Friday, March 15, 2019

The Elephant in the Room.


 
A few months ago.

[5:00 am, phone ringing off the hook]

FTG: [Wakes up, groggily answers ringing phone] Hello.

Chirpy PR Person: Hello!  Am I talking to Adam Hoffman, the administrator of Fairy Tale Fandom Dot Com, also known as the self-professed Fairy Tale Geek?

FTG: Yeah, that would be me.  I was trying to sleep.  Why are you calling me so early?

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, I’m sorry to wake you.  I didn’t think of what time it is over there.  Well, I’m a public relations agent representing a major Hollywood studio and boy do I have an offer for you.

FTG: Look, I don’t really think . . . Wait a minute.  Hollywood?  [Does some quick math]  It’s 5 am here.  If you’re in California, it should be 2 am there.

Chirpy PR Person: That late already?  I prefer to get an early start to my day.  The early bird gets the worm and all that.  But anyway, let’s talk Dumbo!

FTG: Wait, I know who you are!  You’re that PR lady who called Gypsy about the Tim Burton Dumbo movie!

Chirpy PR Person:  That’s right, and I am here to get you involved in promoting Disney and Tim Burton’s next big blockbuster film.  I know you’re not as picky as some people about the whole fairy tale thing.  So, a little PR from a blog like yours could be the cherry on top for this campaign.  I’ve been authorized by my agency and the studio to offer you the use of promotional images, press releases, quotes from the cast and the director and all sorts of other things.  So, what do you have planned for our big new movie and its big little star?

FTG: Nothing.

Chirpy PR Person: Nothing?  What do you mean, nothing?  I’ve read your blog.  You’ve done all sorts of stuff to tie into Disney movies before.  And it’s clear you’re not so hung up on what’s technically a fairy tale.

FTG: Not all of them.  And you are right.  I also do stuff based on classic children’s books and legends, however . . .

Chirpy PR Person: [Gasp] Is it because it’s a Disney original story?!

FTG: What?  No.  That’s barely even a thing.  90% of Disney movies are based on other works.

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, that can’t be true?  What about The Rescuers?

FTG: It was a children’s book by Margery Sharp.

Chirpy PR Person: Bambi?

FTG: A novel by Felix Salten.  One originally meant for adults, actually.

Chirpy PR Person: The Great Mouse Detective?

FTG: The Basil of Baker Street children’s book series by Eve Titus.

Chirpy PR Person: Big Hero Six?

FTG: It was a Marvel comic.

Chirpy PR Person: Really?  Then why didn’t Marvel Studios make that movie?

FTG: I don’t know.

Chirpy PR Person: Zootopia?

FTG: That one is.  Congratulations, you found one original.  Look, I’ll explain to you why I have no plans for Dumbo.  Then, it will all be clear.  But first, can I ask you one little question?

Chirpy PR Person: Shoot!

FTG: How many cups of coffee have you already had today?

Chirpy PR Person: Oh, about five or six.  Any more than that and I get jittery.

FTG: Of course.  Anyway, you ready?

Chirpy PR Person: I’m all ears.  Get it?

FTG: <Groan>  Look, the way I’ve been approaching this stuff with one exception is that I review the film if it’s a movie based on a fairy tale and I spotlight the book if it’s based on a literary work.  Now, the book that would become Dumbo is a special case.  So, get comfy because here comes a history lesson.  Okay?

Chirpy PR Person: Okay.

FTG: The original story of Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was written by a married couple from Syracuse, New York named Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl in 1938.  It originally appeared as a story for a gimmicky device called a Roll-a-Book.  A Roll-a-Book was like a scroll that was built into a box and you could turn the pages by turning a wheel .  The Roll-a-Book didn’t exactly take off and no known copies of this version of Dumbo are still in existence.  Follow me so far?

Chirpy PR Person: Yup.
FTG: The rights to the Roll-a-Book story were then sold to Disney by publisher Everett Whitmyre.  This was handy for Disney because they needed to make a cheap but profitable movie.  They were losing money because Pinocchio hadn’t made much money overseas because of World War 2 and Fantasia was expensive, had a very limited release and neither critics nor audiences knew what to make of it.  Luckily, this plan worked.  Still with me?

Chirpy PR Person: Uh-huh.

