Other titles: The Princess and the Magic Mirror, Meñique y el espejo mágico (original)
This movie not technically a thumbling story. It’s a thumbling story insofar as Le Petit Poucet is. Here, Meñique, or Tom Little, is extremely short, about half the height of anyone else. It comes from the fairytale “Meñique,” published by Jose Martí in La edad de oro in 1889. Since then, it has become something of a cultural touchstone in Cuba. A very small peasant boy finds magical tools, defeats a troll, and marries a princess. Basic stuff.
It’s actually Martí’s translation of a tale called “Poucinet,” published in French in 1864. And that tale was based on a Finnish story. I haven’t found the original, but it seems to be a mashup of “Boots and his Brothers” and “Boots Who Made the Princess Say 'That’s a Story.”
This movie was Cuba’s first ever full-length CG animated movie, and they had to basically make it up as they went, because they didn’t have access to other countries’ technology. That cuts this movie a little slack, but not enough, because it is just plain bad by any standard you try to hold it to. I wonder if they just jumped into too much too soon.
On to the story. It takes place in this really weird fairytale world that sometimes has highly advanced technology.
It begins with some landscapes and music that are actually pretty nice. Then we see the city at night, where a thief clad in a skin-tight purple outfit is crossing rooftops, stealing gold and distributing it to poor families Robin Hood-style. Anyway, when she flees from some guards, she drops a compact mirror into a peasant’s cart.
The peasant—Tom Little’s brother, Peter—travels home and we see a little of the odd fairytale kingdom, which is home to fairies, a sea monster, a fire-breathing dragon, giant spiders, and so on. The pacing so far is very slow. (Is that Don Quixote?)
The cart approaches a tiny house in the middle of a desert. We learn via infodump/guy shouting at a portrait that the three brothers are destitute after their father’s death, and Paul blames Tom for convincing their father not to sell the farm when it was still worth money. We see that Tom is walking around on mechanical stilts, singing and tending the farm with the help of cute little animals.
Tom tries to cheer everyone up, saying that they’ll soon have luck with the farm. Suddenly crops sprout from the field. Hurray! … wut? Then a cloud of bugs flies in and devours the whole thing in seconds. What? What just happened?
Apparently this is a plague that’s forcing them to move on, but that was still a bizarre turn of events.
Back to the city, where the greedy King is taking a bath in gold coins (which msut be painful). His advisor and nephew – my notes read “who I thought was a woman but may not be”– accompanies him everywhere. When the King’s daughter, Princess Denise, asks for money for some new outfits, the king lies that he’s too low on funds. The conversation turns to her future husband. Her mother gave her a “soulmate mirror” that she wants to use; however, the king secretly doesn’t plan to let the princess choose her own husband.
In her room, the princess has a 2D-animated daydream of meeting her knight in shining armor and saving him with a hang glider. However, upon looking for her mirror, she realizes to her horror that it’s missing.
Of course, we already know that it’s at Tom’s house. When he’s moping outside that night, he finds it and it begins to speak in an incredibly annoying squeaky voice peppered with French phrases. I can’t stress how annoying this thing is. It shows him a hologram of the princess, his true love (how convenient that it ended up with him).
Meanwhile, the king’s nephew is approached by a green-skinned, broom-riding witch. It turns out she’s his mother, the king’s sister-in-law, who’s returned from the dead with new powers. (I sense some backstory here, but we don’t really get much.) They come up with a plan to steal the king’s gold and have the nephew marry the princess (who is his cousin, just to be clear).
The witch happens to have a “cutting-edge magic wand, the last of its kind” (oxymoron?). She uses it to make a tree grow to a huge size and surround the castle, with a sound effect which I’m pretty sure comes from iMovie.
The king calls for woodcutters to cut down the massive tree, but any cuts they make instantly grow back. It has surrounded the whole palace and instantly regenerates from any cut. Apparently the court has begun using beer and wine for showers because their well is also blocked by a stone. The advisor plants the idea that the king should offer the princess’ hand in marriage in exchange for cutting down the tree.
With their farm doomed, Peter and Paul are heading off to the city. Turns out Tom has snuck along in their wagon. They come across a town just in time to hear the royal decree that the person who cuts down the tree will get the princess’ hand in marriage. Tom recognizes her picture and is awestruck. Shortly afterwards, with his brothers encouraging him in order to get rid of him, he follows a melody up a hill into an enchanted forest. And then a rapping axe appears.
Here, my notes read “It is still rapping. I think I’m in pain.”
