Friday, July 12, 2019

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Borrowers.

In folk lore around the world, little people are everywhere.  Whether it’s the leprechauns of Ireland, the nisse of Norway, the menehune of Hawaii or any number of diminutive protagonists like Tom Thumb or Issun-Boshi, it’s hard to go far without finding smallish characters.  So, it stands to reason that they’d find their way into children’s fantasy fiction at some point.  Various points, actually.  But which point to actually take a look at?

Well, how about 1952?  The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  I’d been wanting to diversify this column with some 20th Century children’s books, including ones that aren’t made into Disney movies.  And this one is a Carnegie Medal winner. 
Now, I had heard of this book before but I hadn’t read it until recently as an adult.  The closest I had come before this is seeing the Studio Ghibli film The Secret World of Arriety, which is based on it.  But just because it’s Ghibli doesn’t mean it’s all that similar to the book.  Just ask fans of Howl’s Moving Castle.  There are other movies and TV shows based on The Borrowers, but I don't really have much exposure to them.
The story concerns the Clock family, Pod, Homily and their daughter Arriety, who are Borrowers.  Borrowers are tiny people who live hidden away in a human house and “borrow” various things to survive.  Usually “borrowing” means “stealing” and the stuff they take consists of small, easily misplaced things like buttons, stamps, needles, etc.  The Clocks happen to be the last family of Borrowers living in this particular house, the others having “emigrated” because they had been seen by the “human beans” as the Borrowers call them.  Needless to say, being “seen” is not considered a good thing for Borrowers.  So, things take an unexpected turn when Arriety goes on her first borrowing trip with her father and gets seen by a young boy who’s staying in the house.  Things turn out to be not so bad as Arriety and the boy become friends.  However, it’s not to last as older, crueler human beans discover the Borrowers and seek to find them and get rid of them.
There are a lot of different takes on “little people” in folklore.  One of the things that’s consistent among most of them is that the little people are magical or at least extremely skilled.  Sometimes both.  The Borrowers aren’t really magical and aren’t particularly good at anything besides taking things that don’t belong to them.  They actually act more like the anthropomorphized mice you might see in a cartoon (think Jerry from Tom & Jerry but less violent).  It’s a charming little story.  Most of it hinges on the Boy (whose name I don’t think was ever mentioned) and his friendship with Arriety.  The two bond over reading.  Apparently, living in India and being bilingual made reading difficult for the boy (not sure why that’s the case).  But the boy gets a friend and the Clock family gets help contacting distant relatives and furniture from the dollhouse upstairs.  There’s also some interesting commentary in there about how people both big and small see their place in the world.  The boy asks Arriety how they feel about stealing from humans.  Arriety basically responds that Borrowers don’t see it as stealing when they “borrow” from humans, only when they take from other Borrowers.  The reason is because “human beans are for Borrowers”.  That’s right, the Borrowers think humans exist as a resource to be used by the Borrowers.  As if the human being’s purpose is to make objects just so the Borrowers can take them.  Kind of seems like how some humans see other people and lifeforms on this planet, doesn’t it?  The Borrowers also seem to think that “human beans” are dying out because fewer and fewer people seem to come to the house.  With the help of the Boy and his books, Arriety does develop a more enlightened view of the world.
Beyond just “little people”, there is another place where The Borrowers brushes against the concept of folklore.  The way it’s told.  With folk stories, a story is passed from person to person.  Often with the end result of no one knowing who the story started with in the first place.  The story of the Borrowers may not have gotten that far, but it seemed to be on its way.  The book opens with young Kate hearing the story from her Aunt Mrs. May, who in turn heard it from her brother who was the Boy in the story.  The veracity of the story is even called into question because even though Mrs. May supposedly found Arriety’s little journal, she notes that her handwriting is very similar to her brother’s.

The Borrowers was successful enough that it spawned four sequels.  And last I checked, at least this first book is often still in print.  They may not be the magical little people of ages-old lore, but it’s nice to know the tradition continues in a way.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Movies, Mermaids, Mulan and More.

