Monday, July 16, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Adventures of Snow White and Rose Red.


You know, sometimes fairy tale TV shows can hit a little close to home.  It’s just not usually as literally as this.

You see, just recently a new children’s show inspired by fairy tales and children’s stories debuted on Amazon Instant Video.  The series, entitled The Adventures of Snow White and Rose Red, features a pair of sisters meeting fairy tale all stars in episodes designed to teach moral lessons to young folks.   Doesn’t seem too out-of-the-ordinary, right.  So, why does this specific show catch my interest?   

Because it’s filmed in the city of Saratoga.

Ah, Saratoga!

A city that at different points in history has hosted a Revolutionary War battle, been a tourist attraction for the wealthy (Saratoga is famous for its mineral water springs and wealthy tourists would go there to “take the waters”) and continues to be the location of one of the more popular race courses in horse racing circles.

It also happens to be a little less than a half hour by car from where I live.  So, I thought I should take a look and see what a locally made fairy tale production looks like (interestingly, not the only one.  There was also supposedly a Twelve Dancing Princesses movie that was filmed in Saratoga too).

Before we start, have a trailer video:

And really . . . it was good for what it was.

The truth is that the whole thing is clearly made on a shoestring.  The sets seem to largely consist of a small cottage and surrounding woods.  All the magic is done with camera tricks.  The costumes, I think, probably come from a local college’s theater department.  They don’t even try to use any kind of make-up to make the hare and dormouse in their Alice episode.  They’re just a couple of kids who get referred to as “hare” and “dormouse”.

I noticed this especially in the episode “Lots of Locks” in which Snow White and Rose Red help rescue Rapunzel from being trapped in a tree.  Not even a particularly tall tree.  But I guess that’s as close as they could get to a tower.

The actors do okay, even though I’m pretty sure a lot of them are recruited from the local theater scene (as small as it may be).  Especially the kids.  There are a fair number of kids playing fairy tale characters in this show.

Yet, the show feels like the creators had a rather rock solid vision for it and carried it out.  It’s an old-fashioned kids show that teaches basic morals and lessons and which is played mostly straight without any sort of unnecessary irony.  They also pull more from the expanses of European fairy tales than a lot of productions do.  Granted, they could probably do to draw a little more on their own title story “Snow White and Rose Red”.  But their final episode draws from the Grimm tale “The Golden Key”. 

So, kudos to them.  It may not be any kind of appointment viewing for me, but I wish them lots of luck and I hope their target audience takes to it.  I also wish them bigger budgets for the future.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Spider-Man Fairy Tales.


Let’s take a look at something just a little bit offbeat.

It’s the early 2000s, Marvel is becoming successful in its attempt to transform from a comic book publisher to an intellectual property licensing firm.  They’ve managed to license characters for successful films like Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man as well as other less popular films.  Bankruptcy is behind them and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still a little ways ahead.
And somewhere along the way, they started publishing miniseries that combine their popular characters with folklore, children’s literature and fairy tales.  You may recall I did an earlier post on X-Men Fairy Tales.  Well, this one is about the follow-up Spider-Man Fairy Tales.

This a four-issue miniseries written by C.B. Cebulski, a writer who is now the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. . .

And who is also apparently in trouble with fans for culturally appropriating a pseudonym that made him sound Japanese (geez, this little miniseries is getting more scandalous by the minute).

Anyway, as I’ve said about anthology minis like this one, they work best as artist showcases.  Luckily, that’s what this one is.  Each issue is drawn by a different artist with a unique visual style.  The first issue, a “Little Red Riding Hood” riff, is drawn by Ricardo Tercio.  The second issue, an Anansi tale, is illustrated by Niko Henrichon.  The third issue is a Japanese-inspired tale of samurai and yokai drawn by Kei Kobayashi (pretty sure he’s actually Japanese).  The last issue is a “Cinderella” tale penciled by Nick Dragotta and inked by Mike Allred.

One thing you may be noting here is how the choice of tales this time around is a little bit more by the books.  Or, it half is.  The Anansi tale and the Japanese tale are more obscure and different while the other two are the most popular, cliché, overdone tales in all of Western culture.  I’m pretty sure the folks at Marvel wanted to play more on familiarity, so they did.

But let’s just jump right in.  I will give the same disclaimer I gave when I did this with X-Men Fairy Tales: I’ve been reading superhero comics for a long time.  There’s a chance I may reference something from the comics that you don’t know without an explanatory link.  If I do, then I’m sorry.

