Monday, October 22, 2018


You know, I’ve been on a bit of a Robin Hood kick lately, so I thought it was about time to tackle the Reynard the Fox stories.  And if you think that doesn’t make sense, then hold on a minute and I’ll explain.

The thing about being a pop culture buff on the internet is you sometimes find out what movies were going to be before they became what they are.  Now, we all know the Disney Robin Hood movie with anthropomorphic animals.  However, what few know is that Disney’s Robin Hood started out as many failed attempts at making movies based on popular European animal characters like Chanticleer the Rooster and Reynard the Fox.  You see, one of the early animation projects Walt and company considered doing was an adaptation of the French play Chanticleer, which is about a rooster named Chanticleer who is so vain that he actually thinks that his crowing causes the sun to come up.  The writers found it hard to make the character sympathetic, so Walt suggested they combine it with another project they had been having trouble with: Reynard the Fox.  The idea being Reynard would be the villain (notably, the book Reynard the Fox also has a rooster named Chanticleer in it, but that could be just a coincidence).  Despite this move, they still had a hard time getting the whole thing to work.  The proposed film never did get made or see the light of day.  The Chanticleer concept was eventually nicked by Don Bluth and reworked into a film called Rock-a-Doodle.  However, bits of design and character eventually leaked their way into the film version of Robin Hood.
It’s easy to tell who became who as well.  Reynard became Robin Hood.  Noble the Lion became Prince John.  Isengrim the Wolf became the Sherriff of Nottingham.  Grimbart the Badger became Friar Tuck.  And Chanticleer the Rooster became Allan a Dale.

And it was probably a good idea to scuttle plans for a Reynard the Fox animated film.  Because if they thought it was hard to make Chanticleer likable because he was cocky and vain, they would have had a hell of a time with Reynard himself.

I’ve read Reynard the Fox in a translation by James Simpson.  And this book is really something else.  The story is extremely violent and aunt-authority and the main character is an unrepentant liar who will do anything to get what he wants.

The character of Reynard has been around a long time.  Many of the stories were first created by multiple different authors during the Middle Ages.  The character himself was thought to have risen out of Alsatian folklore.  The Reynard stories were extremely popular and rather influential.  They spread throughout Dutch, French, German and English lands.

The Reynard stories are, first and foremost, satire.  Satire of courtly politics in particular.  The stories center to a large degree on various animals and their attempts to bring Reynard to the court of King Noble the Lion.  And Noble the Lion and his court are largely depicted as selfish, cowardly, foolish, brutish and insincere.  The animals who serve the Lion and who similarly act reverent to the bigger animals like the Wolf and Bear are treated as if they are foolish rubes.  So, you’d think if these were the so-called villains of our story then the hero would be better and more moral than that, right?
In most stories, maybe.  But remember how I said Reynard was an unrepentant liar.  We should probably add thief and killer to that list too.  So many of his adversaries end up killed or maimes (because of Reynard, Cuwaert the Hare gets eaten, Bruin the Bear loses a big chunk of his scalp and Tybert the Cat loses an eye).

So, what makes Reynard the hero of this tale other than the fact that he uses brains instead of brawn to solve his problems?  Well, it largely seems to be the fact that he’s unambitious.  No, really.  Most of his primary antagonists are in some way affiliated with King Noble’s court.  They have positions of power and authority.  Reynard doesn’t have or want those things.  His primary motivations are to fill his belly, save his own skin and feed his family.

