (Raggedy Ann And Andy: A Musical Adventure and Titanic: The Animated Movie.) And one guest reviewer provided me with an example of "adults only" animation with Once Upon A Girl. With this review of A Troll In Central Park, I am adding yet another kind of unknown animated movie, this one being an example of the animation that has come from Don Bluth. "What?" you are probably saying. "Don Bluth, who is well known for movies like The Land Before Time, has made an animated movie that can be considered to be unknown?" It may be hard to believe, but it's true. The story leading up to its making is a somewhat sad story, one of achieving greatness then slowly going downhill more and more until hitting the bottom, a story which I'll tell in the next paragraph.

It took a while for Bluth to make his way into directing animated features. He started as an animator at the Disney studio in the 1950s, and over the next twenty years or so worked his way up to roles like directing animator and producer. Then in 1979, Bluth and several other Disney animators left Disney in a highly publicized walkout. Bluth complained to the press, "We felt like we were animating the same picture over and over again with just the faces changed a little." Bluth then founded his own animation company, and a few years later they released their first feature, The Secret Of NIMH. It was only a mild success at the box office, but Bluth got serious notice when his company animated the wildly popular arcade game Dragon's Lair. Steven Spielberg then came calling, and with major studio support Bluth made An American Tail and The Land Before Time, both of which grossed enough at the box office to seriously rival Disney's animated offerings at the time. But this was Bluth's peak - it was downhill from there. For some reason, Bluth made his next feature animated films without Spielberg or major studio support, making them independently. All Dogs Go To Heaven, Rock-A-Doodle, Thumbelina, and The Pebble And The Penguin were all major financial and critical failures, and more than one critic pointed out the irony that they were like Disney at its worst. He got a temporary boost with the mid success of Anastasia, made for 20th Century-Fox's new animation studio, but when his subsequent movie for them, Titan A.E,. bombed, Fox closed its animation studio, leaving Bluth on his own again. His only subsequent work to date has been with some unofficial work on the animated short film Gift Of The Hoopoe, which has yet to be released in North America.

A Troll In Central Park was one of the other movies Bluth made in his lengthy free fall from Spielberg and major studio backing. Why haven't you heard of it before? Well, it's because it was given very little publicity and because it was barely released to theaters. From what I read A Troll In Central Parkin an article in Variety magazine at the time, Warner Brothers, possibly due to the fact that Bluth's previous movie, Thumbelia (which they also distributed) did so badly, they decided to cut their losses and wash their hands of Bluth. They only released A Troll In Central Park in a few theaters to fulfil their contractual agreement to give the movie some kind of theatrical release. To add insult to injury, years later they decided not to renew their distribution deal with Bluth for the two movies, which explains why another studio has released them on DVD. Was there justification in Warner Brothers' decisions? Well first, I'll tell you the plot of A Troll In Central Park. In another world, specifically in land of the trolls, there is one troll named Stanley (voiced by DeLuise) who is much different than others of his kind. He literally has a green thumb, a thumb with a simple touch that can bring flowers and other plants to even the dark and dismal troll kingdom, which infuriates Gnorga (voiced by Leachman), the queen of the troll kingdom. She then banishes Stanley to a place supposedly free of green stuff - New York City. After some initial struggles in his new environment, Stanley settles in a secret cave under a Central Park bridge, and starts using his green thumb to beautify his new home. He also makes friends with a very young human brother and sister duo. But when Gnorga finds out that Stanley is having a great time in his new home - and seeing that the boy of Stanley's two new human friends could make a great troll, Gnorgra decides to pay Stanley and the city of New York a visit...