Oh, what a week!  What a week!

And it’s all stuff that involves the Mouse.

First we had the announcement that Halle Bailey has been cast as Ariel in the live action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Now, this caused quite a stir among a certain part of the internet.  This is because, in case you didn’t notice from the picture I’m posting, Halle Bailey is African-American.  The arguments posted against her casting were filled with disjointed reasoning (usually involving the argument that Ariel’s hair should be red), false equivalences, and nonsensical calls for literary, historical and scientific accuracy.
Our new Ariel
Personally, I’m all for it.  I haven’t seen any of her performance yet.  I have heard a little bit of her singing though, which is good.  There’s a certain principle I want to support, though.  And I’m all for more opportunities opening up for actors and actresses of color.

Another thing is that Cameron Boyce, the actor who played Carlos DeVil in Disney’s Descendants movies was found dead as a result of an ongoing medical condition he had.  I really don’t have much to say about this except to offer my condolences to his friends, family and coworkers.  I may have described the Descendants movies as “stupid but harmless”, but I bore no ill will to the actors who put so much work into them.
The last thing that happened is the first teaser for Disney’s Mulan remake dropped (I was actually in Wal-Mart looking for a serrated peeler for a folk tale related baking project when I found out.  I stopped on the spot to watch it on my phone).  Take a look:
 Now, you may not know, but the legend of Mulan holds a special place in our hearts here at Fairy Tale Fandom.  It was one of the more unique legends I commented on back when I was doing my 12-part legend project and sparked some of the most enlightened dialogue.

So, what do I think of this teaser?  Well, it looks good to me.  We see some stunning locations and sets.  We see Mulan’s family talking about her being matched by the matchmaker.  We see some military action scenes (which is good for what’s essentially a war story).  Liu Yifei appears to bring a sort of quiet strength to the role of Mulan.

There are some interesting changes from the 1998 animated Mulan film.  For one, her problem with the matchmaker doesn’t seem to be that she can’t be matched, it’s that she already has been.  There are also no signs of any wisecracking Disney sidekicks.  No dragons or crickets or ancestor ghosts.  I know some diehard Disney fans will disagree, but I actually see that as a good sign.  We also see more scenes of Mulan fighting out of disguise than I expected. 

I also noticed in the description under the video on YouTube that instead of Fa Mulan which was her name in the 1998 movie, they use the more accepted and common name Hua Mulan.  Also, I noticed there were some more complex Chinese names among the characters compared to in the 1998 movie.  The animated film tended to keep things as simple as they could, especially in terms of names that were easier for Westerners to pronounce.  This time, it doesn’t feel like they’re going to hold our hand as much, which I appreciate.  I don’t know if it really means anything, though.

Mulan comes out in 2020 and that means that we’ve all got plenty of time to research the legendary figure of Hua Mulan before the movie comes out.  I suggest starting off with my blog post about what I think makes Mulan the stuff of legends.

I’m also going to recommend this book that I read before writing that post.  The Amazon link is HERE, but don't forget to check your local library or library system.
Also, I’ll suggest this movie for a more grown-up take on a cinematic Mulan.  It’s on Amazon Prime Video, but it’s only available ala cart so there is a fee.
 I’m going to say, I never expected to spend so much time playing up the Disney brand.  However, as long as the other studios in Hollywood have trouble making movies of older stories that are not either boring, dismal or miss the point of the story entirely (the exception being Fox’s King Arthur riff The Kid Who Would be King), Disney seems to be the only game in town.

Oh, well.  Until next time!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Hurston and Hoodoo, Mules and Men

Okay, so here’s the thing.  This post was supposed to be written in February.  The plan was to spend some time on African, African-American and Caribbean folklore for Black History Month.  I’ve done something like that before, but it turned out kind of sour because I failed to research ahead, so that while it was all black folklore, all the writers and folk tale collectors I drew from ended up being white folks (whoops).  However, as I started taking longer to read everything and productivity spiraled way down from a post a week to a post a month, this got pushed way back.