FTG: The thing is, the story isn’t so happy for Aberson and Pearl.  Despite newspapers in their hometown claiming they were headed for fame and fortune, it never happened.  The couple divorced after only a year of marriage.  Neither of them ever published another book, though Aberson kept writing into the ‘60s.  Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was only ever published as a regular book once, in a print run of no more than a thousand copies.  It has never been in print since.  That’s why I have nothing planned.  I can’t spotlight the book if I can’t get the book!  I can’t make something out of nothing!

Chirpy PR Person: So, the book is just gone?  That’s it?
FTG: Effectively, yes.  Near as I can tell, Disney owns all the rights to the story and they’ve never shown any interest in republishing it.  Some copies of that one thousand copy print run are out there and when they sell it’s for a fair chunk of change.  I know there’s a Disney historian named Jim Korkis who has a copy.  The story from his copy was pretty much transcribed onto the Jim Hill Media website.  There are some interesting details that differ from the Disney version.  Dumbo’s mother is named Mother Ella in the book.  Also, his friend is a robin named Red rather than a mouse named Timothy.  He’s also not a baby elephant so much as one that didn’t grow all the way.  Oh, and he gets the confidence to fly by talking to a owl psychiatrist!  As much as I’d like to trust what’s been transcribed, I still feel iffy about working from a second hand source like that.

Chirpy PR Person: So, that’s it?  Disney’s big circus spectacular directed by the one and only Tim Burton and you’re going to skip writing about it because you can’t find a children’s book!?

FTG: Yeah.  I’m going to skip it.  Just like I skipped Pete’s Dragon and The BFG and A Wrinkle in Time and how I’m probably going to skip Lion King.  I do look forward to watching Dumbo.  It looks interesting to say the least.

Chirpy PR Person: I still can’t believe a book can just disappear like that!

FTG: A lot of them do.  You know how many books fall into obscurity?  Thousands.  Maybe millions.  In the case of Aberson and Pearl, it might be fortunate that Disney got involved.  Their work will be remembered through the movie they made, even if they don’t want to publish the original again.  There is one other thing.  Syracuse University back in their hometown has worked to preserve their creation.  Their archives house some original illustrations from the book.  Though, they’re apparently really rough-looking things.  The characters are practically stick figures.

Chirpy PR Person: Hmm . . .
FTG: “Hmm”, what?

Chirpy PR Person: Well, you’re in New York State, right?

FTG: Yes, but I don’t like where you’re going with this.

Chirpy PR Person: And you have a car, right?

FTG: No!  I’m not driving halfway across the state for Dumbo!

Chirpy PR Person: But just hear me out!

FTG: No!

Chirpy PR Person: But-

FTG: Hanging up now! [hits end call]

[FTG collapses back onto his bed.]

FTG: Huh.  How the hell did she get my number?

Walt Disney’s new take on Dumbo hits theaters March 29.

Chirpy PR Person character created by Gypsy Thornton.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Brer Rabbit Falls Down the Well.


I’ve been having a little trouble getting my reading to synch up with when I wanted to release certain posts.  For example, with it being February I thought I’d already be well into stories and folklore from the African Diaspora by now but it hasn’t worked out that way.  However, I’ve been leaning a little bit too hard on movie reviews in the meantime.  So, with hopes to give my impressions on Mules and Men sometime down the road, let’s instead cast the light on an African-American folk tale I know pretty well.  Mainly because I borrowed it for a Story Circle meeting.
The story starts with Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear and others working in a field on a hot day.  They were clearing ground for planting.  It was hot as blazes and Brer Rabbit wasn’t happy about working in the hot sun.

So as he’s working, Brer Rabbit pretends to get stuck by a thorn from a briar bush he was clearing away.  The other animals tell him he’d better pull out the thorn and go wash his hand (paw?) so it doesn’t get infected.  Brer Rabbit does leave but instead of washing his hands and going back to work, he decides to find a shady spot and take a quick nap.  What Brer Rabbit finds is an old well with a rope and a couple of buckets attached, one on each end of the rope.  Brer Rabbit hops in one of the buckets to catch some Zs.  What happens?  His weight makes the bucket he’s in go down and the other bucket go up.

So now Brer Rabbit is in a pickle.  He can’t get out of the well.