Issue 1: This first issue is our “Little Red Riding Hood” riff of the evening.  It features a young woman named Mary Jane who is engaged to a woodcutter named Peter.  The woodcutters in this specific village are not just those who cut down trees for firewood and lumber, but also the town’s chosen protectors.  Mary Jane is feeling a bit uneasy about her upcoming nuptials as she doesn’t want to be taken care of by Peter  so much as be his equal.  Mary Jane decides to mull it all over as she takes a basket of goodies to Peter’s Aunt May through the dark and dangerous woods.  Of course, she meets a wolf along the way (one that’s supposed to be based on Kraven the Hunter if I recall an early interview about the project correctly).  Though, she does more to outwit it than Little Red usually does.  There are other little Spider-Man Easter eggs.  J. Jonah Jameson is the boss woodcutter.  Betty Brant is one of the townsfolk.  They even say something about the woods being where Mary Jane’s friend Gwen Stacy disappeared.  One nice little bit is that there is no actual Spider-Man in the story.  The “Spider-Man” is actually a legendary protector that’s supposed to live in the woods but who few have seen.  He’s essentially a fairy tale within a fairy tale.  It’s essentially Little Red Riding Hood turned into a modern relationship story based around the love story of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.  And while that’s fine, especially for 2007, it kind of hurts a little in 2018.  You see, they used a magical plot device to split up Peter and MJ a few years ago because they thought a married Spider-Man wasn’t relatable enough to kids (it’s okay.  I get it.  It just still bothers me).  So yeah, it’s passable.  It works.  Or more accurately, they make it work.  On a geekier note, I kind of think Man-Wolf would have been a better choice for the Big, Bad Wolf over Kraven, both because he’s an actual wolf-inspired character and because he’s Jameson’s son.

Issue 2: Here we have Spider-Man as an Anansi story.  It starts with Anansi, sporting a familiar red and blue color scheme bored with his life.  So, he climbs into the heavens to seek advice from his father but instead finds his uncle Nebasti (Uncle Ben).  He tells Nebasti that he wants to seek the power of the Great Beasts.  Nebasti warns him of the responsibility that comes with that power.  After some more talk, Nebasti tells Anansi that he must travel to the end of the world and find the spider-orchid.  Then he gives him a calabash and sends him on his way.  Anansi sets out on his journey and along the way he encounters spirits of the wind, water, earth and fire that try to stop him.  The wind he traps in his calabash.  The water he soaks up into his clothes, but then lets go so it can continue to nourish the land.  The earth (which is mostly made up of sand) he sucks up into a reed and traps.  The fire he just talks to.  Now, I want to say these characters are supposed to coincide with Whirlwind, Hydro-Man, Sandman and Firebrand respectively.  However, only Hydro-Man and Sandman are usually associated with Spider-Man.  So, I don’t know.  Anyway, they all agree to travel with him up until the end when he meets Fire.  Then, Anansi decides he’s had enough of companionship and goes on alone.  Anyway, Anansi gets to the valley of the spider-orchid, but ends up being opposed by a living swarm of bees who I’m absolutely sure is supposed to call back to the super-villain Swarm.  Anyway, the four elements come back and help Anansi fight off the bees.  Then, with his path to the orchid no longer blocked, he chooses not to pick it.  You see, Anansi’s discovered that he doesn’t really need the power of the great beasts because he has the power of friendship, responsibility, etc.  So, that’s issue two and honestly, it’s probably the best one of the bunch.  You see, unlike some of the other issues that just try to force Spider-Man into a folk tale framework, this story instead tells an Anansi story and uses our familiarity with the Spider-Man mythos highlighted by visual cues to accent some subtextual elements of Spider-Man.  Most notably that there’s always been something oddly tribal about Spider-Man.  The notion of “Spider-Man as trickster” is kind of obvious, of course.  Everyone knows that Spider-Man is often depicted as an underdog who wins his battles through agility and cunning.  But also consider how many of his enemies have an animal motif (Dr. Octopus, Rhino, Scorpion, Lizard, etc), are themed after forces of nature (Electro, Hydro-Man, Sandman), are positioned as rival tricksters (Mysterio, Green Goblin, Hobgoblin) or even rival spiders (Venom, Doppelganger).  Heck, he even has a villain named Kraven the Hunter who’s supposed to be a “great, white hunter” with a lion motif thrown in for good measure.  Even emphasizing Uncle Ben’s role or even the role of New York City kind of calls back to the roles that family and community play in African folk tales.  This comic isn’t the first to note this.  J. Michael Straczynski wrote a run on Amazing Spider-Man in the early 2000s that essentially turned the subtext into text by suggesting that Spider-Man got his powers not from a radiation accident but from a mysterious spider totem.  But yeah, best one of the bunch.