However, the show must go on!

Mules and Men is a 1935 autoethnographical folklore collection by African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.  The book covers two folklore collecting trips into the deep South.  One to Eatonville and Polk County in Florida and another to New Orleans.
It’s hard to describe Mules and Men, exactly.  At least, if you don’t already know what “autoethnographical” means.  The book doesn’t read like a traditional folk tale collection.  The book instead reads like the story of Hurston’s research trip punctuated with stories and songs as she heard them from the people she encountered.  It’s actually a rather smart thing to do, as it puts the stories, songs and traditions presented in the context of the social lives of African-American people of that specific region and time period.  The closest thing they had to that kind of context previously in written form was the fictional plantation context created by Joel Chandler Harris for the Uncle Remus books.  The lore itself is a bit varied.  There are some traditions, superstitions and songs.  There are also stories, which are often referred to as “lies”.  It’s interesting, isn’t it?  The people in this book essentially hang a big old lampshade on the untruths in their stories.  Yet, it doesn’t diminish those stories.  Anyway, there are some porquoi stories and stories that reference local events.  Possibly the standouts are stories about a slave named John, who is always getting the better of his master.
Zora Neale Hurston
Most of that was from the trips back to Hurston’s hometown and a lumber camp in Florida.  Hurston’s trip to New Orleans largely concerned voodoo and hoodoo (which may be the same thing, come to think of it).  A fair chunk of it featured Hurston studying under various practitioners and using the rituals to help paying customers.  Another fair chunk focused on stories about Marie Leveau, the legendary voodoo queen of New Orleans.
Marie Leveau, the so-called Voodoo Queen
You know, it’s been a while since I actually read the book and I feel like I’m not doing it justice.  I do know its strength is that it’s not just another folk tale collection.  It’s also like a series of cultural snapshots.  I will say that it’s definitely worth giving a read.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Aladdin (2019)

[rubs lamp]  I wish I had a movie review.

That’s right, Disney’s stroll down memory lane continues with another remake/sequel/reimagining.  This time, director Guy Ritchie joins actors Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Will Smith for another take on its 1992 animated film Aladdin.

The story of “Aladdin; or The Wonderful Lamp” is a tale generally accepted to be part of the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).  However, its origins can be a little fuzzy.  The story doesn’t appear in the collection until the 19th Century in a translation by Antoine Galland.  For a while, many scholars believed that Galland invented the story himself and added it into the collection.  However, current information suggests that Galland first heard the tale from a Syrian storyteller named Youhenna Diyab when Diyab was visiting France.
The story follows the same basic plot as the 1992 movie.  A street urchin falls in love with a feisty princess.  He gets made to enter a magic treasure cave and retrieve a magic lamp by a crooked court official named Jafar.  The combination of magic and Aladdin’s low self-esteem cause him to lie to the princess.  Jafar gets hold of the lamp, everything goes to pot and Aladdin is forced to both tell the truth and save the day. 

There are a few changes.  Jasmine, who gets a new song as well, is more interested in ruling the country of Agrabah than simply evading an arranged marriage.  Jafar is still an ambitious snake-in-the-grass, but now his ambition isn’t just to rule Agrabah but to conquer the surrounding countries and create his own empire.  It’s also established that Jafar was once a street thief himself, making him something of a dark mirror to Aladdin.