After a brief altercation, Tom frees the axe from a tree and sweet-talks/reverse psychologies it into coming along to cut down the tree. When he holds the handle, the axe flies him away Marvel Thor-style to meet the next tool, a shy, deaf pickaxe. Their next stop is at a singing fountain, which accompanies Tom as a really freaky-looking nut.
The purple-clad thief is out and about again. So the king is being stolen from by his nephew and his daughter both at once. He’s greedy and all, but you know. Meanwhile, the witch spots her. “My wicked instinct tells me that I must follow that little thief.”
The thief sees Peter and Paul racing along in their cart—they’ve just encountered a giant and are fleeing. At an inn, they are surprised to encounter Tom. He declares that he knows how to open the well and cut down the tree, to much mockery. Many great woodsmen have already failed—we even see the Grim Reaper standing in line with his scythe.
The thief, who recognizes Peter as the peasant whose cart she dropped her compact mirror in, enters their room to look for it and accidentally awakens them. Tom chases after her with his flying pickaxe. The witch realizes that Tom has the magical objects and starts throwing spells at him. Her wand still makes iMovie sound effects. With the situation drastically changed, the thief helps fight off the witch, and the two heroes both end up riding away on the broom. The two end up on a tower and Tom grabs her, because she may have helped him, but she also broke into his room. She protests that she was just looking for her compact mirror. Tom claims he hasn’t seen it (although he has, really). However, the compact appears from Tom’s pocket and shows them that Peter was the one who stole that money.
Inside the church, they talk more. Tom explains that his soulmate is the princess. When told that the princess is vain and self-centered, he says her eyes are intelligent and kind like the thief’s. Oooh, love is in the air.
But the thief says that she thinks the princess will want to marry a prince and she can’t picture her with Tom. She’s acting fairly mean as she pokes fun at Tom, asking how they would kiss on their wedding day. Tom tries to demonstrate, and she smacks him.
In the morning, Peter and Paul try to tag-team the tree. It almost works but then the tree turns them into puppets. They end up in the stocks and condemned to harsh punishments. I don’t know why. We didn’t see this happen with anyone else.
Tom arrives to try his luck, and everyone laughs. The guards are about to drag him away when the princess asks the king to have mercy. With the magical tools, Tom manages to shrink the tree to its former size, replace the well with an elaborate fountain, and fill it with clean water. The King announces that Tom will marry the princess in one week; however, the princess doesn’t seem impressed
Meanwhile, Tom’s brothers have teamed up with the advisor and the witch. We learn the witch can’t step on a shadow or she’ll be sent back to the “world of darkness.” They plan to tunnel under the castle to the king’s treasury, and plot to send Tom to his death by making him fight the giant. (Remember the giant?) The witch sends the princess an enchanted peach to eat.
Tom wakes to find his brothers weeping by his bed, apparently asking for forgiveness, but they were actually replacing his magical objects with fakes. The magical objects themselves are pressed into service in the task of tunneling under the castle, and believe that Tom has betrayed them. I don’t know why.
Tom goes to visit the princess, who—surprise!—is under an enchantment, has greenish skin and is acting cruel. She demands that he capture the giant to be her servant. As Tom leaves, she kisses the advisor. Fortunately, the magic mirror awakens her from the curse, and she faints.
Out in the woods, Tom approaches the giant’s home. He’s angry with the princess, and realizes that “it’s her I’m in love with!”, apparently referring to the thief. Just then, the giant named Talos arrives, and Tom realizes that his tools are missing. He’ll have to talk his way out of this one. Back at the castle, Princess Denise is woken by the mirror and realizes that she has sent Tom off to his doom.
At the giant’s house, Tom and the giant are having an eating contest. This is meant to prove whether Tom is honest, so naturally, he wins by cheating, pretending to eat while actually hiding the food in a bag. Then he claims that he’s full and wants to empty out his stomach a little, and cuts the bag open. The terrified giant agrees to do what he wants and they become firm friends, united by the bond of mutual trust and honesty. Woo.
“We’ll teach the king’s petulant daughter a lesson,” Tom claims.
The witch’s evil plot to steal the king’s gold (as opposed to the princess’s good plot to steal the king’s gold) is going well. Tom’s brothers laugh gleefully at thought of Tom’s painful death. The tools overhear this and escape through the tunnels; the nut creates a flood that washes all of the gold into the tunnels.
Still thinking that Tom is in danger, and knowing that he’ll blame her, the princess changes into her thief outfit. The mirror singsongs, “The princess loves Tom, the princess loves Tom,” showing off its great sense of priorities.