The Introduction to my copy of the book by translator James Simpson describes Reynard the Fox as a sort of reverse of Niccolo Macchiavelli’s The Prince and it’s hard to argue with him.  While The Prince was supposed to teach monarchs and leaders how to survive their enemies and subjects “by any means necessary”, Reynard the Fox seems intent on teaching the people how to survive their rulers “by any means necessary”.  Even as satire, it’s a decidedly dark outlook.
Still, while this may be too dark for many people’s modern tastes.  There is something to be learned from the story of Reynard in terms of how to make darkly comedic stories and possibly unlikable characters work.  And I can do it with some handy comparisons to popular cartoons.  For example, why is all the courtly maneuvering, trickery and death seen as darkly comic rather than the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy?  Well, have you noticed how violent old Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes can be?  For some reason, when casting characters as anthropomorphic animals rather than humans, it creates a sort of distance between the reader or viewer and the material.  The characters aren’t quite like real animals or like actual humans.  They become a sort of stand-in or parody of humanity.  Thus we feel a certain freedom to laugh at their misfortunes.  This is something we can see in other trickster and animal traditions as well.  Some of the Anansi and Brer Rabbit stories can be pretty brutal too, but because all the characters are animals they come across as funny trickster stories instead.  (Note: this approach probably wouldn’t have worked with Disney, because they try too hard to make you care about their characters despite the fact they are sometimes anthropomorphic animals).  Now, let’s circle back to the idea of making the unlikeable likeable.  You may think this is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  For example, let’s use another character that we really shouldn’t like all that much: Homer Simpson.  Kind of the opposite end of the spectrum, really.  Whereas Reynard is clever, Homer’s possibly the dumbest sitcom dad in history.  He’s also gluttonous, lazy, selfish and prone to getting into hare-brained schemes that seem to have no possibility of working.  But to make this oaf likable, you do the same two things that were done with Reynard: 1) You double-down on whatever likable trait he might have, and 2) You make those who complicate his life much worse than him.  In Homer’s case, what you double down on his love for and devotion to his wife Marge.  As for the other trait, we must never forget that he works for the single most evil man in town C. Montgomery Burns.  So, Reynard is much the same in that way.  He’s awful in so many ways but root for him because of his unambitious aims of making it through the day and feeding his family (mind you, he’s not completely devoted by modern standards, Reynard does cheat on his wife Ermilyn at least once.  But he does still bring home food for the pups).  And at least he’s not one of the fawning phonies in Noble’s court.

So, there we have it.  Reynard the Fox explained in cartoon language.  He might have been too dark for Disney, but he was probably just the kind of bitter tonic people needed back during the Middle Ages.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Scary Tale Fandom Special: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

I am holding here in my hands possibly one of the most popular collections of American folk stories to be read by American schoolchildren from the ‘70s to today.  And the collection has nothing to do with fairy tales.
Ghost stories, scary stories and tales of the supernatural are not a uniquely American phenomenon.  However, they’re one of the only forms of folk stories that still evokes the oral tradition in the United States.  While fairy tales and other legends evoke images of movies or big hardbound storybooks, scary stories evoke images of people huddled around a campfire telling tales from memory.
The Scary Stories series consists of three books: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones.  All three are written by children’s author Alvin Schwartz with gruesome illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  Schwartz is no stranger to folklore, having also written books based around tongue twisters, wordplay, jokes and superstitions.  The illustrations, while suitably creepy and atmospheric, are probably what makes these books some of the most challenged books to be put in a school library.

As expected from a collection of campfire stories, these tales tend to be short and not-so-sweet.  About a page and a half.  Just long enough for the setup of the situation and the scary payoff.
Still, even though the stories are short, there’s a nice variety of them.  There are “jump stories” like “The Big Toe” which call on the teller surprising the audience.  There are spooky songs and poems.  There are classic urban legends like “The Hook” and “High Beams”.  There are stories that have laughs along with the chills like “The Viper”.  There’s even an adaptation of the Native American story of the Wendigo.
They’re good collections.  Last year, I even picked up a story to tell from them for a Halloween get-together.  There’s supposedly a movie adaptation in the works from Guillermo Del Toro.  I’m not quite sure how that’ll work, since pretty much no one makes anthology movies anymore.

If you haven’t looked at the Scary Stories series since you were a kid, you might want to check them out.  You may just find a chilling tale to tell the next Halloween night.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Oz cartoons.

I know I’ve said before that I was sticking with proper fairy tales for Fairy Tale Media Fix but I’m afraid I can’t quite keep that promise.  For one thing, reviewing versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk repeatedly gets kind of boring.  So, I’m going to have to loosen things up and include some children’s literature.