The movie itself is entertaining.  Adapting the animated Aladdin to live action was always going to be a tricky task.  Largely because one of the intents of the 1992 movie, at least that I read, was to adapt an aesthetic and style that were like more broadly comedic cartoons like the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry.  That’s why they opted to stunt cast two famous comedians in the roles of Genie and Iago.  It kind of makes sense in retrospect, doesn’t it?  So, they had the unenviable task of adapting to live action one of Disney’s cartooniest cartoons.  They do about as well as they can.  Certain things are toned down while others remain as broad as ever.  Jafar’s parrot sidekick, for example, is significantly toned down from Gilbert Gottfried’s constant kvetching and insults to basically Alan Tudyk trying to just sound like an unusually intelligent parrot.  However, the Genie is still as out-there as ever.  I had kind of hoped that without Robin Williams in the role, maybe Genie wouldn’t dominate every scene he was in.  I underestimated how much of a ham Will Smith could be.  Mena Massoud turns in a good acting performance, though I’m not sure his singing was quite up to snuff.  Massoud has good comedic chemistry with Smith.  He also has good chemistry with Naomi Scott as Jasmine.  Of all the characters, Jasmine is probably the one who stands out most, seeing as Scott is the best singer of all of them and because the story seems most interested in expanding her conflict beyond what it was in her original animated incarnation.  As I said before, Jasmine now not only wants to choose her own husband, she also wants to succeed her father as Sultan (Wait.  Wouldn’t she actually be a Sultana?  Oh, well).  One performance I liked that I think others may be split on is Marwan Kenzari as Jafar.  The thing about Jafar in the 1992 film, is that he’s just such a cartoony villain.  He’s foppish and cackling and theatrical.  He feels like a cartoon villain in a similar mold as Skeletor and Cobra Commander.  However, Kenzari tries his level best to turn a cackling cartoon into a believable live action villain.  Jafar’s ambition seems believable if not justifiable.  Adding the new wrinkle that he was a lowly thief who climbed to the level of grand vizier but whose ambition has never quite sated is a nice touch.  They could have almost played on that more, seeing as one of the things they touched on with Aladdin and Genie is Aladdin getting too comfortable in his role as fake prince and Genie warning that wealth and power gained from wishes will never satisfy someone.
There’s one thing that disappointed me but will pretty much only disappoint someone like me.  One of my favorite things to do with these movies is to see the places where they went back to the text for more material.  And Aladdin just doesn’t.  Granted, it might have been hard to fit Aladdin’s mother back into the story and it might have been a bit silly to have Jafar walking around in disguise offering “new lamps for old”, but I still wish there was something.  The closest thing might be the way the story starts off being told by Will Smith as a mariner and an action sequence in which Iago is expanded to the size of a roc, but that’s only due to Aladdin’s nature as a “kitchen sink” movie.  I should probably explain.  A “kitchen sink” movie is one of those Disney movies where it seemed like they thought they wouldn’t be revisiting that material again, so they tried to include everything including the kitchen sink.  Hercules, Alice in Wonderland, The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz are all kitchen sink films to some degree.  I suppose the Mary Poppins films are as well.  But, Aladdin is one in regards to the Arabian Nights.  For example, there is no magic carpet in the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”.  The magic carpet is from the story of “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri-Banu”.  At least the first part of it.  I’ve only reread the first part (hey, I’ve been busy!).  In Disney’s Aladdin, the carpet is basically slotted into the place the Djinni of the Ring is in the original tale.  So, including a maritime scene and transforming Iago into a giant monster bird could be seen as a nod to the story of “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad” (Note: the roc is a giant bird that Sinbad encounters on his voyages).  Though, it would still be a stretch.
To tell you the truth, the 2019 Aladdin is probably the one Disney remake that I can most call a pure remake.  Cinderella, The Jungle Book and even Beauty and the Beast can all be considered re-adaptations as well as remakes because they went back and got more material from the source story.  Yes, even Beauty and the Beast.  The fact that it added back one of the most iconic parts of the fairy tale gets it a pass.  Pete’s Dragon, Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo changed so much that they could be called re-imaginings.  And then Maleficent, Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins Returns are all different things entirely.  However, Aladdin is almost completely intent on telling the story from the 1992 animated feature again.  It changes things, but not enough to make all that much of a difference.

So, that’s about it.  It’s a fun movie.  Some of the actors have good chemistry.  It’s a fun time if you want to take your kids to it (or you could go see it with your aunt like I did).  But don’t expect it to tickle your folklore bone all that much.