The advisor sends the guards after the thief. She’s cornered until the giant arrives with Tom just in time. The king thanks Tom for capturing the thief and names him a Duke, but Tom turns it down and announces that he has fallen in love with the (surprised) thief.
The thief explains that the princess was bewitched and the king is hoarding a fortune. She slips up and calls the king “Father,” prompting Tom to pull off her mask and realize that it really is her.
Suddenly, the witch reappears and turns the king into a baby. She sends Tom, the princess and the baby king into a cave filled with lava, and pursues them as a dragon. They keep zapping to new dangerous places, where she becomes different monsters. Back at the castle, after much prompting, the giant manages to destroy her wand, which brings the group back to reality. The witch stumbles into a shadow and is sucked back into the underworld, taking her son with her.
Cut to the church, where Tom and the princess are being married, with all of the characters in the congregation. The princess once more mocks Tom’s small stature (are we really supposed to like her?), but then backs down the steps so that they’re at the same height. The movie ends as they kiss.
The CGI is bad, but as said before, that can be excused. The stilted wooden dialogue and ugly, unappealing character designs are harder to get past.
Also, scenes end abruptly with no conclusion, leaving them feeling unfinished. They always end with a fading out effect that often doesn’t seem appropriate to the mood. In one case, I almost missed a significant plot point because it was on screen for half a second before it started to fade out.
There’s also a recurring problem with the female characters. The princess, witch and background characters are often so ridiculously big-busted and wasp-waisted that she makes Barbies look realistic. Their clothes are very tight or low-cut and some of them appear to be wearing bodypaint rather than actual clothing.
There are quite a few references, like a scene where the Grim Reaper is in line to cut down the tree, and I think Don Quixote pops up at one point. There is a truly surprising line from the hatchet about “volunteer work for the Hobbits of the Shire.”
There were quite a few plot points that were baffling at first or just plain baffling, like Peter and Paul being thrown into the stocks with no prior explanation. Some of it can be blamed on the dub. At one point, Tom scoffs, “A giant as a servant? I’d rather make a jar of juice with half an orange.”
This seems to be a reference or pun that was lost in translation—the magic mirror is apparently the Magic Mirror of Half an Orange, or something like that.
It also dabbles in off-color humor, like a fountain with babies urinating, and a gag with a dog and a tree.
One of the most offputting things, however, is the characters. The princess is called “petulant” and she really is. They were trying to create a character who seemed shallow and selfish at first glance but was really kind and noble, but they keep taking steps back into shallow and selfish. Her teasing of Tom comes off as just plain nasty, and she frequently sounds like a bratty teenager, not particularly appealing. Tom himself can also be rather unappealing with his dishonesty.
In conclusion, this . . . just is not a good movie. The CGI, the character designs, the storytelling, the acting—nothing is redeemable. It seems to have gotten a fairly good reception in Cuba, Spain and Venezuela, apparently being nominated for an Goya award, but its main interest is as a point of trivia.
Death and Food in Thumbling Tales
At two inches tall, life offers quite a few hazards. In medieval England, Tom Thumb’s most recognizable adventure was the time he got baked into a pudding. Fortunately, he popped out healthy as ever. Other characters, however, don’t have his lucky escapes. Drowning or burning seem to be the most common deaths in for Thumblings, but particularly drowning or burning in food.
The Norwegian Tommeliten (Thumbikin) drowns in the smoroyet, or “butter eye” drizzled in the center of the porridge. On the same note, I recently came across two tales told by Norwegian storyteller Olav Eivindsson Austad. In both, a thumb-sized lad called simply Tume (Thumb) is accidentally killed by his mother. One suffocates in bread and the other drowns in buttered porridge. The buttered porridge incident in particular is probably a variant of Tommeliten.
In a tale from Senovo, a character named Draganka drowns in a pot of beans. There are two variants in Bulgaria, one named Katsmatsura who is boiled up when she falls into a pot, and the other being an anthropomorphic rat.
So why drown in food?
None of these particular variants I’ve mentioned begin with food, but in fairytales, it’s very common for conception to be tied to the act of eating. A woman is told to eat a flower or a particular food to conceive. This is particularly true for thumbling tales. Some cut out pregnancy entirely and have the character created instantaneously from food – peas, gourds, or beans, usually chickpeas. A large number of oral thumbling tales begin with the woman wishing for a son while she’s cooking – the inciting incident is very often her stating her desire for a child to deliver his father’s lunch. The miraculous, instantaneous birth often then takes place in the kitchen.
