'The Pebble and the Penguin' is a stone's throw from worthless


Greenpeace should protest the new Don Bluth film.

It's not bad enough that penguins have to dodge killer whales and seals. "The Pebble and the Penguin" makes them sing and dance to Barry Manilow tunes.

Creators of the animated musical take a charming mating ritual of Antarctica's Adelie penguins and turn it into a sappy action romance.

At mating time, the male Adelie presents a pebble to a female penguin of his choice. If she accepts the stony present, they mate for life.

Screenwriters Rachel Koretsky and Steve Whitestone ("The Bears Who Saved Christmas") saw a nature documentary about the pebble rite and stretched it like strudel into a chaotic buddy movie.

The cast of feathered characters includes the shy Adelie penguin Hubie (voice of Martin Short); Rocko (Jim Belushi), a grumpy Rockhopper penguin who yearns to fly; and Marina (Annie Golden), a sweet female penguin beloved by Hubie and pursued by fierce Hawk (Tim Curry).

Reportedly, animators boned up on penguins, watching documentaries and visiting zoos, such as San Diego's Sea World and Scotland's Glasgow Zoo. And several kinds, including an Emperor penguin, are represented, mostly in cages aboard a dismal tub that prompts a lively seafaring tune.

Penguins seem prime candidates for animation: They're natural comedians in tails. But Hubie behaves like a dodo, Marina has a wasp waist, and Hawk looks like a cross between the Big Bad Wolf and the ugly half of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."

In promotional material, the animators say they discovered the land of snow and ice shines with many hues. But most of the action takes place in dark, forbidding settings reminiscent of the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment of "Fantasia."

The voice actors do their part. "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Short bumbles as bashful Hubie. Few can play irascible/needy like Mr. Belushi, and Ms. Golden, remembered as Cliff's love interest on "Cheers," sings sweetly. Mr. Curry, who made his film debut as Dr. Frank N. Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," roars with menace.

But you don't leave whistling the original songs, such as "Now and Forever," "Don't Make Me Laugh" and "Sometimes I Wonder" by Mr. Manilow and lyricist Bruce Sussman, his longtime collaborator.

Except for "The Good Ship Misery," one of only two scenes augmented by computer animation, the numbers sound a lot alike.

For a G-rated film, there's no shortage of gnashing teeth, scary chases and female-in-jeopardy scenes. At moments, it appears as if this romantic Pablum might take off. But mostly, like its namesakes, "The Pebble and the Penguin" is a rocky, flightless bird.


Animated feature

Starring the voices of Martin Short, James Belushi

Released by MGM

Rated G (scary chase scenes)

* 1/2

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