Despite a heartwarming story, some lively songs and professional animation, “The Pebble and the Penguin” isn’t likely to cause sleeplessness at the Disney animation unit. The Don Bluth production is a sweet, enjoyable romantic tale more likely to succeed as an afternoon diversion on homevideo than on the bigscreen. Theatrical prospects will be a modest prelude to upbeat ancillary revenue.
Apparently inspired by a National Geographic documentary, the tale concerns a shy, love-struck and good-hearted penguin named Hubie (Martin Short) who’s hopelessly smitten with Marina (Annie Golden). But he has competition in the form of the macho, strutting Drake (Tim Curry), who vehemently, if dispassionately, seeks her as his mate for life.
At about this point the ethnography kicks in. There’s an old penguin ritual in which the male presents his intended mate with a wedding pebble. Hubie finds a spectacular, emerald-like bauble cast off from a meteor. But before he can give it to his beloved, he’s swept out to sea as a result of Drake’s treachery.
Hubie, who’s caught by faceless traders, has 10 days to make his way back to the Antarctic enclave to pledge his troth. Otherwise, Drake can claim Marina.
The script by Rachel Koretsky and Steve Whitestone is a straightforward formula romance. The separated lover faces man, beast and rival to tie everything up in a neat, heartwarming finale. He’s abetted by another tuxedoed character, the gruff, streetwise Rocko (James Belushi), who dreams of defying the odds and flying. He’s the comic relief.
Thrown into the mix is a song score by another hopeless romantic, Barry Manilow. Like Disney animated offerings, the music replicates Broadway and vintage Hollywood fare with a balance of ballads and character tunes. And, as with other recent toon tuners, the standout songs arise less from skill than by repetition.
On a craft level, “The Pebble and the Penguin” has a handsome, effective veneer. But aficionados will quickly note that its sequence involving Hubie and a pod of killer whales is not up to the precision of the comparable sea menace from the classic “Pinocchio.”
Thankfully, Bluth understands that brevity is the soul of wit and dispenses with the shaggy yarn in sprightly fashion. It’s a painless idyll unlikely to linger long in one’s memory.