Issue 3: This one draws on Japanese folklore in its depiction of Spider-Man.  In this case, our Spider-Man is a young boy named Izumi who lives with his aunt and uncle on the border of a forest populated by evil yokai.  At some point in the past, the yokai killed Izumi’s parents and now he burns with a need to get revenge.  His aunt and uncle warn him against it.  However, Izumi goes off into the woods anyway only to find the yokai went after his aunt and uncle after he left.  His uncle is killed in the encounter.  His aunt however is kidnapped and he goes off to rescue her.  The yokai in this are reminiscent of the Spider-Man villains Venom, Vulture, Black Cat and Man-Wolf.  Here, they seem to be taking the form of a Tsuchigumo, Tengu, Bakeneko and Okuri-inu respectively (keep in mind that I’m not an expert in Japanese folklore, so I could be a little off).  There’s also some stuff about Izumi being corrupted by the power of the Venom Tsuchigumo.  This is reminiscent of the famous “Alien Costume” story, which you may be aware of if you’ve seen Spider-Man 3.  This is the second best story in the miniseries.  It plays with some decidedly Asian and Buddhist takes on the themes in Spider-Man like family honor and revenge, playing off how the loss of Peter’s parents effects him.  Playing the alien symbiote thing as a sort of contamination of spirit rather than body is also interesting.  Not as good as the Anansi story, but still good.

Issue 4: Guess what, folks!  It’s “Cinderella” time again!  That’s right!  The most over-played folk tale in all of Western culture is at it again.

Okay, okay.  I’ll try to be fair to this one.

In this case, Peter Parker is the son of Sir Richard Parker, a knight who is slain in battle.  He’s raised in the household of the Goblin Knight, Sir Norman Osborn.  Peter is mostly kept as a slave/servant at the beck and call of Norman and his son Harry.  He isn’t alone in the endeavor, because Mary Jane also slaves away in the Osborn household.  Peter finds out that the king is holding a grand ball to win the hand of Princess Gwendolyn (Gwen Stacy).  So, Peter sets out on a plan to disguise himself as a sort of Spider-Knight, attend the ball, win the hand of the princess and reclaim his birthright.  There isn’t any Fairy Godmother.  Peter does the work himself.  Though, Mary Jane does his work for him while he’s at the ball.  There’s some stuff with a webbed brassard instead of a glass slipper.  There’s also some sword-fighting action between Peter and Norman when Norman learns who the Spider-Knight is.  And if you know your Spider-Man storylines, you can probably expect that Princess Gwendolyn doesn’t come out of that unscathed.  So, it’s basically “The Death of Gwen Stacy” turned into a gender-swapped Cinderella story.  I’m going to be honest, this is my least favorite of these.  Combining the Spider-Man elements with the Cinderella elements doesn’t really feel like it enhances either.  At least it has some interesting artwork.  The combo of Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred is very good and Allred’s distinct style even comes out when he’s just on inks.

So, what’s our takeaway here?  Well, I suppose it’s that these kind of mash-ups are most interesting when one half can bring some sort of interesting theme or subtext out of the other.  That’s why the Anansi and Yokai stories were so interesting while the “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” riffs were not.

There’s one more miniseries in this cycle.  It’s Avengers Fairy Tales, which is kind of a different animal in its own way.  But, that’s a post for a future date.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Fantastical Feasts: A look at Three Bears brand porridge.


Okay, so we’ve got a quick post here.  A product spotlight/food post.  I spotted this in the CVS when I was buying something and knew I had to do something on Fairy Tale Fandom about it.   Three Bears brand instant oatmeal.
That’s right, a brand of porridge based on everyone’s favorite English nursery tale about breaking-and-entering, petty theft and destruction of property.  Granted, as far as branding goes, it does make more sense than the King of all the Britons shilling flour (much respect to King Arthur Flour as a baking company, though.  Their branding is just weird).
And you have to admire how committed Three Bears is to the reference they’re making.  The slogan for the product is “Just Right.  Every Bite.”  Though, it seems to be a hook for something they’re promoting as a health food.  The packaging boasts that it’s free from the top 8 allergens and that it contains live probiotics.  On the packaging, they bring up the “just right” thing a few times.  Even in the instructions, step three says “Use more or less water for just-right thickness”.   They even get cute with a safety disclaimer.  “Caution: Cup and cereal may be hot, but we designed our cup with a bit of extra room at the top to keep your paws cool.”

So, I tried the apple spice variety and . . . it was okay at best.  Honestly, I wonder if maybe there was too much spice, because I could barely taste any apple.  Though, I’ll admit that I might be picky about my oatmeal (which, I guess is fitting considering the story we’re referencing here).  I grew up with Quaker’s instant apple and cinnamon, which still had some appreciable apple taste to it.  Nowadays, I prefer to make plain oatmeal and then doctor it up myself.  Maybe someday I’ll write a post about how I’d make a bowl of porridge that’s worth breaking into a bear’s house for.
Anyway, if you’re still interested, their website is www.threebearsoats.com.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Beauty and the Beast (1987).