Now Brer Fox knew that Brer Rabbit was up to something.  So, he goes after him and sees him climb into the bucket and go down into the well.  And Brer Fox starts to wonder why he’s going down into the well.  So Brer Fox goes up to the well and shouts down to Brer Rabbit.

“What are you doing down there, Brer Rabbit?”

Brer Rabbit gets the idea that he can use Brer Fox to get out of the well, so he shouts back up, “I’m fishing!  You wouldn’t believe how many big fish I’ve caught down here!

Now Brer Fox didn’t believe that Brer Rabbit was fishing for one minute.  What conclusion did Brer Fox come to, though?  He figured that Brer Rabbit must be hiding some money down there.
So Brer Rabbit shouts up “I’ve got scores and scores of fish down here!  Why don’t you come down and help me carry them up.”
Now, this is the invitation Brer Fox had been wanting to hear.  He’d go down and find whatever cash Brer Rabbit had stashed down there.  So, Brer Fox climbs into the other bucket and since he’s so much heavier than Brer Rabbit . . . well, you can guess what happened next.  There’s a little more after that, but I’ll link to the story so you can read the rest of it HERE.

This story has a lot of good things going for it.  There’s an interesting amount of complexity shown in what could have been otherwise simple characters.  It shows Brer Rabbit being the quintessential trickster and using his wits to get out of work.  However, it also shows his cleverness backfiring on him.  It also shows Brer Fox, usually the target of Brer Rabbit’s tricks being savvy enough to know Brer Rabbit is up to something but still clueless enough to be on the wrong track in terms of what it is.
Here in the United States, a lot of the best parts of our culture come from the groups that get marginalized and pushed to the fringes.  The biggest example being all the contributions the black community has made to American culture.  In addition to pretty much every form of American popular music (blues, jazz, soul, R&B, Rock and Roll, Rap) and various other things, Brer Rabbit goes on the list.  Brer Rabbit, being a rabbit, is smaller and weaker than those who would harm him, like Brer Fox and Brer Bear.  So, he uses trickery and cunning to survive and even thrive.  It’s a creation that you would expect of an oppressed and enslaved people.  However, unlike a lot of other contributions of black Americans, Brer Rabbit and his stories have never lost their African American identity.  That identity has been exploited by the likes of Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, but it hasn’t been completely appropriated, co-opted and absorbed into the culture of the white majority.  And that’s a good thing.

As storytellers, we have to be careful of how we use stories and spread them.  While there are some stories that we feel are ours, there are others we must remember that we’re just borrowing.

Until next time.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Kid Who Would Be King.


It feels good to be right about something.  I’ll try not to brag too much.

For a number of months now I’ve been cheerleading a movie called The Kid Who Would Be King.  Since I saw the first trailer for it, I’ve been saying that it looks like a lot of fun.
 And the truth is, I saw the movie and guess what?  It was a lot of fun!

This isn’t exactly a fairy tale film but it does stray into Stuff of Legends territory, so I think it’s close enough.

The Kid Who Would Be King is a movie about a 12 year old boy named Alexander Elliot.  Alexander struggles with bullies at school and abandonment issues regarding his absentee father.  Then, one night when running from his bullies, he finds a sword stuck in a stone at a demolition site.  Alexander pulls the sword from the stone.  Before long, Alexander discovers that he has now been chosen as the new king, whose duties include defeating the sorceress Morgana and saving all of Britain from enslavement.  So, along with his friend Bedders, his two former bullies turned knights and Merlin in the form of a lanky teenage boy, he goes on a quest to defeat Morgana and experiences some self-discovery along the way.

This movie is the sophomore foray for director Joe Cornish, director of the inner city alien invasion movie Attack the Block.  It stars Louis Serkis as Alexander, Dean Chaumoo as Bedders, and Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart as the young and old Merlin respectively.  All the actors do good jobs.  Probably the standout is Angus Imrie as teenage Merlin.  Especially entertaining are his spells which are entirely executed through elaborate hand gestures.
You know what?  Let's have another one.
Okay, that's enough.
 