Now, I know I’ve talked about the Oz books before.  They’re an interesting subject.  Partially because they’re part of what was a common endeavor among writers for a couple of centuries to create the “American fairy tale”.  And partially because it’s a case where a sprawling, popular series of 43 books (including 14 by original author L. Frank Baum) has largely been forgotten by the general public to be almost replaced by a movie adaptation of the first book made in 1939 (it’s a good movie, but come on).  It makes you wonder if other landmark works of children's literature will fade into semi-obscurity someday.  Someday, will people only remember the Harry Potter books for their Warner Bros. film adaptations?

The MGM film isn’t the only legacy of Oz, though.  There are Oz cartoons too.  Not a lot of them, but probably more than you’d think.  Just like the books now do, they tend to slip under the radar.  There was a short in 1933.  There was Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961 from Rankin Bass (the same people who made Pinocchio’s Christmas).  There was a DiC Wizard of Oz series from 1990 based on the 1939 movie.  There was even a second generation show called Oz Kids.  That's just counting TV shows too and not animated movies.  Even right now, there are a couple of options.  Options that I, luckily, have had the chance to view.

Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz

Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz  is an animated show made by Warner Bros. Animation that airs on Cartoon Network’s streaming service Boomerang.  Boomerang, incidentally, is a streaming service I do not subscribe to because I am not made of money.  So, I thought I wouldn’t be able to see this show.  Luckily, there was a DVD release.  Now, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz is based on the 1939 movie.  So, a lot of that actually makes it into this show.  The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion all have voices that sound a lot like the voices of the actors in the movie.  The ruby slippers are still around and Dorothy uses them as a teleportation device.  The Wicked Witch of the West is still around in all her green, cackling glory.  Though, the witch is just a spirit living in a crystal ball at this point.  However, even beyond all the movie influences, they still draw a lot from Baum’s books.  From the episodes I was able to watch, other Oz characters from the books that appear in the show include: Ozma, the Woozy, the Hungry Tiger, Ojo the Unlucky, the Nome King, H.M. Wogglebug T.E., the Patchwork Girl, Tik Tok and the Crooked  Magician.  None of them are exactly like their literary counterparts.  Ozma comes across as a little more ditzy.  The Patchwork Girl is less crazy poetry girl and more of a highly skilled royal dressmaker.  Strangely, from the episodes I’ve seen, one of the few Oz characters not in the show seems to be the Wizard himself, despite his name being in the title.  The one major new addition that’s not from either the books or the movie is a new character named Wilhemina.  Wilhemina is a young witch and the Wicked Witch of the West’s niece and she’s set up as a rival of sorts for Dorothy.  While her aunt’s spirit is constantly trying to get Wilhemina to retrieve the ruby slippers, Wilhemina usually wants to mess with Dorothy out of pure jealousy and spite.  In this endeavor, she’s helped by her two flying monkey henchmen, Lyman and Frank (I see what you did there).  And you know, the show’s not half bad.  It’s a very episodic show aimed at pretty young children, so you take what you can get.  The art’s expressive.  The animation’s fluid.  The actors put in a bang up job.  I particularly like the show’s new take on Dorothy.  Despite being so influenced by the 1939 movie, this Dorothy isn’t the “damsel-in-distress” she often seemed to be in that film.  The TV show’s Dorothy is a plucky country tomboy who eagerly rushes off to help others with a click of her heels when she finds out someone needs help.  So, if you get the chance, give it a look.  It may not be appointment viewing unless maybe you’re watching it with one of the small children in your life, but it’s at least worth a casual watch.