Part two of our look at the Cannon Movie Tales!  That’s right, back to Cannon Films.  The same people who gave us Superman IV: The Quest for Peace  and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite Alien From L.A. (sigh).

This time, we’re looking at an adaptation of one of the fairy tales that has probably had the most decent screen adaptations.  I mean, I don’t have any numbers or statistics right here, but I’m pretty sure “Beauty and the Beast” is close to the top of that list.  The only tale that I can imagine having more good adaptations would maybe be Cinderella (fun fact: Cannon Films never adapted Cinderella).
The Cannon Films version of Beauty and the Beast came out in 1987.  It stars Yossi Graber as Beauty’s father, John Savage as the Beast and in the marquee role, Rebecca De Mornay as Beauty.  Pretty much all these Cannon Movie Tales had one “marquee” star.  They didn’t spend much money on anything else, but they did spend a lot on at least one bit of casting per film.

Here’s a trailer:
 
Hey, anyone notice with fairy tale films that sometimes they just tell you the whole plot.  Like, the Disney Cinderella remake did the same thing.  I think this could have to do with the culture of comfort and nostalgia that’s built up around them.  The people making the movies fully expect you to already know the story, so they don’t worry about spoiling anything.

Anyway, the story follows a streamlined mix of the Villeneuve and Beaumont versions.  It starts off with Beauty (not Belle in this version, though it means the same thing) as the daughter of a wealthy merchant.  She also has four older siblings who lean on her for any number of things.  Things are fine until one of her father’s ships is lost at sea.  Now much less wealthy, they move to a smaller house and start a new life.  Beauty is okay with this, but her siblings are absolutely wretched about it.  The father finds out that his ship has returned.  He promises gifts, including a rose for Beauty.  He rides off only to find the ship has been sold.  He finds the Beast’s castle, steals the rose, has to offer up his daughter . . .

You know what?  It’s the story of “Beauty and the Beast”.  If you’re here, you probably know that story.  I don’t even know why I bothered trying to summarize it.

The real question is how did they adapt this story?

Well, narratively, it did okay.  It was faithful and the story didn’t seem to drag.

Technically, it was . . . off.

It’s things like make-up, sets and actors that really skewed it.

In terms of actors, there are some worthwhile performances.  Yossi Graber  who plays Beauty’s father does a decent job.  Rebecca Demornay, the only well-known actress in the production, puts in a solid performance as Beauty.  But John Savage just doesn’t have the kind of presence I’d want from either the Beast or the Prince, and he does play both throughout the film.  The films adopts the old Villeneuve device of having Beauty dream about meeting her prince every night.  Savage doesn’t really sell “charming prince” and try as he might, he doesn’t quite give us the combination of nobility, sadness and intimidation you’d expect from the Beast.  The make-up, which seems like almost good Beast make-up but not quite there, doesn’t help.  I’d blame it on the era and the culture’s interpretation of the Beast not evolving yet, except it was the ‘80s.  The same era that gave us Ron Perlman’s TV Beast.

As for locations and sets, it’s a mixed bag.  The thing with the Cannon Movie Tales is that they’re all filmed in and around Tel Aviv, Israel.  Sometimes this is really obvious and throws off the whole “European folk tale” feel.  Other times, it’s used really well.  For example, in this movie you can see Belle’s father riding across a stretch of desert to get to the Beast’s castle.  I think this works really well.  It underscores how distant Belle is from her family.  However, the castle he gets to is . . . surprisingly small.  I mean, it looks no bigger than a regular suburban house when you first see it.  The set for the inside of the castle actually seems bigger, giving it this unintended TARDIS effect.

Then there’s the music.  Again, it’s not great.  It’s also not awful.  The melodies are nice, but the lyrics can sometimes be a little cringe-y.  Sometimes they’re accompanied by some interesting imagery like dancing statues.  Here’s an example:

I'm going to wrap the whole thing up soon, but I thought I'd spoil one thing.  The whole thing ends like most cinematic adaptations of Beauty and the Beast do, with Beauty seeming to be a little confused and disappointed that the Beast changed back into a prince.  I don't know why that seems to be the case with almost every "Beauty and the Beast" film adaptations.  If anyone has any theories, please let me know.

Anyway, the thing with the two Cannon Movie Tales I’ve reviewed thus far seems to be that they're really middle-of-the-road.  They’re not awful, but they’re not really good either.  They’re just flawed.  But I think that feeling comes from the fact that in our culture we're used to seeing fairy tales get adapted in any number of ways with any number of budgets.  Though, there are movies in this series that are bad.  Trust me, we're getting to those.

Anyway, on to the next one!  I should note that the poll gadget no longer exists here on Blogger.  So, the next vote will have to happen on social media.  Look for @FolkTaleGeek on Twitter or the Fairy Tale Fandom page on Facebook.