After watching A Troll In Central Park, I got a better idea as to why Warner Brothers didn't have faith in this movie. There are a number of reasons why this movie would not attract a wide audience, though I'll get to then a little later in this review; first I will list some things that I did like about the movie, enough things that show why this can't be really considered a bad movie, but just as an unsuccessful one. First, the voice casting is spot on. DeLuise gives Stanley an attitude with a giggle in it, giving the character a lot of warmth and likability. Leachman has a lot of fun growling and gnashing her teeth as the troll queen, careful to not go too far and make her character cruel instead of amusingly evil. DeLuise also gets the chance to sing the charming song "Absolutely Green" (which you can listen to here) and Leachman gets the infectious song "Queen Of Mean" (which you can watch here). I will admit the two other songs in the movie are kind of blah, but at least the rest of the movie's music (from the Robert Folk score) is pleasant to the ears. As for the art of the movie, it appears that at this point, Bluth had learned his lesson about the dark and dreary look of some of his other movies, because most of this movie has colors that shine brightly from both the backgrounds and what is animated. As for the animation technique of the movie, it isn't quite up to what Disney was making at the time - the fluidity of movement here is just several steps above what TV animation had to offer in the same period - but when you consider Bluth was working independently and with a lot less money than a Disney movie, the movement of things for the most part looks pretty darn good under those circumstances.

I think what I enjoyed most about this movie was its gentle pace and spirit. So many family movies made today are so loud and in-you-face, that I found the peace and quiet here so charming and welcome. Even if your child has been weaned on more aggressive cartoons, he or she may fall under the movie's tranquil spell.... though this will happen a lot more likely if he or she is a young child. The older your child is, the more flaws in the movie he or she will start seeing, so you can imagine how much an adult, who happens to also be a movie critic, will be listing that's wrong with the movie. Let me backtrack to the art of the movie. While Bluth may have made the characters move well, there are some sloppy things about the art that will be noticeable to even adults who are not animation experts. Take the character of Stanley, for example. In some scenes, he's small enough to hide in a salad bowl full of salad. Yet in some other scenes, he's suddenly big enough that the top of his head reaches the neck of a child he befriends that's about five years old. A number of other times, bad continuity like that happens in the same scene, such as when an acorn changes size from one shot to the next, or in another scene where Gnorga's lips suddenly change color. There are also some unbelievable gross mistakes like when Stanley crosses a busy New York street, and the traffic on both sides is animated and directed so that each side the vehicles are on the left side of the street. Speaking of the direction, there are moments not with real mistakes, but smack of laziness. One scene has Stanley growing some flowers that start to dance. Instead of using Disney-like techniques of swooping cameras and mulitiple angles, Bluth adds nothing to the scene, making no cuts and not moving the viewpoint at all. The flowers do their dull-looking dance with no energy or spirit coming from them as a result.

I had other problems with Bluth's direction, like why he designed the other trolls to have dark skin, warts, and sizable builds, while Stanley is considered a troll despite being Caucasian, no warts, and being much smaller. Couldn't Stanley look like the other trolls? It would teach audiences that it's the heart of someone that matters, not how they look. Anyway, it is possible that even with the sometimes questionable direction, as well as the often poor continuity, I could have still enjoyed A Troll In Central Park. But the movie fails in the way that many other animated movies have failed, and that's with the script. Good writing can make up for clumsy animation and direction, but if you don't care about the characters or the situation, even classy animation and direction can't save the production. It only takes the opening ten minutes of the movie for the script to make its first missteps. In those ten minutes, taking place in the troll kingdom, Stanley is barely shown to be a troll who likes to grow flowers before he's captured, put on trial, and exiled to New York. We haven't learned anything else about him, so it's hard to get involved with his plight. (It doesn't help that we learn in the same time almost nothing about queen Gnorga and her politics, or why she feels those politics.) Character development gets worse from that point, with things like one of the two children Stanley befriends being about two years old and unable to say much. (And her older brother is pretty much a one-note character, unable to react to even walking and singing flowers.) Later on, we hear about other trolls becoming good, but we don't see this. Economy like this explains why the movie lasts barely 70 minutes if you don't count the credits. Still, this brief running time makes the movie a good fit with the short attention spans of many young children. They probably won't also mind all those script problems, and find the movie to be cute, colorful, and reassuring. Adults who are dragged into watching this movie with their children will probably think otherwise, but I think they'll agree that as flawed as the movie is, it has its moments and could have been a lot worse.

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See also: Elves, The Last Unicorn, Troll 2