Lost in Oz

Lost in Oz on the other hand is on Amazon Instant Video, a streaming service that I am subscribed to.  Now, first of all, I should make the point that this is in no relation to another show called Lost in Oz from 2000 that was produced by Tim Burton never got past the pilot phase.  This Lost in Oz is a daytime Emmy winning computer animated kids’ show that premiered last year.  The story follows an inventive twelve-year-old girl named Dorothy Gale and her dog Toto as a magical journal whisks them off to Oz.  This Oz is very different, just as this Dorothy is different.  This modern day Dorothy lands in a bustling, modern Emerald City.  The magic of Oz is now channeled into the technology that runs the city.  In fact, their knowledge of magic seems to have advanced as well.  Magic is now defined as “the art and science of transformation” and it’s controlled by magical elements that all appear on their own complex periodic table.  Essentially, magic is the physics of Oz.  Anyway, Dorothy finds out that she needs one of each magical element to get home.  Along the way, she meets some new friends like an oversized Munchkin boy named Ojo (which I’m guessing is a common Munchkin name now), a sarcastic young witch named West and a paranoid conspiracy theorist lion named Reigh.  She also gets embroiled in a mystery and runs afoul of some villains.  We also find out that this Dorothy isn’t the first Gale to visit Oz or even the first Dorothy for that matter.  Lost in Oz is a STEM-infused, techno-fantasy mystery adventure show inspired by a turn of the century children’s fantasy book series and it is very good.  I think the characters are great.  This Dorothy is a bright, brave young heroine with a knack for inventing devices and experimentation.  Reigh’s paranoid conspiracy theorist personality is a unique twist on the Cowardly Lion.  Sarcastic and streetwise West is probably my favorite new take on the Wicked Witch of the West ever (that’s right, Wicked fans.  Come at me).  Ojo, while maybe not as big a character as the others, is useful as a slightly more down-to-Earth presence.  And I just love the more scientific and technological approach to magic.  It’s rare I say that.  When books, movies or TV shows try to go into the “science of magic” it usually results in the magic being diminished in some way.  That doesn’t happen here.  Probably because this approach is used to develop a system of magic for Oz, not to explain it away.  It’s something that makes sense for Oz too.  Oz grew out of the environment of a rapidly industrializing and scientifically growing United States.  L. Frank Baum even made use of some of this new technology, the motion picture camera, to make some of the first Oz movies (though, there were also a couple made without his input).  Heck, some of the fantasy devices in the Oz books seemed to predict the future.  In the book Tik Tok of Oz, Baum has it so the Scarecrow carries a special two-way transceiver that he can use to communicate with the Emerald City.  That’s right.  The Scarecrow may have had the first cell phone in literary history.  I will heartily recommend Lost in Oz.  People keep looking for ways to put new twists on public domain properties, but this is one of the few that really feels different.  It’s not another dark, dystopian take like Emerald City or Tin Man or that Tim Burton Lost in Oz project, while still skewing a bit older than stuff like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.  This modern, science fantasy Oz just feels like no take on Oz I’ve seen before.  Really, check it out if you get the chance.

That ends this particular Oz-themed installation of Fairy Tale Media Fix.  I’m not sure where the next post will take me, but until then I think I’ll just head down this Yellow Brick Road a little farther. 

Until next time.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Once Upon a Pixel: Okami pt. 2

Still there?  Cool!  Time for more Japanese fairy tale references in Okami.

Why don’t we start this edition with possibly the most well-known fairy tale in Japan.  One that’s known by every school child in that country:

This is a story I’ve covered on here before as well.  It’s the tale of a boy born from the center of a peach who goes off to fight the oni that have been ravaging his country with the help of a dog, pheasant and monkey.  It’s a story that’s so popular it gets referenced in anime and tokusatsu fairly frequently.  The characters have been made into a statue in Okayama, there’s been a Momotaro brand of blue jeans and the characters were even used in Japanese propaganda films during World War II.  Which makes how small Momotaro’s role in the game is a little bit puzzling.

Momotaro is seen in Sei-An City, the capital of Nippon.  He’s a little boy who’s playing hero and pretending to go off to Oni Island to fight monsters.  He also asks you to help get back his kibi dango (millet dumplings) that were taken by a pickpocket that’s lurking around the city.  And that’s about it, really.  There are other elements of his story there.  Oni Island is a place in the game.  It’s the stronghold of a kitsune boss named Ninetails.  There are also a couple of situations in which you’ll see giant peaches and have to open them up to get at prizes inside.  However, that may have to do with other associations related to the peach in Japanese culture (click HERE for a Gaijin Goombah video about Okami that touches on the peach thing).  There are monkeys and dogs among the animals in the game which you can win over with food, but no pheasants.  But really, that’s it.  The actual character of Momotaro doesn’t do much.  He’s an NPC (non-player character) who asks you to do a side quest (one that two other characters ask you to do) and that’s all.  He doesn’t have nearly as big a role as either Kaguya or the sparrows at Sasa Sanctuary.  Still, maybe that’s for the best.  After all, he’s already a big star in the world of Japanese fairy tales.  His design definitely calls back to his origins in the folk tale.  His costuming suggests the peach (especially his pants for some reason).  Also, he has a slightly animal-like face that recalls both the monkey and the dog a little bit (still no pheasant, though).  Like I said before, he’s just a kid in this game, but that got me thinking though.  Momotaro is drawn like a little kid in a lot of art.  A lot of the written versions of his tale say he’s 15 though.  I wonder why he’s not drawn more like a teenager.  Maybe it’s because little kids identify so strongly with this story that they chose to play into that.