King Arthur related movies haven’t exactly been having the greatest run lately.  And I’ve echoed the sentiment put forth by online media critic Patrick H. Willems that the problem is that new versions of the story have put forth of their radical new  takes without bothering to remind people of why they loved the stories to begin with.  Essentially, with old stories like this that get made into movies usually every decade or so, you have to provide people with the “greatest hits” before hitting with new stuff.  I’m pleased to report that The Kid Who Would Be King doesn’t make the same mistake as other recent films.  This film gives us Excalibur, the sword in the stone (the same sword for storytelling economy purposes here), Merlin, Morgana, Tintagel, The Lady of the Lake and even a round table of sorts.  Sure, the movie had plenty of new stuff too.  You can’t go as radical as “preteen becomes the new King Arthur” without changing things up a little.  Their take on the sorceress Morgana is decidedly different, portraying her as much less a witch and more of a demon at times.  Her human form also has a unique vegetative look with roots and vines all over.  The Lady of the Lake is now connected to every body of water in all of Britain, ranging from lakes to puddles to bathtubs.  Our new collection of knights also provides some nice diversity to reflect the face of modern Britain with Bedders (counterpart to Sir Bedivere) being a South Asian boy and Kaye (counterpart to Sir Kay) being a young black girl.  There is also one big change to the Arthurian legend that I’m rather fond of.  However, it comes as a big moment in the movie and a major turning point for Alexander’s story so I don’t want to give it away. 
The new take on Morgana
I think the thing that most won me over is the tone and the themes that were in play.  Most takes on the King Arthur story in recent years aim for some kind of adult drama.  They either try to make the story gritty and historically accurate or they focus on the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.  The Kid Who Would Be King is a kids’ movie and as such it draws from a very kids’ storybook version of the Arthur legend.  In addition to all the fun mythological stuff I mentioned before, the movie focuses on all the super-idealistic chivalry stuff that’s become associated with the knights of the round table over the years.  While some people might see that stuff as a bit cheesy or juvenile, it’s more or less what I’ve wanted from a King Arthur film for a while.  When Arthurian stories focus on gritty violence or internal strife, it makes me forget what a noble experiment Camelot was actually supposed to be.  Happily, the optimistic tone is one of the main points of the movie and hope for a better world one of the main themes.
So, has The Kid Who Would Be King escaped the curse of recent Arthur films.  Well, maybe halfway.  The reviews I’ve seen have echoed my sentiment that the movie is a lot of fun.  However, last I checked it didn’t seem to be burning up the box office.  Which is too bad.

So, I’d very much recommend The Kid Who Would Be King.  It’s a lot of fun and if you’re anything like me, it might be just the King Arthur movie you’re looking for.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Snow White (1987)


Well, I said I’d review all the Cannon Movie Tales and here I am to cover the next one.  Honestly, I think I’m going to change up the way I do these.  As much as I liked the voting idea, it just didn’t seem to be working out.  After the first poll, I at most got one vote most of the time.  It also became a lot harder to do it once Blogger got rid of the poll widget.  If anyone objects, let me know in the comments.  Then at least we’ll know who was the one voting. ;-)
So, anyway, the next one on my list is Snow White from 1987.  The movie stars Nicola Stapleton as young Snow White and Sarah Patterson as the grown-up Snow White.  Our marquee star this time is Diana Rigg, best known as Emma Peel from The Avengers (British spy show, not superhero team playing the evil queen.  One other face you might recognize is Billy Barty, once again doing the fantasy dwarf thing that he was practically an expert at by that point.   
This movie is interesting because there are some parts that really stand out to me as interesting or well done.  However, there are other ideas that make me cringe.  There’s also one scene that is so bad and crazy it makes me practically laugh out loud.

First, let’s start with the good parts.