In a particular strain of the tale, a woman’s wish for children is answered with an impossible number of tiny chickpea children. Going instantly from wishing for a baby to being deluged with far too many hungry mouths to feed, she or her husband are driven to murder them. In some variants it seems to tie in with the idea of the parent finding their child boiled with the food - a very Hop o' My Thumb subject.
There’s even a neat little list in the article “Catalogue Raisonn des Contes Grecs Types et Versions AT 700.”
b: The mother (parent) kills them; by drowning them; b2: by throwing them into the pot; b3: by spraying with boiling water; b4: forcing them to return to the hole from which they came; b5: beating; b6: with a shovel; b7: the brush; b8: the basin of laundry; b9: the slipper; b10: other.
Back to the thumblings who meet a culinary doom. These usually seem to be cautionary tales – listen to your parents, don’t do foolish or dangerous things. The Bulgarian variants were probably a way to warn a child away from a hot fireplace.
I've noticed a tendency for some thumbling tales to mention the sun - often in roles that overlap. In two stories, the sun is a negative force. Also in two stories, it is somehow the reason why the thumbling is so small, and in a third, it's the reason why mice are so small.
On the surface, there's an odd similarity between these tales from North America, Burma, and England, respectively. Upon a closer look, however, these stories all came from very different lines of reasoning.
In the Anishinaabe narrative of "Little Brother Snares the Sun," the Sun offends a very small child by shrinking his favorite coat. In retaliation, the boy captures the Sun in a magical net made from his sister's hair. A mouse frees the sun, but in the process shrinks down to its current tiny size.
In the Burmese tale "How Master Thumb Defeated the Sun," the Sun curses a pregnant woman so that her child is only the size of a finger. This child later goes to fight the Sun as a result. (Maung Htin Aung, who retold this story in English, theorized that this was a descendant of a solar myth.)
So the Sun has the power to shrink things with its heat - something easily observed in the real world, but usually with the excessively high heat of a clothes dryer, not simple sunlight.
Typically, the Sun is most familiar as a symbol of warmth and life, which causes plants to grow, but in these stories, it is a negative figure associated with heatstroke and drought.
As Maung Htin Aung explains in the notes to Master Thumb,
Here, rain is an ally and the Sun is the enemy. Maung Htin Aung contrasts this with a version from Lower Burma, where Master Thumb is angry at the Sun but his followers are just kind of hanging out. In Lower Burma, the summer heat is not as intense.
As for Little Brother, Richard L. Dieterle points out that Little Brother's coat is made from a snowbird's skin. The character is thus associated with snow, clouds and winter, the antithesis of the sun and its heat.
However, here the Sun is still necessary. It's not as much of a character as the one in Master Thumb's version, just a force of nature. Trapping it leaves the world in darkness, and all will perish without it. Unlike the story of Master Thumb, here the animals (and thus the world itself), instead of helping the sun-catcher, endeavor to save the sun.
So those two tales have similarities on the surface, but their internal logic goes a little differently. However, it's interesting that Master Thumb's small size is caused by the Sun. In the English Tom Thumb’s Folio, or, A new penny play-thing for little giants (1791), a solar eclipse "stinted [Tom's] growth."
This is stated very casually, as if it's something to be expected from a solar eclipse. Is it because eclipses are times when crazy things happen and nature is turned on its head, or is it that the absence of the sun means that things (from crops to children) cannot grow and develop normally?
The sun does actually promote vitamin D, which improves bone growth, so there is a physical, scientific reason. This is also a story written by an English writer. England is not sunny. Here, unlike Upper Burma, the Sun is a more positive figure, and its absence is a bad thing.
There are superstitions, particularly in India and Latin America, that an eclipse can be harmful to pregnant mothers, causing children to be born with deformities like cleft lips or birthmarks. In Medieval Europe, the thought was that children conceived during an eclipse would have demons.
That's just one retelling of Tom Thumb, but even in other tales, he may, like Little Brother, be a creature averse to the sun.
The fairies with whom he was sometimes associated (as in Robin Goodfellow and Nymphidia) were nocturnal beings often depicted living underground.
Like quite a few other thumblings, Tom rides a mouse, which also lives underground in the dark. Many thumblings are associated with mice - harnessing them to chariots, being compared to them for a size reference, or actually being mice, like "Hasan the Heroic Mouse-Child."
In Norse myth, dwarves are subterranean creatures of shadow, and sunlight will turn them to stone. Dwarves are a step removed from thumblings, but of the same folkloric family.
Despite the different lines of logic, the result is still that a few thumbling tales have a similar connection to the sun. Due to the great distance between them and the obviously different origins, it seems to be mere coincidence. Still, the similarities are intriguing.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.