The story of “Urashima Taro” or “Urashima the Fisherman” is kind of a sad, bittersweet tale (like many Japanese fairy tales) about a humble fisherman who saves a turtle from a gang of mean kids and is then rewarded by being brought to Rin Gin Palace where he falls in love with the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea, Princess Otohime.  He stays there for a while until he gets homesick and asks to go home for a while.  He goes and is given a jeweled box that he is instructed never to open.  He goes only to find that everything is different than he remembered and for good reason.  Over 100 years had passed since he left.  He then opens the box and all the years he didn’t age start rushing back and he ages and dies on the spot.  Or . . . he catches Otohime in the form of a sea turtle and lets her go and she instead welcomes her to her home in the heavens.  There are actually a couple of variants of this one.  But still, the hundred year stay is the same as well as opening the jeweled box with the additional aging.  Those remain the same.

Now, if you thought the fairy tale Urashima was sad, the Okami version is too.  He’s just sad in a pathetic way instead of sad in a wistful/touching kind of way.  When we first encounter Urashima, he’s being bullied by a group of little kids.  Apparently, they don’t believe him when he said an emissary from the Dragon King’s court named Orca (notably an orca whale as the name suggests, rather than a turtle) brought him down to Rin Gin Palace.  When Amaterasu and Issun do meet with Orca, Urashima tries to get Orca to take him back to the palace only to be firmly rejected.  When you do inevitably meet Otohime, she is not a young princess but the undisputed queen of the oceans and the bride of the Water Dragon besides.  There are a few other touches that reference the fairy tale.  The kids who are beating on Urashima all wear hats that are patterned to look like turtle shells.  Also, Urashima’s design references not just the fact that he’s a fisherman but also the treasure box he was told not to open.  Though, it looks like more of a barrel here.  I do feel kind of bad for this Urashima, but he also got to live a subjectively longer life than the fairy tale version.  So, it’s hard to feel too bad for him.

This is another one that’s kind of sad.  At least, if you’re a dog lover.  It concerns an old man who is very nice and his neighbor who was mean and greedy.  The good old man had a beloved dog named Shiro who one day points him to a buried treasure of gold coins in his yard.  Seeing this, his jealous neighbor asks to borrow the dog with the thought that it will point him to a similar treasure.  Shiro instead leads him to a refuse pile that was buried.  The nasty neighbor, out of anger, kills the dog and buries him under a tree.  This is basically the start of a cycle in which the kind neighbor repeatedly tries to take away something to remember his poor dog and ends up getting a miraculous result only for the nasty neighbor to try and replicate the result only for it to turn out horrible and destroy the momento out of anger.  The old man asks for the tree the dog is buried under and makes a mortar out of it.  The mortar turns out to be able to make a magical amount of mochi.  The neighbor borrows it and all he gets is some kind of foul-smelling gunk.  So, he burns the mortar.  The good neighbor takes away the ashes and finds that spreading the ashes on trees will get them to flower even in winter.  The whole thing basically ends when the nasty neighbor can’t replicate that result in front of the local feudal lord.

The Okami version of this tale is a bit sillier.  The version here is an old man named Mr. Flower who lives in Sei-an City.  And before you ask: Yes, he does appear to have a tree growing from his head.  You even have to bloom it using your Celestial Brush.  As silly as he may look, this character does have a two-part dedicated side quest, unlike Momotaro.  In the first part, you have to bloom all the trees in Sei-an City that aren’t possessed with evil spirits.  After that, you have to chase after Mr. Flower to all the trees that are possessed as he does a special dance that drives away the evil spirits.  At the point the spirit leaves, you bloom the tree with your brush.  And if you can’t keep up, you have to start the whole thing over again (trust me, I had to a couple of times).  It’s a strange take on the tale, but it’s still nice to see it acknowledged.  I also like how Amaterasu as the white wolf kind of reflects the role of the white dog Shiro in the tale.