One good part is that I really don’t have to tell you the plot of this movie.  That’s because it’s “Snow White”.  It’s probably more “Snow White” than pretty much any adaptation of Snow White I have ever seen.  I have very rarely seen a movie that paid so much attention to the details of the text as it appeared in the Grimms’ book.  For example, you know that scene at the beginning of the fairy tale in which the queen drips some blood on the snowy windowsill and wishes for a child as white as snow, red as blood and black as ebony?  That scene’s in there, albeit with a musical number.  Or remember how the tale says that Snow White was only seven when her beauty started to surpass the Evil Queen’s?  Well, in this movie she’s only seven when she first arrives at the Dwarfs’ cottage.  She also stays there for ten years.  Why the Evil Queen hadn’t been checking up on who was the fairest for that decade, I don’t know (I suppose maybe for some time in the middle there, Snow’s awkward teenage years might have sent the Queen back to number one).  It has the poisoned apple that has a red half and a white half.  It even has all three of the queen’s attempts to end Snow White’s life.  Though, there is something about that which isn’t so good.  I’ll get to that later, though.  There are some things they leave out, but what they include is impressive enough that it doesn’t matter.  There are some other bits that I like.  I like that it starts with the moment that the Prince finds Snow White in the glass coffin and the rest of the story is related by one of the dwarfs telling the story.  I like that they had a good reason for the Huntsman to be charged with killing Snow White and why it didn’t seem suspicious for him to be accompanying him.  Namely, that it was during a hunt.  I even liked that they changed the Queen’s punishment at the end.  She isn’t made to dance to her death in red hot iron shoes, but she does get her comeuppance in a way that is almost as gruesome and which fits her crime a lot better.

But let’s move on to the stuff that’s not as good.

First of all, let’s remember that this is a musical.  As a musical it should have good, catchy, memorable songs.  Well, it doesn’t.  Most of the songs are pretty lame.  Probably the best of them is a song I’m assuming is titled “More Beautiful than Me” sung by the Diana Rigg as the Evil Queen.  However, this song isn’t even listed in the credits.  Here it is, by the way.
 Most of them are just awful.  Young Snow White sings this lyrically painful number about trying all the Dwarfs’ beds in the cottage that just makes you think “Why is she even singing this?”.  The sets and locations aren’t the greatest.  The castle’s okay.  However, the Dwarfs’ cottage and mine look really fake like they were built for a cash-strapped amusement park.  The movie doesn’t do a great job disguising its locations too.  All the Cannon Movie Tales were filmed in Israel, however I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to believe that it’s a European location because of the sets and costumes and where the tale was collected from.  However, once Snow White is out in the forest, you can tell that it’s not a European forest.  It’s especially the case when they show the animals living in the forest.  I mean, there are monkeys, for goodness sake.  Also, the Dwarfs don’t really stand out much as individual characters.  Here their names are Iddy, Biddy, Kiddy, Diddy, Giddy, Fiddy and Liddy.  Which one is which?  I couldn’t tell you.  However, that may have been by design, considering they sing a song about how no one can keep that straight.  The big one though is the Queen’s disguises when she’s going to kill Snow White.  The last one in which she dresses as a peasant woman in order to give Snow White the apple is fine.  The other two are not.  They are rather racist, in fact.  First, when she gives Snow White the bodice (not just a lace but a whole bodice), she dresses like a really cliché Romani woman and speaks with an accent that’s pretty much unplaceable.  The second time when she brings Snow White the comb, she’s dressed in the most blatant example of yellow-face I’ve ever seen.  Only it’s not really yellow but stark white.  I don’t know if she was supposed to look like a geisha or a giant porcelain doll or what.  Anyway, it’s accompanied by an accent that makes her sound like a cutesy Elmer Fudd.  I know she’s the bad guy, but it’s still wrong on a level that exceeds that.  I’m just going to put the clip here.  You know what you’ll see.
 That’s about it.  I can’t think of anything else.  Oh, right.  The laugh-out-loud crazy part.

Well, remember in the fairy tale when the Prince and his servants are carrying away the lifeless body of Snow White (super creepy, but not the point this time).  Then one of the servants trips which causes Snow White to cough up the pieceof apple caught in her throat which allows her to return to the land of the living.  Well, in this version her glass coffin is being carted away through a blizzard.  A tree falls in front of the wagon causing the horses to rear and the glass coffin to slide off the wagon.  The jolt then causes Snow White to cough up the most badly rendered apple core you’ve ever seen, which doesn’t just fall but flies into the air, shoots toward the palace and into the Queen’s window where it strikes the sleeping Queen on the head.  I am not even kidding.  I did a double-take when I first saw it.  It’s in this clip.  Give it a look.
 So, while this is a flawed movie, it’s also an interesting one.  I’d suggest seeing it just to see all the little details they stuck to as well as the ridiculous apple core scene.  You’re just going to have to sit through some bad musical numbers along the way.
Until next time.