In addition to fairy tale characters, there are also historical and legendary figures represented in the characters of Okami.  Now, I’m not so informed on the legendary figures, but I do recognize a few.  Like Benkei, for instance.  Saito Musashibo Benkei, more commonly referred to as just “Benkei”, was a Japanese warrior monk who died in 1189.  He’s mentioned about twice in historical records, but is more famous for the legends attached to him.  Benkei supposedly lived in a monastery until he was about seventeen at which point he left to become a mountain ascetic.  Somewhere around this point he developed a personal ambition to duel and defeat 1000 samurai, who he believed were arrogant and unworthy warriors, and take their swords from them as trophies.  He supposedly managed to collect 999 swords until he was defeated at Gojo Bridge by Minamoto no Yoshitsune (note: another Okami character named Waka is supposedly based on Minamoto no Yoshitsune).  After that, Benkei wanted revenge and fought Minamoto no Yoshitsune again, only to lose again.  After that he became a retainer for Minamoto no Yoshitsune and helped him fight in the Genpei War against the Taira Clan.  Yoshitsune and Benkei would end up turning outlaw when Yoshitsune’s older brother turned against them.  When they were finally surrounded, Yoshitsune raced into the castle they were at to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) while Benkei stood out on the bridge to fend off the army chasing them.  The army was so afraid of taking on Benkei directly that they ended up riddling him with arrows and Benkei supposedly died standing on his feet without falling over.  In folklore and media, Benkei is commonly depicted as a monk carrying seven weapons on his back: an axe, rake, sickle, wooden mallet, saw, iron staff and half-moon spear.

Benkei is another character that you encounter in Sei-an City.  Specifically on the bridge between the commoners’ and aristocratic quarters.  This seems kind of fitting considering how bridges factored into his life in two very major situations.  However, this Benkei isn’t looking to duel any samurai though.  He’s still on a quest to collect swords, but this version of Benkei has heard that there is a shining living sword lurking in the depths of the Sei-an City lake and he wants your help to defeat it.  That’s right, he’s there for fishing.  It’s a fishing minigame.  It’s also a very important fishing minigame because until you finish it, you can’t pass into the Aristocratic Quarter (though, why Benkei has a fishing minigame while Urashima the Fisherman doesn’t is a bit beyond me).  Anyway, at the end of all this after he’s caught a giant cutlass fish, he decides to give up his quest to collect 1000 swords and devote himself to fishing instead.  On the one hand, it doesn’t exemplify his steadfast loyalty like the legendary Benkei’s actions did.  On the other, growing old while fishing probably beats getting riddled with arrows and dying on your feet.

That’s about all I’ve got for this.

It’s interesting, though.  Just the idea of what stories and tales make up someone’s frame of reference based on where they live and what culture they live in.  All these tales and even more that I didn’t mention would probably be recognized almost immediately by people in Japan.  That’s why Capcom included them.  However, if the anime, manga and tokusatsu I partake in is any proof, they also know a whole lot of Western tales too.  They know “Cinderella” and “Snow White” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Little Match Girl” and a whole mess of others.  Probably because the West has been a lot keener on exporting certain tales as a way of spreading their culture all over the place.  Other places hold their cultures a lot tighter.  The fact that I personally know so many of these Japanese tales is kind of strange.  I mainly know them because of tokusatsu, manga and anime.  I’d like to say that my knowledge of Grimm tales is because I have German roots, but it’s actually also because of anime to an extent.  So, being a geek made me more aware of global folk tales.

It also makes me think what other culture’s tales might be good worked into a video game.  Maybe something Russian with characters like Baba Yaga, Grandfather Frost and Vasilisa.  Or maybe something less European?  A game set in West African lore featuring Anansi, maybe.

What do you guys think?  On any of the subjects brought up above.

Anyway, until next time!